Gov. John Kasich needs to take out the pen he saves for special occasions — as when his Republican allies in the General Assembly send him a bill so awful that he has to sign a veto.
That rarely has happened during the governor’s term. But there’s a good chance lawmakers will give him another veto opportunity soon. How he responds will offer voters useful information about where Mr. Kasich’s political sympathies lie, during this year’s re-election campaign and possibly for a presidential run in two years.
Steaming through the GOP-controlled legislature is Senate Bill 310, which would essentially repeal the Ohio clean-energy law that took effect just five years ago. The standards the law sets for energy efficiency and for production of renewable and advanced energy have saved Ohioans more than $1 billion on their electric bills.
The law has created tens of thousands of jobs and attracted more than $1 billion in private investment in alternative-energy industries throughout the state, especially in northwest Ohio; that has meant more money for local schools and communities. It has encouraged energy conservation, and improved the state’s air by limiting our overreliance on coal-fired power plants.
There would seem no reason for Columbus to gut a law that has conferred so many benefits — until you consider the forces behind SB 310.
They include the billionaire Koch brothers, who have major holdings in old-school energy providers. Their front groups, Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council, seek to roll back state energy standards across the country. Ohio would join Indiana in becoming the first states to do so.
Among the bill’s other advocates are Ohio utilities led by FirstEnergy, fossil-fuel companies, and large industrial energy consumers. All are big Republican constituencies, and campaign contributors.
The Senate passed SB 310 in the dead of night — more precisely, in the wee hours of a morning this month. Senators added last-minute giveaways to privately owned utilities and big energy users. Mr. Kasich negotiated improvements to the bill, but not nearly enough to redeem it.
A House committee postponed action on the bill last week, raising momentary hope that good sense would prevail. Instead, it appears that some House Republicans were uncomfortable only with the speed with which the measure was moving, not its substance.
So it remains likely that lawmakers will dump SB 310 on Mr. Kasich’s desk before they recess for the summer to run their well-financed re-election campaigns. And then the governor, who has expressed past support for alternative energy, will face a revealing choice.
Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy and Ohio Advanced Energy Economy, two groups that oppose SB 310, calculate that the bill would cost residential consumers as much as $150 million in higher electric bills in just its first two years. They estimate that the typical Toledo Edison customer would pay an additional $144.76 over that period, and that the utility’s average commercial customer would pay nearly $32,000 more.
While these groups are hardly disinterested parties, they base their analysis on figures that utility companies provided the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The utilities also concede that their efficiency programs are on track to save customers more than $4 billion over a decade.
Sponsors offer the canard that SB 310 is pro-business. But dozens of the state’s largest employers, including Owens Corning, back the current energy standards and oppose weakening them. So does the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, which worries that SB 310 could maintain utilities’ monopoly powers at the expense of businesses and consumers.
The Ohio Environmental Council warns that if SB 310 takes effect, the clean-energy law’s success in reducing such air pollutants as carbon emissions, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide will halt. That will impair public and environmental health: more smog, more asthma attacks, more threats to children and pregnant women.
A Detroit-based trust called RACER is cleaning up and selling former General Motors properties across the country after the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy, with an eye to job-creating redevelopment. In North Toledo, it’s marketing a 34-acre industrial site behind the GM Powertrain plant at Alexis and Jackman roads.
Patricia Spitzley, the group’s deputy redevelopment manager, told me last week that the property would make a prime location for a solar farm, and that potential buyers have toured the site with that use in mind. But if SB 310 passes, she acknowledges, “that would make it hard to market the property as a solar prospect.”
SB 310’s interest-group supporters haven’t deigned to testify before lawmakers about its supposed merits. But they’ve been throwing their weight around elsewhere.
The Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ megaphone, asserts that the current energy mandates “have proven to be unrealistic and an impediment to job creation.” When Governor Kasich’s Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, called for a veto of SB 310 last week, AFP warned him to stick to his day job.
There’s still time to stop this train, or at least to reroute it. A coalition of business and consumer groups proposes a compromise that would freeze the current energy standards for one year — not two, as SB 310 requires — to permit lawmakers to study them.
Large industrial power users that demonstrate they are meeting the law’s energy-efficiency goals could opt out of the mandates. Like the renewable-energy standards, the efficiency benchmarks could be suspended if they are shown to be costing consumers and small businesses more than they save — something that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to.
Any proposal to pause the current standards invites skepticism; stopping and restarting could roil markets and cut energy savings. But the compromise plan is far more balanced than the my-way-or-else version preferred by lawmakers and the interests they answer to.
You can bet that Governor Kasich isn’t ignoring the continued aftermath of Senate Bill 5 — his effort early in his term to trash the collective-bargaining rights of Ohio public employees, which voters decisively repealed. That will be a major campaign issue this year, and not in the governor’s favor. SB 310 could have a similar effect.
Mr. Kasich has shown his capacity for flexibility on such issues as privatizing the Ohio Turnpike, a proposal he sensibly backed away from. He properly pursued an expansion of Ohio’s Medicaid program over Republican lawmakers’ opposition, and vetoed the first version of a GOP bill that would have permitted excessive withdrawals of water from Lake Erie. He needs to show similar independence of mind now.
House members ought to kill this hugely misguided bill. If they’re foolish enough to send it to the governor, he can veto it. Or he can sign it, and leave no doubt among Ohio voters about whom he’s looking out for.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
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