When Ohio lawmakers return to session this week, Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., will assume his new role as chair of the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee, tasked with progressing contentious legislation that could pre-empt an abortion-rights initiative expected to make the November ballot.
Plummer replaces Rep. Steve Wiggam, R-Wayne County, as the chief overseer of House Joint Resolution 1, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would raise the voter threshold required to amend the Ohio Constitution to 60%, rather than the simple majority required since Ohio first adopted the citizen initiative process in 1912. The resolution, too, would make it harder for those citizen’s initiatives to get on the ballot in the first place.
The measure has drawn scorn from Democratic legislators and abortion-rights advocates alike. Organizations like the ACLU of Ohio view the legislation as a direct attack on the efforts of Protect Choice Ohio, a coalition of abortion-rights activists who hope to hope to have Ohioans vote on an amendment to protect abortion access on the ballot this November.
Republicans who back the bill hope to increase the voter threshold before Ohioans can vote on the abortion-rights amendment — and have introduced Senate Bill 92, a measure that would create a special election this August, to do so. The Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly needs both chambers to pass both measures by May 10 to get on the impromptu August ballot.
Plummer talked with the Dayton Daily News ahead of HJR1′s proponent and opponent testimony scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
Question | Dayton Daily News: Why were you picked to chair the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee after Wiggam was removed?
Answer | Rep. Phil Plummer: That’s a great question. They didn’t ask me, they just assigned it to me. So, your guess is as good as mine. I found out about it when you did! Pretty funny.
Q | DDN: In your view, how important is House Joint Resolution 1?
A | Plummer: I think it’s very important just to protect our constitution and keep the outside big money and special interest groups from changing our constitution. You know, it’s a sacred document and we just have to keep it protected.
Q | DDN: How long has changing the voter threshold for constitutional amendments been a priority for Ohio Republicans?
A | Plummer: I think it’s only been in the last year of Assembly that we really started talking about it. I didn’t hear much chatter about it prior to that.
Q | DDN: What made that a priority?
A | Plummer: I don’t know, I’d have to ask the bill’s sponsor. I mean, obviously they’re worried about certain issues getting ingrained in our constitution that can be just dealt with by public policy instead of in our constitution.
Q | DDN: Why do you prefer instating a 60% supermajority threshold instead of the longstanding simple majority threshold that’s currently in place?
A | Plummer: Just because, like I said, it’s usually driven by outside money and special interest groups, and it should be up to Ohioans. So, it’s 60% — it still can be done if the majority of Ohioans want it done, it’s not impossible. So, if it’s that big of an issue for people, we can still put it in the constitution with 60%
Keep in mind, I haven’t been knee deep in this, I just inherited it, so I’m just trying to play catch-up on all of it also. This is basically just my opinions, I don’t know what everybody else’s thought process is totally.
Q | DDN: As you’re playing catch-up, how do you plan to move the bill through committee … and how does that contrast with Wiggam’s approach?
A | Plummer: I don’t know why Wiggam didn’t move the bill, but I’m gonna move the bill… It is a process, so I’m just going to take care of what I can control. We had sponsor testimony already under Wiggam, Tuesday we’re having proponent testimony, Wednesday we’re having opponent testimony, so I’m just gonna do what my job description asked me to do and have the hearings.
You can’t vote on it until you have the hearings, right? So it’s just a step-by-step process.
Q | DDN: What was the discharge petition going around at the turn of the month and did you support that then?
A | Plummer: Yeah, I signed the discharge petition, I think I was no. 10 on the list, somewhere in that area. Discharge petition, if you get 50 signatures you can discharge the bill directly to the floor. This is only the second time I’ve really seen this happen at my tenure at the Statehouse — it usually is not successful. But it kinda just adds pressure to the Speaker by letting the speaker know, ‘Hey, members are really interested in this. We want to see this get moving.’
Q | DDN: But you prefer that it goes through the committee and you don’t foresee a discharge petition moving forward?
A | Plummer: Yeah, I prefer it to go through the committee and everybody have their right to express their opinions on it and do things the proper way, that’s my path forward. But, at first people were worried they weren’t going to get that opportunity so they dropped the discharge petition as a back-up plan.
Q | DDN: How much of HJR1 is about the abortion amendment, and do you think House Republicans would be doing this otherwise?
A | Plummer: You know, it’s certainly a piece of it, but I like to look at it more as just preserving our constitution. You could get other issues thrown into our constitution that don’t need to be in there that we can handle through the legislative process. It’s a piece of it, but it’s not the sole driving force.
Q | DDN: What would you say to those whose argument against HJR1 is that making it harder to amend the state constitution dilutes the voting power of Ohioans?
A | Plummer: I see it as a two way street here. If they pass something and get it into the constitution at 60%, it would be harder for somebody to take it out, so they also pick up a win there.
Q | DDN: Is (abortion access) something you feel the majority of Ohioans should have a say in?
A | Plummer: I do, but also, if we’re going to get into the abortion debate, there could be certain areas there that people could compromise on also, right? We never really got to that point in a good abortion debate. I don’t know the polling off the top of my head, but some people want exceptions, some people are good with exceptions. So, there’s just a lot of work to do in all of these areas and I hate to see these things rushed through.
Q | DDN: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A | Plummer: I’d just like to let everybody know that I’m going to have a fair process, everybody’s voice will be heard, and we’ll vet these bills out properly and the elected members will decide, and we’ll see where the plane lands. There’s a lot of rumors on both sides, but you can’t get to the final vote until you run the process, and I’m going to run the process.