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Published: Friday, 4/5/2013

Ohioans’ sway in their governmental say faces erosion

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Government overreach happens. Remember Senate Bill 5? Statehouse Republicans passed the union-busting measure in early 2011, despite opposition from most Ohioans.

Opponents were furious. They collected signatures to put the anti-labor legislation up for a public vote. In November, 2011, 61 percent of Ohioans rejected the GOP scheme that drastically rewrote collective-bargaining laws for public employees.

The lesson to future political schemers was clear: Laws that don’t reflect the will of the people won’t be tolerated. But Ohio Republicans interpreted the defeat of SB 5 differently: The public has too much power, which allows people to get in the way of partisan agendas, to thwart political power grabs, and to demand a say in government.

A citizen-led democracy could ruin everything. A public that is motivated to pass or veto laws could threaten the game plan of the party in control. In Ohio, the GOP dominates every branch of government.

State Republicans aim to keep it that way. Their strategy to retain power for at least another decade included extreme gerrymandering in redrawn districts.

It involved erecting voting hurdles for Ohioans just in time for the battleground state to decide a close presidential election last year. And most recently, Statehouse Republicans moved to discourage organized dissent.

They rammed through a law that restricts Ohioans’ right to put referenda (such as SB 5) and initiatives (such as redistricting reform) on the ballot. The measure limits the time allowed for collecting voter signatures.

Republican Gov. John Kasich quickly signed the law. It was payback for losing face on SB 5. Lesson learned.

“We are extremely disappointed in Gov. Kasich’s decision to reward bad behavior in the legislature by signing Senate Bill 47 against the will of working- and middle-class Ohioans,” said Dennis Willard, communications director for We Are Ohio, a largely labor and Democratic-backed organization that fought SB 5.

“For more than 100 years, the People’s Petition process has worked for Ohioans,” he said in a statement. “It worked in 2011, when 2.1 million voters vetoed Senate Bill 5, the unfair, unsafe attack on collective-bargaining rights that would have hurt us all.”

Under current law, petitioners can continue to collect signatures while elections officials validate submitted signatures against voter rolls. That maximizes the time groups have to gather extra names to make sure their ballot questions get before voters. The new law prohibits the collection of additional signatures while the initial batch is validated and counted.

Organizers are allowed just 10 days to gather more signatures after the initial review. The signature collection process was curtailed for no other reason than to make it more difficult for everyday Ohioans to petition their government for redress.

Republicans have the same excuse for curbing checks on abusive legislative power that they had for cutting early voting hours during the presidential election. Limiting, rather than expanding, access to essential civic exercises produces a fairer and more uniform system, they say.

Bunk. Since 1912, when the petition process was established as a right in the Ohio Constitution, citizen-initiated ballot issues have been a bulwark of Buckeye determination.

Why would Ohio Republicans be in a hurry to change something that has served Ohioans well for more than a century? The right of initiative and referendum has given people a voice, an avenue to respond to what is done in their name.

But the mechanism embedded in the Ohio Constitution to ensure responsive government impeded political goals. The new law is meant to erode people power.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio recognized the risk when it testified against revisions to the long-honored petition process. “To assure that these provisions would not be weakened by the very legislators they were intended to bypass,” said Peg Rosenfield, the league’s elections specialist, “the 1912 amendments to Article II included strong language making it clear that this was a fundamental right of Ohioans not to be tampered with by the legislature.”

Government overreach in Ohio aims to keep people from registering, voting, and making their will known. The new petition law is another attack on our right to run our own government.

We need to fight back.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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