Hearings will resume this week on proposed Ohio legislation aiming to pre-empt an effort to enshrine abortion rights in the Ohio Constitution by raising the bar for constitutional amendments before the abortion measure goes to voters in November.
Committee hearings are scheduled for Tuesday on three pieces of Republican-backed legislation:
- House Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 2, two parallel proposals to amend the constitution to require future constitutional amendments to be approved by at least 60% of voters.
- Senate Bill 92, which would give the General Assembly the power to call for a special election in August to vote on legislature-driven constitutional amendment and set aside a $20 million budget to do so.
These measures will need to pass by May 10 to create the August election and get the constitutional amendment on it.
If that happens it could curtail the efforts of Protect Choice Ohio, a coalition of abortion-rights activists who, in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, has been collecting signatures on a petition that could, under current law, put a constitutional amendment protecting abortion access on the ballot this November with approval from a simple majority of Ohioans.
Last year, polls showed that a majority of Ohioans supported abortion access, but not necessarily 60%. Pollsters from Baldwin Wallace estimated that 59.1% of Ohioans would vote to enshrine protections in the constitution.
Credit: HOUSE MAJORITY COMMS
Credit: HOUSE MAJORITY COMMS
Hearings on HJR1 will be overseen by Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., who will take over as chair of the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee after former Chair Rep. Steve Wiggam, R-Wayne County, was removed by Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens.
Stephens removed Wiggam saying he let the bill sit idle for weeks in committee then signed a discharge petition to have HJR1 bypass his own committee and move immediately to the House floor for a vote without proponent or opponent testimony. Wiggam accused Stephens of feigning support for HJR1 and highlighted a rumored deal Stephens made with Democrats to intentionally squash a 60% threshold amendment in exchange for support for his speakership.
Stephens said HJR1 is a caucus priority, but he believes changes to the Ohio Constitution “should only result from an honest, open and public debate,” which he believes is the purpose of the committee.
Plummer assumes his role after being hand-picked by Stephens, despite the fact that he, too, signed the discharge petition. When asked why he was chosen to replace Wiggam, Plummer said, “They didn’t ask me, they just assigned it to me. So, your guess is as good as mine.”
“I don’t know why Wiggam didn’t move the bill, but I’m gonna move the bill,” Plummer said. “I’m just gonna do what my job description asked me to do and have the hearings.”
Plummer acknowledged that the abortion initiative is a motivating factor for the resolution, but said, “I like to look at it more as just preserving our constitution.”
Rep. Ismail Mohamed, D-Columbus, ranking member of the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee, said his caucus is “wholeheartedly” opposed to HJR1.
“All of these things make it nearly impossible for Ohioans to have the right to change the constitution, not only for reproductive freedom but also a lot of ballot initiatives that are sort of in process right now,” Mohamed said. “Politicians are not always responsive to the concerns of everyday citizens. They are to some degree, but we’ve seen time and time again that politics and partisanship can sort of drag the process very slowly.”
State Sen. Bill DeMora, D-Columbus, the lone Democrat on the Senate General Government Committee that oversees SJR2 and SB92, noted Republicans’ sweeping election reform bill eliminated August elections with only one unrelated exception, citing excessive cost and low voter turnout. The bill was passed late last year by a party-line vote and went into effect on April 7.
“I mean, back in lame duck just a few months ago, Republicans outlawed virtually all August special elections except for very rare cases,” he said. “And now here they are just a few months later and they want to have an August special election because they know that the pro-choice ballot issue is going to make the ballot and it’s going to pass.”
Sitting alongside DeMora on the Senate General Government committee are Majority Floor Leader Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and Majority Whip Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, the primary co-sponsors of SJR2 and SB95.
Gavarone said she views SJR2 as a way to protect the Ohio Constitution from out-of-state interest groups that “are continuing their attempts to manipulate our founding document.”
“Ohio law currently allows some August special elections to take place and Senate Bill 92 would simply add one more — the ability for Ohioans to vote on legislature-initiated constitutional amendment issues,” Gavarone said. “I want to get this issue before Ohioans as quickly as possible. August is the earliest we are able to give Ohio’s voters the opportunity to make their voices heard on this issue.”
DeMora said the money that would be set aside for a special election would be better spent somewhere else.
“You know how many people can be served with $20 million that we’re wasting on a (special election) where nobody is going to turn out to vote just so (Republican lawmakers) can be anti-choice when a vast majority of Ohioans are pro-choice?” DeMora said.
Constitutional change debate
ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels said his group opposes HJR1 and SJR2 as a direct attack on abortion rights and future initiatives that might call for fairer legislative districts.
“Even If you take abortion and gerrymandering out of the equation, we just simply don’t think proponents have made any good case as to why it should change,” Daniels said. He argued that current rules already exclude plenty of would-be ballot initiatives that cannot progress past the petitioning stage.
In SJR2′s second committee hearing on March 29, 12 testimonies were filed in support of raising the voter threshold to 60% for constitutional amendments, which included input from the Ohio Restaurant Association, Ohio Right to Life, American Center for Law & Justice and the Buckeye Firearms Association, among others.
Lee Strang, a professor of law & values at the University of Toledo College of Law, said he believes a higher threshold would bring legal stability.
Strang said Ohio adopted the initiative amendment process in 1912 largely because, at that time, the state legislature was unresponsive to average Ohioans. “(It) allows Ohio citizens to circumvent existing law-making structures,” he said.
“However, the initiative process has become systemically subject to abuse because of its ease of passage by majority vote,” Strang said, adding that the state constitution was vulnerable to “large businesses using the initiative process to enshrine their interests in the Constitution (and) out-of-state interests pouring money into Ohio constitutional amendment debates.”
Strang said a 60% threshold would promote stability because a proposed amendment couldn’t be passed without support across political parties, socio-economic backgrounds and geographical regions. “That itself is healthy; and it also contributes to the amendment’s stability because it won’t be challenged a year or two later and reversed by fifty-one percent.”
Since 2002, there have only been three citizen-petition amendments that passed with 60% of the vote. In 2017, 83% of voters supported enshrining rights for crime victims; in 2011, 66% of Ohioans voted to ensure they can choose their healthcare; and, in 2006, 62% of Ohioans voted to define marriage as a monogamous union between a man and a woman.
In that same time frame, only two other citizen-petition amendments passed with a majority of votes: 2009′s amendment allowing casinos (53% support) and 2006′s amendment raising minimum wage (57%).