Laura A. Bischoff The Columbus Dispatch As Ohio faces the biggest public corruption case in the…
COLUMBUS, Ohio—Following the July arrest of then-House Speaker Larry Householder on a charge he oversaw a bribery scheme to pass House Bill 6, dozens of Ohio lawmakers quickly signed on as co-sponsors of bills to repeal the tainted energy law.
But months later, it’s still unclear what, if anything, the Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly will do about HB6 before the legislative session ends in December and the public starts paying for a $1 billion-plus bailout of two nuclear power plants in January.
The main reason, lawmakers and observers say, is because – much like congressional Republicans’ unsuccessful attempts to repeal Obamacare in 2017 – there’s no consensus among GOP lawmakers on what, if anything, to replace HB6 with.
Some favor a straight repeal of HB6. Others think it should be replaced, and at least a few believe nothing at all should be done to alter it.
“They are all over the place,” said state Rep. Mark Romanchuk of Richland County about his fellow Republicans.
There are other reasons as well. Even Republicans who favor repealing and replacing House Bill 6 say they need time to study HB6, an enormously complex law that goes far beyond the nuclear bailout, and make sure that any changes they make to it won’t have unintended consequences for Ohioans.
Another factor is that the Senate appears to be leaving it up to the House to decide what to do, as HB6 originated in that chamber. And the House is led by Bob Cupp, a newly elected House speaker who is living up to his reputation for acting deliberatively.
“You’ve got Republicans in the caucus who think ‘This is all just going to blow over — if we just stonewall for long enough, people will forget about it,’” said state Rep. David Leland, a Columbus Democrat. “And then you’ve got people who want to do something, but they’re not sure what they want to do. And then you’ve got a speaker who doesn’t know what he wants to do. It’s a multi-faceted problem for the Republican caucus.”
Taking their time
Soon after that, Cupp was elected and quickly formed a study committee to look into repealing and replacing HB6. But that committee has wrapped up hearings on the repeal bills until after Election Day.
The panel’s chair, state Rep. Jim Hoops, told reporters last week that concerns have been raised that repealing the law without replacing it could lead to unwanted consequences, and committee members want to hear more testimony before deciding what to do.
“You don’t want to react so quickly that you end up making a bigger mess,” said Hoops, a veteran GOP lawmaker who voted for HB6, during a separate interview last month.
Besides the nuclear bailout, there are a lot of other parts of HB6 that lawmakers have to decide whether to keep – including (among many other things): gutting the state’s renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards for utilities, revising public subsidies for some coal and solar plants, allowing FirstEnergy Corp. and other utilities to lock in a guaranteed level of ratepayer revenue for years to come (a process called “decoupling”), and even helping county fairs reduce their electric bills.
“It’s a big, big, big bill,” said state Rep. Niraj Antani, a Dayton-area Republican. “The process [of passing HB6] the first time was bad, and the process this time should be fair. And everyone should have their voices heard.”
When Cupp spokeswoman Taylor Jach was asked repeatedly what the speaker’s thoughts are about HB6 and why no action has been taken so far, she didn’t directly answer the question.
Instead, Jach provided a statement not from Cupp, but from Hoops, stating in part: “Our focus has been to have thoughtful and thorough deliberations for repealing and replacing House Bill 6. There are several components to House Bill 6. We’ve had some very robust hearings and are continuing our review of the issues.”
Many Republican lawmakers are leery of a straight repeal of HB6 particularly because of a memo circulated by House Majority Leader Bill Seitz from the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission indicating that the law reduces Ohioans’ electricity costs by a total of $2.3 billion. That’s because HB6 guts the state’s renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards, which Ohioans have paid a fee to support since 2008.
A number of House Republicans are opposed in principle to just about any move that would raise Ohioans’ electricity bills, so such a report makes them deeply skeptical of a straight repeal of HB6, as that would restore the green-energy standards.
“I think that’s weighing on people’s minds, that memo,” Romanchuk said.
However, LSC staffers have noted that $2.3 billion figure doesn’t include customer savings from energy-efficiency programs. HB6 critics say that when those savings are factored in, repealing the bill outright would actually save Ohioans money — like spending $5 on a coupon book that offers $10 in discounts. Seitz and other HB6 proponents dispute the critics’ calculations.
One possible way forward has been offered by Romanchuk, a member of the House’s HB6 study committee who voted against the bill last year.
Late last month, Romanchuk introduced House Bill 772, which would repeal the nuclear, solar, and coal subsidies included in HB6, as well as the “decoupling” provision. It would also order refunds for the coal and decoupling provisions, which have already been in place for months. The rest of HB6, including scrapping the state’s green-energy standards, would be preserved.
In an interview, Romanchuk said he doesn’t know how likely it is that HB772 will pass, as he hasn’t yet gotten feedback from Cupp and other House leaders about it.
He said the criticism over the House’s inaction on HB6 so far is “appropriate.”
“I don’t know why it’s taken so long,” he said. “Virtually the same members voted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the original bill. We don’t need to go back over everything again — we’ve already voted on it. We kind of know what’s in the bill.”
What Democrats want
Ohio House Democrats, for the most part, say their priority is getting House Bill 6 repealed as soon as possible. Only after the law is repealed should lawmakers start discussing a replacement bill, said caucus spokeswoman Amber Epling.
“I think ultimately we’re all going be in favor of some sort of a replacement,” Leland said of his caucus. “But what that means and where we’re going and what we’re doing — I think it still needs to be worked out.”
Leland called Romanchuk’s bill “an interesting starting point.” While most House Democrats favor bringing back the state’s green-energy mandates, Leland said he, at least, is open to talking about changing how those mandates work.
“Maybe there’s a better way of doing it,” he said.
What happens now
Hoops said when the House’s HB6 study committee reconvenes after the general election, they will continue to hear testimony from several more witnesses before potentially sending an HB6 repeal and/or replacement bill to the House floor.
That would likely leave only 2-3 weeks during the legislature’s lame-duck session for any changes to pass the House, make their way through the Senate, and be signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine, who has previously called for repealing HB6.
An additional wrinkle is that any bill to stop the nuclear bailout fee from being imposed in January would require not just a majority vote from both the House and Senate, but two-thirds support. That’s the threshold needed to waive the usual 90-day waiting period for newly signed bills to take effect in Ohio.
And there’s still a possibility that lawmakers will decide to do nothing, said Kevin Murray, executive director of the Industrial Energy Users of Ohio, who spoke in favor of HB6 last year.
“Quite frankly, once we get past the general election, I think there will be less pressure on the General Assembly to do anything at all,” Murray said.