Ohioans flooded with ads as battle heats up over effort to repeal energy law

The warnings are ominous: the Chinese are trying to steal Ohioans’ personal information and meddle in elections.

In recent weeks, thousands of Ohioans have received mailers at their homes with the warning, and the campaign is just getting started.

“In the coming weeks, don’t give the Chinese government your personal information, email, cell phone, address or sign your name on their petition. China is quietly invading our energy grid and coming for our Ohio jobs,” one of the fliers says in large capital letters.

So, what’s really going on?

It is a counter-campaign run by allies of Akron-based First Energy Solutions to block a statewide referendum on a new law that promises to deliver a $1 billion bailout to FES and others. Ohioans for Energy Security and Generation Now are two political groups trying to keep House Bill 6 in place.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is in the field now trying to collect 265,774 valid voter signatures in at least 44 of 88 counties by Oct. 21 to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. If the issue makes the ballot, the law will be held in abeyance until Ohio voters decide whether to repeal it.

Related: Ohioans may vote on whether to repeal the new energy law

“That’d be enough to close the nuclear plants. That’s their goal,” said Ohioans for Energy Security spokesman Carlo LoParo, the group running ads alleging the Chinese are behind the referendum.

LoParo said companies that own natural gas-fired power plants, financed in part by a bank owned by the Chinese government, are backing the repeal.

The fight over the petitions is intense

A petition circulator filed a police report in suburban Columbus last week alleging he was assaulted by a woman working on behalf of the anti-petition forces.

Ohio Citizen Action, a non-profit environmental group that opposed House Bill 6, fired off a letter to Ohioans for Energy Security on Sept. 11, calling on the campaign to cease and desist efforts to stop voters from signing the referendum petition.

“Those supporting the bailout of Ohio’s nuclear power plants have stooped to a new low,” said Ohio Citizen Action Director Rachael Belz in a written statement. “Individuals are being sent to block a voter’s Constitutional right to sign a petition through confusion and intimidation. Sounds like they know Ohioans are ready to sign and are prepared to stop at nothing to protect the benefits of their corporate bailout.”

She added that claims that the petition is driven by agents of a foreign government are false and defamatory.

Donald Brey, attorney for Ohioans for Energy Security, said in a response to Belz that the Chinese government suppresses free speech but “Ohioans for Energy Security intends to continue to exercise its First Amendment rights, and has no intention of accepting your request, essentially, to ‘shut up and go away.’”

Generation Now, a dark money group, spent $9.5 million on ads earlier this year to sway the public and lawmakers to favor HB6 and Ohioans for Energy Security has spent another $3.3 million on radio, TV and digital ads to warn Ohioans against signing the referendum petition, according to an ad tracking service.

LoParo declined to disclose the size of the group’s ad buys.

Related: Big money backs energy bill, consumer groups oppose it

FES filed suit against Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts and others to try to stop the petition effort. The utility company is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to stop the petition because the Ohio Constitution prohibits referenda on laws that include taxes. HB6 applies an 85-cent per month charge to residential electric utility bills, which FES is arguing is a tax instead of a rate increase.

The new law, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on July 23, started and ended as a way to help FES keep open two power plants along Lake Erie that had been slated for shutdown.

Related: Plans canceled to send state plane to pick up lawmakers for key energy bill vote

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, who pushed for HB6 to become law, told reporters last month that the Chinese are trying to take over the electricity grid. “The only folks that have a tremendous interest in closing down our nuclear power plants, where Ohio generates its energy and where there are Ohio jobs, are people from outside the state of Ohio who want to monopolize our grid. And who are they? They’re foreign nationals from China.”

Timeline of House Bill 6

March 2018: FirstEnergy Solutions, a former subsidiary of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to shut down its nuclear power plants along Lake Erie.

April 2019: House Speaker Larry Householder detailed plans for an energy bill that would charge new fees to consumers statewide to create a fund to help keep FirstEnergy Solutions' two nuclear power plants open.

July 2019: Lawmakers passed the amended bill, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law on July 23.

August 2019: Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts got the green light to circulate petitions to put HB6 up for a referendum vote in November 2020.

September 2019: FES filed a lawsuit to block the referendum campaign.

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