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Special session ends with action on foreign money ban and now-moot Biden Ohio ballot fix

The Ohio Senate closes out a special legislative session with votes on two bills.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
The Ohio Senate closes out a special legislative session with votes on two bills.

Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to sign a pair of bills he asked lawmakers to pass in a special legislative session, the first in 20 years. Senators passed a bill limit foreign contributions to statewide ballot issues and one to change the deadline to ensure U.S. President Joe Biden is on the November ballot.

The rare Friday afternoon session in the state Senate bookended a week of legislating that started Tuesday under DeWine’s orders. The two bills came after an apparent resolution between the House and Senate over how to proceed in this special session. Republican Senators had passed a unanimously-approved House bill after adding the foreign money ban and the Biden ballot fix. But two longtime Republican representatives said new legislation was needed in a special session, and what the Senate did was "constitutionally questionable".

On Friday, the Senate joined the House in passing House Bills 1 and 2, proposals that fulfill the two purposes of DeWine’s call for a special session. Friday was the chamber’s fifth floor debate on provisions barring foreign nationals from putting money toward ballot issues. Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) said it’s weaker than what he first brought forward.

"It's still a bill worth passing, and it's still a bill that identifies this clear and present threat that we have to our elections," said McColley, who spoke for both bills on the Senate floor.

Republicans have said the ban has been in the works for a while and needs to be passed. They've raised concerns about a Swiss billionaire's donations to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive dark money fund that contributed to the campaign to pass November's abortion access amendment. The Sixteen Thirty Fund has also donated $550,000 to Citizens Not Politicians, the group behind a proposed amendment to replace the GOP-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission with a 15-member panel of Republicans, Democrats and independents. As of the last filing deadline on Jan. 31, Citizens Not Politicians had raised around $3.1 million.

All seven Democrats, including Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) voted against House Bill 1.

"I don't know about it being watered down or diluted, but I think that the outcome is still very, very dangerous," Antonio said.

Democrats said the bill is designed to discourage participation in ballot issues, and that it gives too much enforcement power to the attorney general, a partisan elected official who already plays a role in certifying ballot issues.

An amendment by Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) included permanent residents of the United States, also known as green card holders, in the foreign contributions ban. Some Republicans opposed that, saying that it deviates from longstanding federal and state law and could invite a lawsuit.

House Bill 2 passed the Senate nearly unanimously, with only Sen. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg) voting against it. Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) had said "Republicans in both the House and the Senate aren't going to vote for a stand-alone Biden bill," but House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) said there were House Republicans who would not vote for a foreign money ban that included a Biden ballot fix.

The Democratic National Committee had announced Tuesday it would do a virtual roll call to nominate Biden before the convention, making the temporary fix moot. The DNC said in a statement: "Today's action echoes what we already knew: Since the beginning of this process, Ohio Republicans have been playing partisan games and trying to chip away at our democracy, while Democrats have been defending Ohioans' right to vote. Joe Biden will be on the ballot in all 50 states, and we are already taking action to make sure that's the case, regardless of Ohio Republicans' shenanigans."

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.
Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.