Compiled by The Associated Press
Cleveland Plain Dealer. March 26, 2023
Editorial: Householder: Broken Government – a broken PUCO, exposed
The “broken government” revealed by the federal prosecution of ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Ohio GOP Chair Matt Borges also has laid bare the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s faltering ability to be a fair umpire between Ohio consumers and electric and gas companies — especially Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., owner of the Illuminating, Ohio Edison and Toledo Edison companies.
Legislative reformers created what’s now the PUCO in 1911 to ride herd on utility monopolies. In 1999, Ohio deregulated much of the state’s electric utility energy costs, but not all. In theory, the PUCO still decides whether the regulated electricity-distribution rates a public utility charges Ohioans cover justifiable service costs while producing a fair profit for utility investors.
Evidence turned up during the Householder probe revealed that the civics-book version isn’t how things really work in Columbus. Especially when a mammoth utility such as FirstEnergy comes calling with armies of lobbyists and a sudden surge of back-channel, dark-money influence-peddling aimed at getting a nuclear bailout bill, House Bill 6, passed and protected.
FirstEnergy favoritism at the PUCO goes back a lot longer than the HB 6 scandal, of course, but revelations flowing from the Householder probe have revealed the shameless extent to which it ballooned.
In this, FirstEnergy was helped by the inexcusable insider dominance (or “regulatory capture”) of Ohio’s 40-year-old process for picking PUCO members, which fails to deliver the promised truly independent regulation.
This was highlighted by admissions in FirstEnergy’s 2021 Deferred Prosecution Agreement with federal prosecutors in the Householder case, that resulted in FirstEnergy agreeing to a $230 million federal fine.
The Akron utility admitted, as part of that deal, that it paid $4.3 million to benefit Sam Randazzo “with the intent and for the purposes that, in return,” he “would perform official action in his capacity as PUCO Chairman to further FirstEnergy Corp.’s interests relating to passage of nuclear legislation and other specific FirstEnergy legislative and regulatory priorities, as requested and as opportunities arose.”
Randazzo has not been charged with any crimes, and he denies any wrongdoing. But the record includes text messages from then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones crowing about the access his company enjoyed, thanks to Randazzo, who led the PUCO from February 2019 to November 2020, when he resigned.
One text from Jones, obtained by the Ohio Office of Consumers’ Counsel, the underfinanced agency representing Ohio ratepayers, suggests that Randazzo may have spiked issuance of a final audit on the roughly $500 million ratepayers paid out from 2017 to 2019, supposedly to modernize FirstEnergy’s Northeast Ohio distribution grid.
The 2017 PUCO-authorized “distribution modernization rider,” which the Ohio Supreme Court struck down in 2019, did not require the utility to show it spent the money for that purpose, and a January 2022 audit failed to determine exactly how the millions were spent.
Besides these headlined items, there are day-to-day issues surrounding the commission’s operations, such as PUCO’s snail-like procedural folderol and the impenetrable jargon encasing it. That makes it impossible for all but the most adept lawyers and lobbyists to understand proceedings that should be transparent to any interested consumer.
Our editorial board also has repeatedly criticized the way the General Assembly has grossly limited the resources available to the Consumers’ Counsel, which represents residential utility consumers in rate cases – funding that comes not from taxpayers but from small assessments on utilities.
To his credit, Gov. Mike DeWine has recommended a $500,000 increase for the Consumers’ Counsel’s budget for the year beginning July 1. But according to the Legislative Service Commission, the counsel wanted a $700,000 increase. Legislators should grant it. (Budget analysts estimate the PUCO’s spending this fiscal year will total $81.1 million, 14 times more than the Consumers’ Counsel’s estimated spending this fiscal year.)
Legislators should also support a Consumer’s Counsel proposal that one of the five PUCO commissioners be appointed from a list the counsel submits to the governor. Ideally, that commissioner would be positioned to speak up on behalf of the public at PUCO hearings. Additionally, the legislature should grant the counsel the right to issue subpoenas and restore its option to host a call center, an option lost in 2011 budget cuts.
Tightening and refocusing utility regulation in Ohio — along with full, timely financial disclosure of utilities’ Statehouse lobbying expenses — would go a long way toward repairing the broken government that Householder’s prosecution exposed. The road forward is clear. The General Assembly should take it.
Toledo Blade. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: LaRose takes easy way out
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s withdrawal of Ohio from an interstate compact focused on election integrity is a disappointing concession to right-wing misinformation.
There was clearly growing tension between red states and blue states participating in the Electronic Registration Information Center.
The issues could have been resolved with some compromise and trust, but that trust is lacking these days, largely because of a baseless determination by the MAGA party to believe in a Democratic conspiracy to defraud elections, regardless of the truth. In his letter removing Ohio from the ERIC compact, Mr. Larose cited several reasons focusing largely on what he saw as the ERIC leadership’s determination to impose policies over his and others’ objections.
He may be right that ERIC appears to have become determined to become more of a boss in its relationship with the states than a passive database and information-sharing arrangement. The left can never resist an opportunity to impose requirements.
One policy that has Republican critics claiming ERIC favors blue state politics is a requirement that member states notify citizens who might be eligible to vote but aren’t registered. In other words, Republicans object to having to notify potential voters of their right to register. One of ERIC’s functions is to help states identify and remove — or investigate, if called for — voters who are registered in more than one state.
That is a service that will no longer be available to Ohio, all because of phony claims by a former president who can’t admit he lost.
While there may have been substantive reasons to disagree with ERIC’s direction since its founding in 2012, it is unfortunate that Republicans are forced to cave to baseless allegations circulating among right-wing fraudcasters.
Mr. LaRose has previously demonstrated his willingness to share podium space with election deniers, and we suspect he saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate his solidarity with that wing of the GOP, with an eye on the 2024 Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown.
By enabling belief in disproven theories of election fraud, Republicans like Mr. LaRose, who know better, fuel a dangerous disbelief in the legitimacy of government. It exploded once in an attempted insurrection at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
It can happen again.
Youngstown Vindicator. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: Study change in Ohio speed limit closely
Ever find yourself zooming down the road here in Ohio and realize you’re quite a bit over the speed limit? Perhaps in realizing such, you thought to yourself that you did not feel unsafe driving at that speed. If that is the case, an idea in the Ohio Senate might interest you.
With passage of House Bill 23 (Enacting the Fiscal Year 2024-25 Transportation Budget), some in the state Senate would like to increase the speed limit from 55 to 60 mph on state routes and county roads. The plan also would allow the Ohio Department of Transportation to increase the speed limit on two-lane state routes to 65 mph, according to a report by WHIO.
Those of you who are cheering the idea may have received some of those speeding tickets supporters of the bill say they’d like to reduce.
But there’s another side to the issue. According to data compiled by AAA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are a couple of problems to consider. Drivers often exceed speed limits, anyway. When officials raise speed limits to match driver behavior, those drivers speed up even more. IIHS data suggests raising speed limits has cost 37,000 lives over the past 25 years.
“Higher speed limits cancel out the benefits of vehicle safety improvements like airbags and improved structural designs,” said David Harkey, IIHS president. “The faster a driver is going before a crash, the less likely it is that they’ll be able to get down to a survivable speed even if they have a chance to brake before impact.”
If reducing the number of speeding tickets handed out is the only reason lawmakers are proposing such a change, it seems it might not work out. If, on the other hand, infrastructure and vehicle improvement justify such a change, and those same lawmakers have consulted with safety experts before making the decision, it is likely most Ohioans will be glad to see it.
Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. March 24, 2023.
Editorial: Don’t hold special elections in August
It seems as if just last year Ohio legislators passed a law largely eliminating special elections in August.
Oh, wait, it was last year.
The near elimination of such elections was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing Republican-backed bill that imposed strict photo ID requirements on voters and eliminated early in-person voting on the day before Election Day.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, celebrated when GOP Gov. Mike DeWine signed it into law in January. In a news release LaRose’s office even highlighted the law’s near elimination of those elections, except when a political subdivision or school district was in a state of fiscal emergency.
The release described a special election in August as “a costly, low-turnout, and unnecessary election for our county boards to administer.”
That much was obvious last year when the gerrymandering debacle forced Ohio to hold a special primary for state legislative districts in August. Turnout, predictably, was abysmal.
In Lorain County, just shy of 9% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Statewide, turnout was just over 8%.
Compare that to the regular May primary, when turnout was about 21.1% in Lorain County and 20.9% statewide. Or look at the November general election, when turnout was around 51.9% in Lorain County and 52.3% statewide.
Why do we bring all this up?
Well, some Republicans in the Ohio Senate have introduced a bill to allow special elections in August for a different reason: not concerning a fiscal emergency but concerning the state Constitution.
They’re hoping to get it passed and signed into law in time for Ohioans to vote this summer on a proposed amendment that would raise the threshold for passing other constitutional amendments to 60%. As it stands now, the threshold is 50% plus one vote.
Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, hasn’t bothered to hide the reason for the rush job.
If voters raise the threshold in August, 60% support would be needed to pass a proposed amendment protecting abortion access that likely will appear on the November ballot.
“If we save 30,000 lives as a result of spending $20 million, I think that’s a great thing,” Huffman said, referring to abortions that would be prevented and the cost of holding a special election.
In other words, Huffman is hoping that a highly motivated cadre of anti-abortion voters will show up at the polls in a low-turnout election and make it easier in November to block a proposed amendment he doesn’t like.
Compounding Huffman’s cynical plan to undermine what might be the will of a majority of Ohio voters is his willingness to spend taxpayer dollars to get his way.
Surprisingly, Democrats and other opponents of the plan to hold a special election this summer have an unlikely ally in Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill.
“We just voted to not have those anymore just a few months ago,” Stephens told The Columbus Dispatch. “The county election officials I’ve talked to are not interested in having it. I’m frankly not interested in having an election in August.”
Huffman conveniently ignores one of the justifications for a provision in the House version of the proposed amendment to make it harder to amend the Constitution.
The proposal would complicate signature gathering by requiring signatures from voters in all of Ohio’s 88 counties, instead of voters from 44 counties as is now the case. (The Senate version doesn’t include that provision.)
The House version’s primary sponsor, state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, argued during a hearing Wednesday that campaigns often ignore smaller counties when gathering signatures. (Stewart declined to say whether he supported holding a special election in August, The Dispatch reported.)
“If a constitutional amendment is going to apply to all Ohioans in all counties, why should there not be some buy-in from all 88 counties?” he asked.
The question for Huffman is this: If a constitutional amendment is going to apply to all Ohioans, why should a tiny fraction of voters decide the issue in August?
Proponents of making the Constitution harder to amend like to insist that they’re trying to limit the influence of out-of-state special interests.
We’ve never bought that argument because Ohio voters, not special interests, have the final say at the ballot box.
When it comes to Huffman, though, his interests appear to be all that matter.
Sandusky Register. March 25, 2023.
Editorial: Rule changes are self-serving
There is so much to be disappointed about in state Sen. Theresa Gavarone’s proposal to require a supermajority for passage of future state questions. This legislation seeks to change the rules to accommodate the political agenda of Gavarone and other Republicans in our gerrymandered statehouse: to limit the reproductive rights of women.
It’s the latest example of government overreach into citizens’ private lives and personal decisions. This is the opposite of individual freedom it’s not the place of Gavarone and other state legislators to enforce their views on all Ohioans.
Gavarone and other culture-war Republicans want this legislation approved for the ballot in August — three months before a question about guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights could be on the November ballot. Pro-abortion groups currently are circulating petitions to put their proposed issue on the November ballot.
The irony in what she is proposing, requiring a 60% majority instead of a 50% plus 1 vote majority for passage of state questions, should not be lost. She wants a supermajority to decide whether women in Ohio will keep their rights, but she also wants the election for her proposal to happen in August when the fewest voters go to the polls.
This effort is not about accommodating the will of the people. It’s about manipulating the vote to bend that will to accommodate the demands of a minority of Ohioans, a majority of whom, in poll after poll, support a woman’s right to choose.
Gavarone is not shy about insisting that all women live by the rules she believes are correct, that all pregnancies must be taken to term. “I am unapologetically pro-life,” she said, leaving no room for anyone with an opposing view or for those who believe in a level playing field. She’s willing to change up the rules of our elections to get her way.
It is, in our view, sadly hypocritical.