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GOP plan to advance 60% amendment in August looking wobbly after second hearing cancelled

Published By Ohio Capital Journal on May 4, 2023
Richard D. Brown In The News

Hints of uncertainty are creeping into the Ohio House ahead of an effort toward a constitutional showdown. For the second time in as many days, the House Government Oversight committee canceled its hearing instead of voting on an August special elections measure.

That legislation is crucial to a Republican ballot effort asking voters to make it harder to amend the Ohio Constitution by raising the threshold for passage to 60%.

The lawmakers supporting the effort want to pass both so they can put the question on the ballot in August — just before a reproductive rights amendment planned for November. But the effort doesn’t sit well with everyone in the GOP.

The complete reversal on August elections, eliminated just months ago, has soured some lawmakers, which means the margins on the floor could be narrow. And lawmakers are running short on time.

The deadline for getting the question on the ballot is May 10 — the one and only day of floor session scheduled for the coming week.

The Ohio House Government Oversight committee typically meets Tuesdays, so there’s still a chance lawmakers can get their ducks in a row.

Problems with the tab
In a last-minute change, lawmakers wanted to strip out a $20 million appropriation in the August election measure. Under House rules, any measure carrying an appropriation has to go through the Finance Committee, and backers worried the additional stop could run out the clock.

It’s unclear how lawmakers were planning to make up for the changes. One possibility is they could have amended the appropriation back into the bill on the House floor. In another, Senators might draft a budget amendment, with a wink and a nod, to pay for the unexpected election.

What is clear is the August election portion of the plan isn’t going great.

“Look,” Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati said after the hearing, “I think there’s tremendous support for the 60% proposition, but less support for the proposition that we do it in August.”

“And, you know, if there aren’t the votes, there aren’t the votes,” he added.

Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, said he was “shocked” the committee chair rescheduled the hearing after canceling on Tuesday.

“They thought they could do something and change someone’s mind,” he said. “It didn’t work, so they don’t have the votes.”

Brown argued the faux pas on August elections spells trouble for the bid to raise the threshold for constitutional amendments. He called the idea “unpopular, undemocratic and unfair.”

“I think it signifies that there’s a lot of hostility toward this bill,” he said, “and I think they are starting to feel it, the Republicans, and I think they’re getting scared.”

Dueling ads
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, is one of five Republican state lawmakers under fire from ads paid for by Save Our Constitution PAC. The organization gets its funding from Richard Uihlein, the Illinois billionaire owner of the business supply company Uline.

On Wednesday, a different organization announced ads that cut in the opposite direction. Educate Ohio Action Fund, a 501(c)(4), released ads criticizing lawmakers for trying to spend $20 million to “rig our constitution to end majority rule.” The organization will run ads in 13 lawmakers’ districts, including House Speaker Jason Stephens.

While dark money groups fight for the hearts and minds of sitting lawmakers, a substantial share of recent statewide elected officials, from both sides of the aisle, have publicly voiced their opposition. The four most recent governors and five recent attorneys general have all rejected the plan.

Rep. Brown said he’d never seen anything like it. But the current governor, Mike DeWine, brushed off their comments at a press event early Wednesday.

“These are people we certainly respect and they are entitled to their own opinion and they are entitled to say what they want to say,” DeWine said. “I’m waiting like everyone to see what the legislature does, and I assume we are going to know in the next couple of days.”

Organizers’ reaction
On Wednesday afternoon before the August elections hearing, hundreds of organizers flooded into the Statehouse. The opposition has swelled to 240 public interest organizations from around the state.

The organizations staged a similar action late last year when lawmakers attempted to pass the constitutional changes in the waning days of the legislative session. Later that day the House speaker announced the resolution wouldn’t get a vote.

Speaking after lawmakers canceled Wednesday’s hearing Mia Lewis from Common Cause dismissed the August election measure as “shenanigans.”

“Ohioans will not accept this going onto an August special election. It’s not acceptable,” Lewis insisted. “It’s $20 million for no reason. Or for a very bad reason! Which is to try to subvert democracy, and people will not stand for it. I think they’re starting to read the writing on the wall.”

Lewis acknowledged they might not muster quite as many demonstrators, but promised she and others would make their voices heard should lawmakers pursue the legislation next week.

In a statement, Jen Miller from the League of Women Voters urged Ohioans to call their representatives and tell them to reject the higher constitutional threshold as well as the August elections bill.

“We are heartened that the House session and related committees were canceled today,” Miller said. “It’s my sincere hope that Ohio lawmakers will actually put the rights of everyday Ohioans over the bidding of special interests and out of state billionaires.”

“But rest assured,” she added, “that our coalition of more than 240 organizations will continue to do everything in our power to defeat this in the House or at the ballot box if we must.”

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