HB 6 – The fight is not over in Ohio

Ohio’s legislature passed FirstEnergy Solutions’ bailout bill last month over deafening and unusually widespread opposition. House Bill 6 not only grants the bankrupt energy company $150 million a year in ratepayer funds to bail out its uneconomic nuclear plants, it also subsidizes dirty coal units and guts the state’s clean energy industry that has created 112,000 jobs, with more than 5,000 in 2018 alone.

For FirstEnergy, it was a brilliant twofer — obtain massive subsidies and stifle competition. But it looks like Ohioans may have the final say in the voting booth.

Ripe for a referendum

The bill’s supporters fell into a pretty niche minority — FirstEnergy executives and investors, other Ohio utilities, employees who work at the company’s plants and their unions, and finally, the local communities that would have been impacted by closing the plants.

On the other hand, HB 6 was opposed by nearly everyone else — residential consumers, low-income consumers, manufacturers, the natural gas industry, environmentalists, AARP and conservative free-market advocates. These groups are now mounting a referendum effort to overturn the bill and plan to place the issue on the November 2020 ballot.

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The timing of the referendum is important. Presidential elections spark huge turnout, and Ohio is a perennial battleground state. And experts say that referenda are more likely to pass in high turnout elections. Opinion polls showed that 73% of Ohio Republicans, 67% of Democrats and 73% of independents opposed the FirstEnergy bailout bill.

The referendum language is important too. Voters will be asked the simple question: “Should HB 6 go into effect?”

FirstEnergy’s duplicity will be another factor. FirstEnergy and its allies — including the Wall Street hedge funds who will own FirstEnergy Solutions after it emerges from bankruptcy — poured an estimated $60 million into their effort to pass the bill. Its campaign was a case study in doublespeak and self-serving politics. For example, the company consistently cited the welfare of its employees as justification for the bailout. But the very day the bill passed, FirstEnergy canceled the labor contracts for workers at the affected nuclear plants, putting jobs and pensions at risk for the impacted workers.

More to come

HB 6 was titled by its sponsors, the “Ohio Clean Air Program Act.” A more accurate name would have been the “FirstEnergy Hot Air Bailout Act.” The company benefitted from the legislature’s ability to act against the interest and will of the people, but the speed with which opponents organized a referendum effort should concern FirstEnergy, its shareholders and the legislators that passed this horrible bill.

The Attorney General has asked the referendum organizers to revise the summary language that describes what the bill does. Once the new language has been accepted, petition circulation efforts will kick off full-force to collect the necessary signatures to put this critical issue before voters. The energy behind the referendum effort is strong and palpable. And you know what they say about payback.

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