Ohio House committee narrowly advances 60% supermajority provision despite opposition

House Speaker Stephens cancels Wednesday session

By: - May 3, 2023 5:00 am

State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, addresses the House Constitutional Resolutions committee meeting on March 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

In an Ohio House committee, witnesses pleaded with lawmakers to reject the effort to install a 60% threshold for future constitutional amendments. The joint resolution they’re considering would put the question to voters on an upcoming ballot. After breaking for an extended recess around lunch time, lawmakers heard more testimony and voted to advance the resolution.

But the 7-6 margin was probably tighter than supporters wanted. All five Democrats on the committee voted against it, and of the eight Republicans on the committee, only state Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, R-Ulrichsville, who previously floated amendments to make the resolution more palatable to opponents, voted against it.

Elsewhere in the Statehouse, a different House committee set to vote on restoring August elections Tuesday morning delayed its start. Almost six hours later, the chair canceled the hearing.

The same conservative lawmakers pushing to bring back August elections got rid of them just a few months ago. At the time, they argued they’re too costly and generate meager voter turnout. But now, an August election day suits their plan to advance the supermajority amendment.

Taken together the two proposals represent a last-ditch effort by some Republican lawmakers to hobble an abortion rights amendment ahead of November’s election. More than 200 interest groups have come out against the effort. Four previous governors and five previous attorneys general — Republican and Democratic — have also publicly criticized the plan.

But the proposal’s opponents got a reprieve of sorts from House Speaker Jason Stephens. The Kitts Hill Republican scrapped Wednesday’s House session after declining to schedule the 60% supermajority or August special election measures.

That puts an exceptional amount of pressure on the House session scheduled for May 10 — the last day lawmakers can approve the measures in time for an August election.

SJR 2 opposition

During Tuesday’s hearing, opponents harped on what they called the hypocrisy of lawmakers pushing the supermajority resolution forward. From the outset, Republicans backing the proposal have contended their effort is a way to discourage “out of state special interests” from buying the state constitution, and that it has nothing to do with undermining an abortion rights amendment on the horizon.

A group called Save Our Constitution PAC is now running ads targeting five GOP members perceived as insufficiently supportive. The funding for those ads comes, not from Ohio, but from Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein. The owner of the shipping supplies company Uline, has previously funded far-right candidates around the country and groups promoting election denialism.

Dorsey Hager from the Columbus Central Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council criticized Uihlein’s involvement.

“An idea introduced to protect the Ohio constitution — our Constitution — from special interest is actually being promoted by a group funded by an Illinois billionaire who’s trying to change Ohio’s constitution,” he said.

Save Our Constituion PAC’s treasurer is David Langdon, the same Cincinnati attorney who’s behind the non-profit Protect Women Ohio. That organization is currently running spurious attack ads against the abortion rights amendment.

The ACLU’s Gary Daniels drew a bright line between efforts in favor of the joint resolution and those in opposition of abortion rights.

“Soda taxes, casinos, former House Speakers, monopolies and evil special interests are among the list of reasons supporters have cooked up to argue SJR 2 is necessary,” Daniels argued.

“But Ohioans know — and very few supporters are left pretending — this involves anything but abortion and gerrymandering.”

All 88 Counties

Opponents also keyed in on a less discussed, but potentially even more consequential set of restrictions added to the resolution.

Not only would organizers seeking a constitutional amendment need to clear 60% at the ballot, they’d first need to gather signatures from 5% of the electorate in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Current law requires that percentage from at least 44 counties and grants organizers a “cure period” to gather valid signatures if the ones they turn get rejected.

“To cover all 88 counties, and then be denied that cure period,” Trevor Martin argued, “is again, it’s devastating to the citizen initiative process.”

Mia Lewis from Common Cause Ohio explained legitimate signatures can get rejected for mundane discrepancies. Say you’ve moved but haven’t updated your voter registration — using your current address would scrap your signature. Sometimes organizers gather signatures for close to year. If you move in the interim and update your registration, that old signature gets thrown out.

“It’s blindfolding the people that are trying to collect the signatures and telling them to take this leap of faith,” she argued. “There is no way for them to know how many of those signatures won’t be valid. They don’t know how many people are going to move. They don’t know how many people have put the wrong address that doesn’t match the registration.”

She called requiring signatures from all 88 counties and eliminating the cure period “punitive.”

Bonds

Opponents also took aim at the supermajority threshold’s impact on bond issues. Hager, from the Trades Council, brought up a school bond issue in his hometown of Marysville.

“If this passes, they’re gonna be able to add on to the STEM school in Marysville where they’ll be able to produce more kids in science, technology that will go to work at Scott’s, go to work at Honda (and) keep those industries growing and thriving,” Hager argued.

Requiring a 60% supermajority, he contended, would endanger those investments.

But Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, argued bonds aren’t a big issue. Stewart, who’s sponsoring the House version of the 60% threshold measure, argued every bond for the last 15 years would clear the bar.

“Why are you in your sort of fear mongering over 1990 bond issues when we’ve passed every bond issue for the last 15 years with over 60% of the vote?” Stewart asked Jen Miller from the Leauge of Women Voters of Ohio.

Miller acknowledged Stewart is correct about the most recent bond proposals. But taking a longer view the track record gets murky.

Former state representative and Dispatch editor Mike Curtin analyzed bond issues going back to 1980. Under a simple majority, two thirds passed, but with a 60% supermajority the record flips. Of the eighteen bond issues only eight would pass, and two of those just barely.

Noting how that picture changes with a broader view, Miller pressed Stewart on the growing opposition for his legislation.

“If this were such a great proposal, would we have so many former AGs and governors of both political parties coming out in opposition? Would you have to 240 organizations and growing come out in opposition? Would you need a million dollars from an out-of-state megadonor billionaire?” Miller asked.

“You wouldn’t.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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