Senate passes measures seeking to amend Ohio Constitution, pre-empt abortion-rights vote; House to vote next Thursday

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

The Ohio Senate on Wednesday passed measures aiming to create a statewide special election this August so that Ohioans can vote on raising the threshold required to amend the state constitution ahead of the expected abortion-rights amendment initiative this November.

The Ohio House is expected to take up the issues next Thursday after this week’s hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Senators approved Senate Joint Resolution 2 along party lines, with all 26 Republicans supporting it and all seven Democrats opposing it. SJR 2 would create a proposed constitutional amendment that will, if approved by a simple majority of Ohioans in the next election, raise the voter threshold required to amend the constitution to 60% and require citizen petition initiatives that propose to amend the constitution obtain signatures from 5% of all voters in each of the state’s 88 counties.

Currently, amendments pass with a simple majority and petitioners are required to collect signatures from 5% of voters in just 44 of the state’s counties.

Votes were 25-8 in favor of Senate Bill 92, with only Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, siding with Democrats. That bill appropriates $20 million to hold a special election this August for the express purpose of having Ohioans vote on raising the threshold, potentially changing the rules before Ohioans can vote to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution this November.

Both measures have identical legislation expected to be voted on by the Republican-majority House Thursday. The resolution needs support from 3/5 of the entire Ohio General Assembly in order to make its way on the ballot; the bill calling for a special election needs to be signed by Gov. Mike DeWine before May 10.

The Senate Vote

In Senate committee hearings, over 60 opponents testified against SJR2, compared to 14 proponents; SB92 had no proponent testimony. Both measures were approved by the committee early Wednesday.

Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, told her colleagues before the SJR2 vote that it was time to protect the Ohio Constitution from special interest groups, citing the 2009 amendment where 53% of voters legalized casinos after a well-funded campaign. Gavarone noted that Ohio is in the minority of states that allow citizens to have a direct channel to amend their state’s constitution, and among even fewer that allow them to do so with a simple 50% majority.

Sen. Bill DeMora, D-Columbus, argued that the resolution would do little to dissuade special interest groups on its own, and would instead effectively take direct access to the state constitution away from Ohioans — nearly guaranteeing that all future amendments will be pursued directly by the special interests that the resolution’s proponents hope to exclude.

Senate Democrats characterized SB92 as a direct attack on abortion rights that they say are popular with a majority of Ohioans. Democrats pointed to a Republican-backed election reform bill, effective just this month, that effectively eliminated August special elections on the grounds that those elections are expensive, have low turnouts, and add stress to local boards of elections. As such, Democrats suggested that $20 million could go to better causes.

Senate Majority Leader Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, said that he’d expect voter turnout to be markedly higher than any other August special election before, given this election would feature a “bonafide statewide question,” and an important one at that.

McColley took issue with the Democrats’ characterization of the measures as undemocratic. McColley said he doesn’t understand how something can be undemocratic when, ultimately, the resolution would only be enacted if a simple majority of voters approve the amendment this August.

The Hearings

Wednesday’s House hearing on House Joint Resolution 1, a copy of SJR2, was contentious, as the resolution’s primary sponsor Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, motioned to bring the resolution to a committee vote before all opponents who showed up to testify got a chance to be heard.

“We have over 100 witness who have submitted testimony, we have dozens who still have not provided their testimony to this committee; to force this to a vote in the way that you are doing is undemocratic, it is unfair and, frankly, it is a slap in the face not only to democracy but to the people who we represent and the people who have taken the time to come to this Statehouse and have their voice heard. This is absolutely outrageous,” said House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington.

The committee voted 7-6 to move the resolution to a vote on the House floor. The crowd of opponents chanted “Shame” as the final votes poured in.

Proponents of raising the threshold

Nine proponents of HJR1 testified Tuesday before the House Constitutional Resolutions Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp. Supporters included End Abortion Ohio, Ohio Restaurant Association, Center for Christian Virtue and Cincinnati Right to Life.

Opportunity Solution Project’s Beau Euton, who testified in support of the resolution, characterized HJR1 as common sense reform that has strong roots in American constitutionalism.

Euton told members of the committee that any policy enshrined in the state constitution ought to have broad support, and reasoned that the Ohio Constitution should therefore be more difficult to change, akin to the federal constitution. Euton said special interest groups have preyed on the 18 states like Ohio that have a process for citizens to bypass the legislative process and amend the constitution directly.

“Across the country, special interests have hijacked these processes and used them as their own business development tools,” Euton said. “When an initiative can be bought by billionaires from California or anywhere else, and passed by a slim majority here in Ohio, it isn’t about the will of the voter, it’s about the wallet of the funder.”

Opponents of raising the threshold

Individuals and groups who opposed amending the constitution in both House and Senate committees include the ACLU of Ohio, The Ohio Education Association and the League of Women’s voters.

Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who represents over a million union-affiliated Ohioans, characterized HJR1 as an unnecessary and divisive effort and questioned its proponents’ belief that it would protect the Ohio Constitution from out-of-state special interests.

“This resolution does nothing to keep that from happening, and in fact favors well-funded special interests who can afford to chance obtaining a 60% vote threshold,” Burga said. “HJR1 will make it almost impossible for anyone except big-monied interests to successfully get to the ballot and pass a ballot initiative in Ohio.”

August election testimony

The five testimonies in opposition of SB92 included Emily Cole, the executive director for Ohio Families Unite for Political Action and Change, who characterized the bill as a “a dishonest and bad-faith effort to change the rules, again, in order to make it harder for Ohioans to protect our freedoms.”

“There are a lot of things Ohioans would love for you to allocate $20 million towards, including fully funding our schools, providing mental healthcare, enhancing opportunities for Ohio’s children, caring for Ohioans aging in place, and so on and so forth,” Cole said.

The bill had no proponent testimony.

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