Referendum campaign challenges Ohio law, wants more time for petitions

The multi-million dollar fight over a new law that adds charges to all Ohioans electric bills to provide subsidies to owners of four electric power plants moved to a federal courtroom on Friday.

The federal court fight is over an effort to put House Bill 6, a law that was passed earlier this year, up for a statewide referendum vote.

Opponents of the bill are conducting a petition drive statewide in an effort to give voters a chance to reject or enact House Bill 6. Proponents of the bill have launched a counter-campaign, implying in statewide advertising that the referendum effort is backed by the Chinese government and that signing the petitions puts voters’ personal information at risk.

House Bill 6 changes several aspects of Ohio incentives for power companies. It added a charge estimated to be about 85 cents a month per home, and higher for commercial and industrial customers, to create a $150 million annual fund that will be paid to the owner of Ohio’s two nuclear power plants. The plants are currently owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions.

In a federal court hearing Friday, supporters of the referendum drive said that as they have filed required documentation with the state listing the names of their petitioners, opponents have quickly used that information to call the petitioners and offer them $2,500 to abandon the work and leave the state.

Opponents of House Bill 6 are seeking a temporary restraining order against the state law that requires managers of paid circulators to file the disclosure forms with the Ohio Secretary of State. U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Sargus said he would soon rule on the request.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, a coalition of interest groups that are seeking a referendum on House Bill 6, has filed paperwork identifying all its paid circulators — not just the managers — out of an “abundance of caution” to avoid risking invalidation, said spokesman Gene Pierce. The group alleges that within hours of filing the forms, the circulators are approached by the other side and offered $2,500 and a plane ticket out of town to quit.

Assistant Attorney General Bridget Coontz, representing the Secretary of State, said the group is ‘over-reporting’ and is required to identify only the managers of the the petitioners.

Related: Ohio AG investigates new allegations in fight over energy bill referendum

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts also is also requesting a 90 day extension in their efforts to collect 265,744 valid voter signatures. It faces an Oct. 21 deadline. The group says 40 days of its 90 day collection window was eaten up waiting for state officials to approve the petition summary language.

Ohioans for Energy Security and Generation Now, two political action groups, are orchestrating a “decline to sign” campaign to thwart the HB6 referendum from making the November 2020 ballot. Those groups are running TV ads and mailing literature to voters across the state, alleging that the Chinese government and foreign entities have infiltrated the Ohio energy grid and implying petitions for the HB6 referendum are collecting personal information from voters.

Related: Ohioans flooded with ads as battle heats up over effort to repeal energy law

Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions and its allies, including Generation Now and Ohio Clean Energy Jobs Alliance, pushed for passage of House Bill 6. FirstEnergy Solutions filed for bankruptcy in March 2018 and has said it needs the subsidies for its nuclear power plants to keep them open.

House Bill 6 also:

- Extended a separate fee paid by all Ohio electric customers in order to continue a subsidy payment to Ohio Valley Electric Corp.’s two coal-fired plants open, including one in Indiana;

- Allocated up to $20 million a year to be made available to owners of large-scale solar power plants;

- Set a time table for the elimination of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that have been in place for a decade.

The fees will apply to 4.8 million customers across Ohio.

If the referendum campaign qualifies for the November 2020 ballot, the law would be put on hold until the vote is held.

Environmental groups, free market think tanks, consumer advocates and other power companies opposed the bill.

Related: Big money pushes for energy bill; consumer groups oppose it

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