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Ohio Battle of Petitions Has Nuclear Subsidy Foes Falling Short

Oct. 21, 2019, 7:05 PMUpdated: Oct. 21, 2019, 8:13 PM

Opponents of $900 million in subsidies for two Ohio nuclear power plants failed to collect enough signatures to give voters the choice of repealing the cash infusion.

The group behind the repeal effort, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, fell short of the more than 265,000 signatures they needed to collect in order to put the repeal to voters on the November 2020 ballot. The group declined to comment about how many signatures they received, but said “it wasn’t enough.”

The 90-day petition battle against FirstEnergy Solutions power plants generated outlandish advertisements, zany headlines, and millions of dollars in costs for both subsidy opponents and the groups backing FirstEnergy’s subsidy law, which will provide $150 million a year for six years.

“We may never know how much money the corporate backers spent in their campaign of deceit, but we estimate their television, digital and radio advertising, direct mail and their blocking and fake petition to cost over $50 million,” Gene Pierce, the petition group’s spokesperson and a veteran of Ohio politics and referendum campaigns, said in an Oct. 21 statement.

Advertisements from pro-subsidies forces said that China was invading the Ohio power grid, and mailers sent to homes said signing the petition would supply residents’ personal information to the Chinese government.

‘Severely Hampered Our Ability’

The group pursuing repeal of the subsidies also claimed their signature-gatherers were being poached for as much as $100,000, and they levied allegations of illegal bribes and intimidation of signature gatherers.

In an email, Pierce said these tactics “severely hampered our ability to circulate freely and collect signatures.” In response, Carlo LoParo, spokesperson for pro-subsidies Ohioans for Energy Security, issued a statement saying ballot issues “can be emotional and highly charged” and that both sides “worked hard to engage Ohio voters.”

The pro-subsidies group circulated its own nonbinding petition urging legislators to “protect Ohio energy generation from the influence or control of foreign corporations or governments.” The group submitted that petition and more than 846,000 signatures to Ohio House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Rep. Jamie Callender (R) on Oct. 21.

“Our signatures represent a groundswell of public support for legislation that ensures the reliability and security of energy production in Ohio,” LoParo said.

The repeal battle also spilled into the courts. FirstEnergy Solutions filed a petition in the Ohio Supreme Court seeking to block the appeal on the grounds that the subsidy is a tax, which isn’t subject to voter referendum under Ohio law. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

After struggling to collect signatures, the repeal effort filed its own federal lawsuit seeking to extend its deadline.

The repeal group intends to keep pushing for an extension of its signature-filing deadline. The next hearing on the issue is Oct. 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com