While I am loath to quote British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his remark to the press after meeting with President Biden that it was “a breath of fresh air” is one we can all agree with. However, the hot air coming from Columbus is getting more foul. This piece will focus on two pieces of legislation. These bills are, by no means, the full extent of the evil (not too strong a word) which the Republican supermajority intends to enshrine in Ohio law.
- H.B. 294 – Voting.
This is the much talked-about bill to change voting procedures in Ohio. It is an exceedingly long bill and there are likely things in it that have yet to catch anyone’s attention. Salient points that have come to view are: (1) The bill will eliminate early in-person voting on the Monday before Election Day. (2) Ballot drop boxes (which are also used to accept voter registrations and requests for absentee ballots) will be limited to one per county and may only be used during the ten days prior to Election Day. (3) The deadline to request an absentee ballot will be moved from three days before Election Day (which is probably too late) to ten days before Election Day. These changes may seem like details; but they cumulatively make it more difficult for Ohioans to vote and will likely deter some voters.
The bill’s sponsors have claimed that the bill has the support of Ohio elections officials. That is not true. The board of trustees of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials, the group that represents Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections and their staffs, voted to oppose the bill in its current form. An OAEO trustee whom I know and who has been negotiating with the bill’s sponsors told me recently that the Association’s opposition will have no effect on whether the bill passes and that the sponsors are only open to amendments that further restrict voting. One idea which I’ve been told is under consideration, either as an amendment to H.B. 294 or for inclusion in other legislation, is to change the law so that absentee ballots mailed back by voters would have to be delivered to the Board of Elections by Election Day to be counted. The current rule, in effect in Ohio for many years, requires absentee ballots to be counted if the BOE receives them within ten days after Election Day so long as the ballot was postmarked by the day before Election Day.
Absentee voting matters. In 2020, only a minority of Ohio voters voted at polling places on Election Day. Yes, that is undoubtedly due in part to the pandemic. However, discounting the pandemic as a once in a lifetime experience (we hope) does not justify making voting more difficult than paying a traffic ticket. I recently attended a conference held by the Ohio Secretary of State. Top officials in that office declared their commitment to absentee voting. However, the Secretary’s Chief of Staff said that they considered that the primary means for voting other than at polling places on Election Day should be by mail. This was said as mail service is becoming more unreliable and substantial increases in the price of mailing a letter appear inevitable. Oh, yeah, H.B. 294 will also prohibit Boards of Elections and the State from giving voters postage paid envelopes in which to return their absentee ballots.
Not a part of H.B. 294 but included in the current version of the state budget before the General Assembly is a provision which would bar Boards of Elections and the Secretary of State’s Office from using any privately donated money in running elections. In 2020, 66 of Ohio’s 88 counties used money from private public interest groups to pay costs created by conducting a presidential election during a pandemic. The facts that donald trump carried Ohio by a substantial margin and that Republicans slightly increased their majority in the General Assembly belie the charge that this non-taxpayer money influenced who was elected. However, the Republicans in Columbus know that the most effective limit on making voting easier for Ohioans is money. They want to control how elections are run by having exclusive control over the amount of money available to run elections.
S.B. 52 – Renewable Energy
Some of you may have seen a Tweet on June 9 by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm that Ohio will be getting the largest plant for manufacturing solar panels outside of China. The irony is that we may not be able to use those panels to generate significant amounts of power here in Ohio. Senate Bill 52, which has passed the Ohio Senate, would create hurdles for establishing an “economically significant wind farm” and a “large solar facility.” First, the bill would allow such facilities only in districts designated by County Commissions. Second, the bill expressly allows a County Commission to prohibit a specific wind or solar generation facility. Third, if the Commissioners allow wind or solar power generation in a particular area, the permission is suspended if petitions bearing signatures equal to eight percent of the total vote for governor within that county are filed. In that event, the wind or solar farm cannot be built unless held a majority vote in favor of the project at a special election.
You might say that this is a laudable effort to give local government and citizens control over what happens in their communities. However, compare how Ohio deals with the oil and gas industry. Ohio Revised Code Section 1509.02 states that a state agency, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, has “sole and exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations within the state.” Not surprisingly given this language, the Ohio Supreme Court has held that local governments have no control over oil and gas drilling. There is no law allowing for a special election on whether there should be an oil or gas field drilled in a community. Better still, while excluding the public, the law provides the decisions of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management may be appealed to a five-member oil and gas commission. Ohio Revised Code Section 1509.35 states that the commission must include “a representative of a major petroleum company,” “a representative of independent petroleum operators,” and “one learned and experienced in geology or petroleum engineering.” S.B. 52 does not provide for representatives of the renewable energy industry to be part of any agency with power to decide where or whether wind and solar farms may be built.
It is absurd to say that wind and solar farms impact communities more than oil and gas wells and fracking. Consequently, it is absurd to say that local governments and citizens should have the power to prevent wind and solar farms but not have the power to prevent oil and gas drilling and fracking in their communities. It seems that the Republican General Assembly wants to protect the fossil fuel industry from competition from renewable resources.
What next? Legislation banning use of the phrase “climate change” in Ohio? Of course, we should reach out to Jean Schmidt, Adam Bird, and Terry Johnson, our state reps and state senator in opposition to these bills. However, Schmidt, Bird, and Johnson will vote for these bad bills, The most important thing we can do is to remember that next year and vote in legislators who will help Ohioans vote and who will encourage clean energy options and clean energy jobs in Ohio.