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2020 In Ohio: Republican Leaders Keep HB6 Despite Racketeering Scandal

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder leaves the federal courthouse after an initial hearing following charges against him and four others alleging a $60 million bribery scheme Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete

The Ohio House finished the bulk of its work this month with the Republican Speaker saying the chamber will not take any action on HB6 – the sweeping energy law that bails out nuclear power plants and was linked to the biggest alleged scandal in Ohio politics.

Over the course of seven years, HB6 will send $1 billion in subsidies to nuclear plants, $140 million to solar farms, and hundreds of millions of dollars to coal plants – paid for by new charges on every Ohio electric user’s bills – all while cutting green energy mandates.

The beginning of 2020 had so much on its plate, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn that it seemed like the controversial energy law had been left in the rear view mirror.

Everything changed in July, when U.S. Attorney Dave DeVillers announced the arrest of House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) for alleged racketeering.

Investigators say Householder and four other defendants took part in a $61 million bribery scheme that helped Householder rise to power, in order for him to pass the nuclear power plant bailout. An unnamed utility widely believed to be FirstEnergy, whose former subsidiary Energy Harbor owns the nuclear plants, was also involved.

Householder was unanimously removed as speaker, replaced by state Rep. Bob Cupp (R-Lima), who said the House would look at how they could repeal and even replace HB6, the law now tainted by scandal.

"One of the first legislative priorities, obviously, is to take another look at House Bill 6," Cupp said. "And there's been several bills introduced to repeal that. There's interest also in taking a look at replacing it. And so we will be consulting with the caucus in deciding when's the appropriate time to do that."

As time went by, even after two defendants plead guilty in the racketeering scheme, Ohio lawmakers started to waver on repealing HP6.

Opponents of the bailout said the first sign came when Cupp created a special committee to hold more hearings on the subject. State Rep. Sedrick Denson (D-Cincinnati) said Republicans were dragging their feet. 

"For the life of me, now that we figured out all the games, in my opinion, that had been played through House Bill 6, why would we want to be on the hook and/or in the position to look as though we're not moving in the direction of, at least, disassociating ourselves with something that we've just learned," Denson said.

In November, the most ardent supporters of HB6 won re-election, even the now-indicted Householder. The election seemed to change the narrative with a possible repeal becoming less likely. 

With just weeks left before the session ended, House Republicans started entertaining other options, such as a partial repeal or a delay. State Rep. Dick Stein (R-Norwalk) argued that protecting nuclear energy is still good policy, despite the tainted process.

"It provides 90% of Ohio's carbon free energy generation in this state and 15% of its base load," Stein said. "Those are all policy reasons why we felt our, I felt and I think other members felt, HB6 was an advantage."

The Ohio House and Senate went into marathon sessions during lame duck, with conversations over a possible change to HB6 seemingly happening behind closed doors. Cupp said, in the end, the chamber couldn't reach a consensus.

"Diversity of views, that is what is good and appropriate public policy, I think has forestalled a consensus on what should be done," said Cupp.

But critics have fired back about Cupp's inaction. Bills to repeal HB6 had enough co-sponsors between Republicans and Democrats to pass the House with a majority. With FirstEnergy's lobbyist pleading guilty to the racketeering charge, it's been unclear where the pressure to keep HB6 in place has been coming from.

Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina) said he wanted a complete repeal, but blames the lack of organization in the House as the reason it didn't get done.

Cupp says the House will take another look at the issue in the next General Assembly.

Meanwhile, a Franklin County judge blocked the new charges created by HB6 from being attached to everyone's electric bills until the court case plays out.

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.