Legislature kicks locals on fracking

The legislature just made it harder for anyone to use local ballot issues to fight fracking, thanks to a bill rammed through the legislature, House Bill 463, which Gov. John R. Kasich signed Wednesday.

That’s not the only problem that mars the 67-page Christmas tree, which passed Dec. 8. Reprehensibly, the bill also weakens Ohio’s housing-discrimination law.

As to the environment, HB 463 takes aim at attempts to propose county charters, or city or village ballot issues, that would ban fracking or any other local initiative that would run counter to statewide law (example: ballot issues to soften marijuana penalties).

HB 463 gives Boards of Elections and the secretary of state power to decide if a municipal initiative or proposed county charter fails to follow proper procedures for reaching the ballot – or (this is key) tries to claim local control over powers the state reserves for itself. (A 2004 law gives the state sole authority over oil and gas production.) If a ballot issue does either, HB 463 allows elections boards and the secretary to keep it off the ballot.

Maybe boards should umpire process stuff (e.g., validating signatures). But as to whether a ballot issue aims to do is legal, courts should decide that after voters pass that issue, if they do.

The backdrop: In 2015, voters in Athens, Fulton (Wauseon) and Medina counties signed petitions proposing county charters they wanted on the ballot. (Ohio’s only charter counties are Cuyahoga and Summit, which elect county executives). The 2015 proposals didn’t make changes in each county’s government structure; for example, an executive wouldn’t have replaced county commissioners. But, Ohio’s Supreme Court said, the proposed Athens, Fulton and Medina charters would’ve “effectively (banned) high-volume hydraulic fracking as a method of oil and gas extraction (in each county).”

Secretary of State Jon Husted ruled the proposals off the ballot. He said Ohio law gives sole authority over oil and gas production to the state. And Husted said the proposals didn’t include required specifics about which county officeholders the proposed charter counties would elect, etc.

The Supreme Court ruled Husted didn’t have the authority to decide the oil-and-gas angle – but said he was correct in deciding the charters lacked required specifics about county officeholders, keeping the initiatives off the ballot. In 2016, the court again backed refusals by elections boards in Athens, Meigs (Pomeroy) and Portage (Ravenna) counties to place similar proposed charters on the ballot.

But what the Supreme Court didn’t specifically decide was this: Whether any officeholder or any government agency could keep a proposed county charter off the ballot because the proposed charter tried to assume power over things the state’s reserved for itself (e.g., fracking).

That’s where HB 463 comes in. It gives Boards of Elections power to yank an initiative if it’d give a city or village more municipal home rule power than Ohio’s constitution authorizes. And HB 463 says a county charter can be kept off the ballot if it tries to assume power the state doesn’t give counties.

A range of lobbies, with the Statehouse oil-and-gas crowd at or near the head of the parade, backed the anti-voter-initiative amendment. In fairness, the amendment could hold down the litigation costs that elections boards (taxpayers) shoulder. Yes, also, trying to block fracking with a county charter is like using a screwdriver to saw wood: That’s not what the tool is for.

Still, Ohio’s Bill of Rights says “all political power is inherent in the people” – not, as the General Assembly seems to think, in the Statehouse’s lobbies.

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