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Nuclear Bailout Opponents Pin Hopes On Ohio Supreme Court

Pention workers for the nuclear power plant bailout are collecting signatures throughout Ohio.
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
Pention workers for the nuclear power plant bailout are collecting signatures throughout Ohio.

Last week brought a close to one chapter for Ohio's nuclear power plant bailout, House Bill 6, when the group collecting signatures to fight against the law fell short of their goal.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied the group more time to collect enough signatures to trigger a ballot referendum, but activists are still hoping the Ohio Supreme Court will grant their request.

Rachael Belz, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, set up a petition signing station at Land Grant Brewing near downtown Columbus for the last weekend of petitioning. This was part of a statewide effort to gather more signatures before Monday's deadline to put the nuclear power plant bailout law up for a vote on next year's ballot.

"In this final stretch, people have been really upset that they haven't found anybody with a real petition yet,” Belz said. “Friends of mine, allies, people that would normally signed it weeks ago but they haven't been able to find it because of all these tactics.”

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts was behind the signature effort. The donors of the group aren’t known, but its spokesman has said it’s the same consumer groups, business groups and renewable energy advocates who opposed House Bill 6.

Belz says they had to start holding these signing events in private venues like this brewery to avoid their opponents, who hired people that allegedly harassed, followed, and blocked circulators from gathering signatures.

"I think the tactics from the opposition are incredibly slimy," says Belz.

Among their opposition are Ohioans for Energy Security and Generation Now, two dark money groups with connections to the power plants’ owner, FirstEnergy Solutions, and to House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford), a chief backer of the bailout.

Ohioans for Energy Security spokesman Carlo LoParo has tied the referendum effort to the natural gas industry, and wants lawmakers to continue changing energy law by banning foreign companies from investing in energy generation.

The opponents and supporters of HB6 collided again this week after Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts missed the deadline. By October 21, the group collected 221,092 signatures, below the 265,774 needed to advance.

The anti-nuclear bailout group pinned their hopes on a case they filed in U.S. District Court asking for more time.

Here's how their argument breaks down: The state Constitution grants 90 days for a group to try to referendum a law before it goes into effect, but Ohio law requires the Ohio Attorney General to approve petition language first.

By the time Attorney General Dave Yost approved the group's second draft, 38 days had passed, giving the group only 52 days to collect signatures. That's why their lawyers said they had the right to more time. 

However, the state's attorneys say this has been the same process every referendum effort has faced for more than 80 years. 

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus denied group’s request for an extension. But he did send lingering questions on the issue to the Ohio Supreme Court, suggesting that the state's high court had jurisdiction over the argument.

As of now, the law created through HB6 is in effect. The bill's sponsor says saving the nuclear power plants and making changes to Ohio's green energy policies are a better investment for the state.

"So it's good for the environment, it's good for jobs. It's good for the infrastructure that's there, it's good for the tax base, if you look at the school districts that are there where the two current nuclear power plants are, Davis-Besse and Perry, there'd be a devastating economic impact on those communities if those plants shut down," says state Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord).

The law creates a new fee on every electricity bill in the state and scales back requirements that utilities generate more power from wind and solar. The fees will generate $150 million a year beginning in 2021 for FirstEnergy Solutions' two nuclear plants near Toledo and Cleveland.

But the book isn't closed on the bailout just yet. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is reviewing its options to take the argument to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has opened a docket for the case.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.