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Republican leaders can't agree on bill to ban foreign money in Ohio ballot campaigns

Newly elected House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill, left) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) talk in the House chambers during a break on January 3, 2023, the first day of the 135th General Assembly.
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
Newly elected House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill, left) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) talk in the House chambers during a break on January 3, 2023, the first day of the 135th General Assembly.

A Republican push to ban foreign contributions to ballot issue campaigns before a constitutional amendment on redistricting likely comes before Ohio voters this fall appears to have stalled for now. But the leaders in those chambers, where Republicans hold supermajorities, aren't in agreement on how to do it.

This week, the Ohio Senate voted for the third time on a ban on foreign contributions to ballot issue campaigns. Republicans have raised concerns about contributions from Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss into the Sixteen Thirty Fund.

That dark money group, which doesn't have to disclose its donors, was among progressive groups that donated to support last November's reproductive rights and abortion access amendment. Dark money groups on the conservative side also donated to try to defeat Issue 1, which voters approved 57%-43%.

This time, the Senate added the foreign contributions ban to House Bill 305, a bipartisan measure on modernizing electronic filings in county common pleas courts.

Provisions on custody disputes between unmarried parents, service charges on cars and cemetery maintenance were also added, along with a provision to make it easier for the state to appeal when local judges block new state laws. Democrats unanimously opposed it.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said the changes his chamber added to House Bill 305 make it better than House Bill 609, a Republican-backed measure introduced this week.

“(HB) 305 really satisfies everybody who wants foreign national money out of statewide ballot initiatives. (HB) 609 essentially does none of that," Huffman said.

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans added the ban on foreign contributions to House Bill 114, a bipartisan bill to allow candidates to pay child care costs with campaign funds. GOP senators also added in a change to the presidential candidate certification deadline so President Biden can be on the Ohio ballot. Democrats opposed the bill because of language they said would make it harder for ballot issue campaigns to raise money.

"We believe when we've passed (HB) 114 that this was the classic compromise bill; Dems want Biden on the ballot, Republicans would like to keep foreign money out of our statewide elections," Huffman said.

In February, Senate Republicans approved Senate Bill 215, a GOP-backed bill to prohibit foreign national contributions to ballot issue campaigns. That bill hasn't been assigned to a House committee.

But Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), who Huffman is expected to challenge for that leadership position next year, said he's frustrated that a bill Republicans want isn't going forward.

Stephens said House Bill 609 would ban foreign money in amendment campaigns from citizens groups, but without the other stuff the Senate added and with an emergency clause he said would help it stand up better in court.

“We should be able to come up with a solution that's very straightforward and get it done without all this gamesmanship back and forth between the Senate," Stephens said. "I don't know if anybody else is tired of it, but I'd like to get some stuff done.”

House Bill 609 is on a fast track, with a committee hearing the day after it was introduced.

Democrats remain concerned about these proposals.

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said "we're all against foreign money being in campaign funds." But she said she has questions about all the additions to House Bill 305.

"These are attempts at trying to change the way our ballot initiatives are funded," Antonio said. "The bottom line is they are sore losers. They didn't win those ballot initiatives and they are trying to do everything possible to to sabotage the next ballot initiatives."

Contributions from foreign nationals to candidates are already illegal under state law. But in 2021, the Ohio Elections Commission issued an opinion that state law also bans foreign nationals from contributing to ballot issue campaigns as well.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.