SUDDES: Campaign donations: The alpha and the omega of what happens at the Statehouse

Forget those silly charts about “how a bill becomes law” in the Ohio General Assembly: Instead, follow the Statehouse scandal trial in Cincinnati, which offers Ohioans a great lesson in how things really work in Columbus.

At issue: Alleged corruption in connection with General Assembly passage in 2019 of House Bill 6, a financial bailout of cash-bleeding nuclear power plants originally owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.

On trial for alleged wrongdoing in connection with HB 6′s passage are former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican from Perry County’s Glenford, and former Republican State Chair Matt Borges, of Bexley. Both Householder and Borges are presumed innocent unless a jury decides otherwise.

Based on the trial evidence so far, Ohio’s General Assembly, as an institution, and most of Ohio’s gaggle of statewide elected executive officers, are as indifferent as it’s possible to be about the sleazy way business gets done at the Statehouse .

The alpha and the omega of what happens at the Statehouse are campaign donations by special interests and lobbying by those interests for legislative favors (favors at the expense of utility ratepayers, borrowers, hourly workers -- blue-collar Ohioans generally).

True, Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that outlawed campaign donation limits on corporations, makes it hard to police political money.

Similarly, Ohio’s weak lobbying registration laws tell voters next to nothing about how much special interests spend on Statehouse lobbyists each year. FirstEnergy at one time fielded roughly 20 lobbyists a session at the Statehouse -- and it wasn’t to give cozy talks about Reddy Kilowatt.

MEANWHILE: By now, just about every Ohioan has heard about the Norfolk Southern Railway’s Feb. 3 derailment in Columbiana County’s East Palestine (“palace-teen”), near the Pennsylvania border, which leaked toxic chemicals into the air and water.

Clean-up is underway amid strong concerns about potential after-effects on human and animal health in East Palestine and its vicinity, and on downstream water supplies.

Coincidentally, legislation of vital interest to both Norfolk Southern and to the bipartisan Cincinnati Establishment is now pending in Ohio’s House.

Backdrop: Cincinnati is the only municipality in the United States that owns an interstate railroad, the Cincinnati Southern Railway. The 337-mile railroad reaches south from Cincinnati through Kentucky to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It opened to traffic in 1880. Cincinnati built the road to preserve and expand the city’s trade links to the South. Norfolk Southern has long leased the railroad from the city; as many as 30 trains a day traverse the route, according to Norfolk Southern.

Cincinnati annually receives about $25 million in rent from Norfolk Southern. Now on the table is a deal, which would require Cincinnati voters’ OK, to sell the Cincinnati Southern to Norfolk Southern for $1.62 billion. That money would be placed in a trust whose income could be spent only on existing Cincinnati infrastructure. Annual income to the city from investing the trust is predicted to be significantly more than annual income from rent.

As noted, city voters would have to approve the sale. And the General Assembly, through provisions in Ohio’s two-year transportation budget, now pending in the House Finance Committee, must tweak state law to help carry out the deal.

Among other features, the transportation budget would let Cincinnati’s railway board, appointed by the mayor, “hire managers, administrative staff, agents, attorneys, and employees, and engage advisors” to help oversee the trust holding the sale’s proceeds, the Legislative Service Commission reports.

Ohio’s largest employer, the Cleveland Clinic, has six Statehouse lobbyists. Cincinnati’s city railway board has ten. The Cincinnati Establishment takes no chances.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at

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