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Anti-bailout petitioners await court decision on requested extension

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A coalition seeking to end $1 billion worth of nuclear energy subsidies is awaiting a court decision on whether it will receive an extension on gathering signatures for the petition after missing a deadline.

Gene Pierce, a spokesperson for the coalition, told The Center Square via email that the judge said he would issue a decision quickly, but did not give a date or a time.

The coalition, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, was given 90 days to collect about 266,000 signatures for the petition, which would have placed a referendum to reverse House Bill 6’s subsidies on the November 2020 ballot. However, 38 of those days were spent seeking state approval of the summary language, during which the group was not able to collect signatures.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts’ lawyers argued that the “blackout period” created an unconstitutional barrier to gathering their petitions by temporarily not allowing them to gather signatures.

The lawsuit argues the following: “Through imposition of extra-constitutional mandates … [that require], prior to obtaining a single signature on any referendum petition, those seeking to subject legislation to referendum to obtain pre-approval from the government of the proposed petition and that, while awaiting such pre-approval, the 90-day period to obtain signatures on the petition is not tolled or stayed, the State of Ohio has unconstitutionally burdened and infringed upon the full and robust exercise of the First Amendment rights of the Committee and those supportive of subjecting H.B. 6 to a vote of the people.”

The group also sai that its First Amendment rights were being violated in other ways. The group said the requirement to disclose the name, addresses, phone numbers and emails of those involved in the referendum campaign puts a restriction of the Constitutional right to petition the government. Also, they allege that the group’s opponents have used that personal information to harass and bully petitioners.

A judge temporarily suspended the requirement for petition circulators to disclose that information, but did not yet issue a ruling on its constitutionality.

Ohioans For Energy Security, a coalition launched to oppose Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, filed an amicus brief with the court, arguing that the court should not provide an extension.

In the brief, the group’s lawyers argued that the Constitution does not set a 90-day window for collecting signatures, which means that they cannot claim a right to 90 days to gather signatures. Additionally, the lawyers argued that the Constitution expressly grants the state Legislature the power to facilitate the right to a referendum, but not limit or restrict it.

The brief also argued that the court should ignore claims about alleged harassment by opponents because no opponents were named in the lawsuit and they could not defend themselves.

“Apparently, the HB 6 repeal campaign could not generate the needed support to meet the ballot qualifying threshold,” Ohioans for Energy Security spokesperson Carlo LoParo said in a news release. “Ballot issues can be emotional and highly charged. Both sides worked hard to engage Ohio voters.”

House Bill 6, which was approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine earlier this year, approved the subsidies to bail out two nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. The subsidies will be paid for with increased rates for consumers.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is also fighting another lawsuit over the constitutionality of the ballot initiative itself. Opponents are arguing that the increased consumer rates constitute a tax, which is not subject to a ballot initiative; Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is arguing that a fee increase, in this instance, does not constitute a tax, which would make the bill permissible to address in a referendum.