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New committee chair has plan to move proposal making it harder to amend Ohio’s constitution

(Ohio House)

There's a lot going on behind the scenes in Columbus on a resolution that to ask voters to decide whether to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments in Ohio.

The latest twist exacerbates an already confusing political process. And lawmakers who want to pass this resolution are facing a quandary on how to do it and also pass a bill to create a special election for an August ballot. Both of those things must happen before May 10.

The newly appointed chair of the House committee hearing the resolution, Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton), said he has a plan that he thinks will work.

The resolution

The Ohio House resolution (HJR1) would raise the threshold to 60% for passage of constitutional amendments, require petition signatures from all 88 counties instead of the current 44, and would eliminate the 10 days now allowed to collect more signatures if the group bringing petitions falls short of the number needed. They say the changes are needed to "keep special interests" out of Ohio's constitution, though only a handful of amendments proposed by citizens or groups have passed.

The Senate has its own version that raises the threshold to 60% but doesn't deal with the other changes.

At stake is a constitutional amendment that could go on the November ballot that would enshrine abortion rights into the constitution. Republicans who hold a supermajority in the House and Senate don't like that abortion amendment, and they say they know this resolution could also make it more difficult for constitutional changes they favor to get passed in the future. Democrats in both chambers oppose the resolutions, but they are outnumbered by about a three-to-one margin.

The process of passing the resolution

The latest twist is a debate between House Republicans over how to pass the resolution. House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), who beat out Republican caucus leader Derek Merrin (R-Monclova) for the speakership earlier this year, created a special committee to consider the resolution and appointed Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wayne County), a Merrin supporter, in charge of it.

Wiggam chaired the committee for more than a month and held one hearing where only the sponsor testified, though dozens of opponents packed the hearing room and an overflow room.

Earlier this week, Merrin supporters filed a discharge petition to force the resolution to the floor for a House floor vote if a majority of the House signs it. Merrin blamed Stephens, not Wiggam, for the delay in ushering the resolution through the process.

"Unfortunately our speaker has, three times, has helped stop this from going to the ballot. He's helped stop it in December. He helped scuttle it in January. And he said he opposes it for the August election. So we have worked the process for many months and we are going to try to get the majority of the members of the House to bring this to the floor and to put this to the voters," Merrin said.

Stephens took issue with Merrin's comment. Last week, Stephens said he didn't like the idea of an August election since lawmakers just passed a law that bans those that goes into effect April 7. Stephens cited the more than $20 million spent and very low turnout in last August's election as the reason. But he softened his stance on that a bit Wednesday, telling reporters that he thinks, from an administrative standpoint, another August vote is not the easiest thing for local governments.

“I think, however, the legislature does set the date and time and place of the elections, so, you know, that is always a possibility. So I think that that’s something, as we go forward into the summer and we deal with this issue and the other issues that we’re able to look at," Stephens said.

On Thursday, the day after the discharge petition was filed, Stephens removed Wiggam as chair of the committee, saying he was either "unable or unwilling" to fulfill his duties as chair to hear the resolution and take a vote on it. Stephens noted Wiggam was one of the first to sign the discharge petition. But so did Plummer, who Stephens appointed to take over as chair of the committee.

Now the resolution, and the legislation to create an election to allow a vote on it in August, is in Plummer's hands. Ohio lawmakers are off for spring break for the next couple of weeks but when they return, Plummer said they will be meeting immediately to consider this resolution.

"I don't plan on delaying any of this. We have to get it through the committee and get it to the full caucus and see where the caucus lands with their votes," Plummer said.

The clock is ticking as lawmakers debate

Plummer said he decided to sign the discharge petition to help ensure this resolution, and the bill that would create an August election date, get over the finish line before the May 10 deadline. It requires a simple majority of 50 signatures to bypass the speaker and put the resolution up for a floor vote. As of Friday, there were 28 signatures.

Plummer said he knows there are not enough votes to pass the resolution now but added he's working to change that. He said it is "the million dollar question" as to whether there will be enough votes to pass it. Still, he said he wants the resolution brought to the floor regardless.

"You also have the hammer if it hits the floor and you are under the spotlight, you know it's time to vote. Sometimes, a little outside pressure influences peoples' votes. We don't know if we have the votes. There's only one way to find out - whip the votes and take the bill to the floor," Plummer said.

While lawmakers debate behind closed doors, groups that want voters to weigh in on a constitutional amendment for abortion rights are circulating petitions. The clock is ticking for them too. They need to collect nearly 414,000 valid petition signatures by July 5 to put their amendment on the November ballot.

Contact Jo Ingles at
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