The small back and forth of off-year politics

About 1:15 p.m. Thursday, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, a suburban Akron Republican, announced she’d formed a Mary Taylor for Governor Committee. Around 4:15, the Ohio Democratic Party issued a statement knocking Taylor’s “clueless campaign announcement.” (Democrats’ beef: The world of hurt Ohio’s supposedly in because of Taylor’s 2010 and 2014 running mate, Republican Gov. John Kasich.)

That’s how the Lazy Susan turns in what passes for politicking in non-election years. Point, counter-point. Politician X “mentioned for” governor, Politician Y “mentioned for” the Senate. The daily volleys can remind bystanders of what someone said of Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom – “a show about nothing.”

Good example of minor-league politicking: Kasich will deliver this year’s State of the State speech in Sandusky April 4. Like earlier governors, Kasich gave his 2011 State of the State to a joint Senate-House session at the Statehouse. Then, in a shrewd move, Kasich decided to give the speech outside Columbus: Steubenville (2012); Lima (2013); Medina (2014); Wilmington (2015); Marietta (2016). Last week, two Senate Democrats, 26 House Democrats and 12 (some of the usual suspects) House Republicans opposed a resolution authorizing a joint session in Sandusky. (It passed the Senate 31-2, the House, 59-38.) If a Democrat were governor, House Democrats would ooh and ah over a Sandusky session. Maybe voting “no” helped some of them forget their caucus’s membership is at a 50-year low.

Symbolic politics don’t put food on anyone’s table, except maybe on the TV trays of political consultants. Whether the legislature meets in Columbus or Sandusky – that’s a sideshow. It’s what the legislature does or doesn’t do when it does meet – that’s the main event.

Electric utilities field more than 50 Columbus lobbyists. As of last week, 17 represented FirstEnergy, including Franklin County Republican Chair Douglas J. Preisse; seven represented American Electric Power, with five more representing AEP's Ohio Power unit (among Ohio Power's: Kasich's 20-year congressional chief of staff, Donald Thibaut); nine lobbyists represented Dayton Power and Light; and 13 represented Duke Energy.

The David facing Goliath is the Office of the Consumers’ Counsel, which speaks for residential ratepayers. Counsel Bruce Weston said in testimony prepared for an Ohio House Finance subcommittee that his agency “provides (Ohio’s) residential utility consumers with a voice in cases where they otherwise would have little or none.” The office isn’t funded by taxes but by a fee utilities pay “equivalent to less than a dollar a year for a typical residential customer.”

Ohioans need all the help they can get. Ohio “regulators” are utility-friendly. Weston said “33 states are identified with lower average residential electric rates than Ohio”; “since 2008, Ohioans have experienced the second greatest increase in their electric rates compared to their counterparts in other … (deregulated) states”; and “Ohio electric utilities have been authorized to collect ($14.7 billion in subsidies) from consumers since 2000.”

A 2011 Republican budget rider forbids the Counsel to operate a call center to take consumer complaints, and requires the Counsel to forward any complaint calls it does get to a Public Utilities Commission of Ohio call center. In case you’ve forgotten, the PUCO approves utility rates.

That’s ridiculous – unless you aim to frustrate time-squeezed Ohioans. Weston wants legislators to let the Counsel’s office assist consumers who call with complaints, or refer them to the PUCO. Especially in House districts with higher-than-statewide poverty rates, such as Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s and Finance Chair Ryan Smith’s, letting the Consumers’ Counsel have a call center would help Ohioans protect their wallets – if home-folks, not big utilities, are a legislative priority.

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