HB 6: Referendum backers seek federal intervention

Larry Limpf

The group seeking to overturn House Bill 6 is asking a federal court for help in overcoming what the group sees as unfair state rules covering the referendum process.
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is gathering signatures to place a referendum on the November state-wide ballot that would, if approved by voters, block HB 6 from taking effect. The bill, passed by the legislature this summer and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, establishes the state’s Clean Energy Program but provides subsidies for coal and nuclear plants, drawing criticism from environmentalists and others.
The group last week filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio, asking for a reprieve from referendum workers having to file forms with the Ohio Secretary of State office that disclose their addresses, phone numbers and email accounts. The concern is that proponents of the bill can access that data through public records request.
The lawsuit alleges that First Amendment rights are being infringed by having to comply with the pre-registration rules while those working against the referendum effort have no registration requirement and are able harass petition circulators.
"On top of their never-ending false advertising and armies of 'blockers,' First Energy Solutions, Ohioans for Energy Security and Generation Now are taking advantage of this unnecessary state requirement that gives them a target list for who to bully, bribe or buy and destroy their completed petitions," said Chris Finney, an attorney for the petition campaign. “The lawsuit is designed to allow our circulators to exercise their First Amendment rights free from these never seen before tactics."
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts needs to file 265,744 signatures by Oct. 21 to make the November ballot.
Oral arguments in the case were held Oct. 11.

Case pending
In a separate case before the Ohio Supreme Court, FirstEnergy Solutions is attempting to block the referendum effort by arguing HB 6 includes a tax levy and isn’t subject to the referendum process.
“The Ohio Constitution is clear: ‘Laws providing for tax levies … shall not be subject to the referendum,’ ” the company’s lawsuit says.
The bill imposes a tax totaling $170 million annually on electric utility customers, the lawsuit says.
Gene Pierce, a spokesman for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, said the utility was using a specious claim.
“This frivolous lawsuit is another desperate attempt by FirstEnergy Solutions to protect their ill-gotten billion dollar bailout," said Pierce. "In addition to having no legal basis, their own proponents in the legislature repeatedly stated that HB 6 was not a tax increase in their efforts to secure enough votes for passage of the bill."
The group also argues the court doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case.
Three justices of the supreme court, Patrick Fischer, Judith French and Patrick DeWine, have recused themselves from the case. The three retained David Eckert and Trevor Vessels, who are co-founders of Matchstick Media, a consulting firm, for their election campaigns. Eckert and Vessels are consultants for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts and are respondents in the case with the group.


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