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Published: Saturday, 12/14/2013

COMMENTARY

Energy bill rings alarmingly for Ohio consumers

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Marilou Johanek Marilou Johanek
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If the name of state Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, doesn’t ring a bell for most Ohioans north of Columbus, it should. Lots of bells, whistles, sirens, and alarms should go off about this conservative lawmaker, who has earned a reputation as an over-the-top ideologue with a legislative record to match.

Senator Seitz appeals to the far right on social issues and to corporate lobbyists on profit-driven issues. He is hailed and blamed for immoderate positions on everything from abortion restrictions, to concealed handguns in bars, to limitations on collecting petition signatures.

On the latter issue, when he crafted new constraints on Ohio’s century-old referendum process, Mr. Seitz surprisingly was thin-skinned about criticism cited in this column in October. Ironically, the fault-finding came from a libertarian-leaning public interest group, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which is usually aligned with conservatives.

The center’s executive director, Maurice Thompson, was leading the charge against the Seitz-sponsored referendum bill that became law. Mr. Thompson had a legitimate concern about arbitrary revisions in signature-collection rules infringing on the right of citizens to petition their government.

Mr. Seitz blasted an email to me and copied it to all state lawmakers and statewide officeholders. The senator was irate that Mr. Thompson was given a forum to discuss a federal suit he filed to try to stop the referendum law.

I offered Mr. Seitz a similar forum to respond to complaints about the changes he engineered in the referendum and initiative process. I’m waiting for a reply.

Perhaps he will be more amenable to discussing his plan to adjust Ohio’s energy-efficiency standards and why it broke down. His utility-friendly bill was expected to come up for a vote recently, but Mr. Seitz abruptly pulled the measure.

He insisted lawmakers needed more time to consider it. No other reason. Really?

All Ohio House seats and half of those in the Senate are up for re-election next year. Polling shows widespread public support for Ohio’s renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards. An army of opponents of Senator Seitz’s bill mobilized to defend the law that requires electric utilities to meet yearly benchmarks for energy efficiency and for using energy from renewable sources.

Mr. Seitz wanted to gut the benchmarks he voted for five years ago. He aimed to loosen utility compliance with energy-efficiency measures and eliminate a mandate for in-state purchases of renewable energy.

He miscalculated. Ohio’s energy initiatives, enacted with near-universal support in 2008, were more popular than he assumed.

Clean, energy-saving measures, in a state notorious for its coal-fired power-plant pollution, are embraced as prudent policy by a diverse constituency, including the Ohio Manufacturers Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

Advocates of lower electric bills, renewable energy, cleaner environment, greater investment in energy efficiency, and reduced electricity demand regarded the Seitz bill as regressive. They feared it would weaken state energy standards, increase utility costs for consumers, and sacrifice new jobs in alternative energy.

The only beneficiaries of Mr. Seitz’s proposal were energy conglomerates that are wedded to fossil fuels. They would be able to wiggle through loopholes in efficiency mandates — derided by Mr. Seitz as “envirosocialist” decrees — and opt out of some renewable-power requirements.

Consumers’ counsel Bruce Weston estimated the bill could cost households, on average, an extra $528 for electricity over three years. Estimates also showed small businesses could pay, on average, as much as $3,291 more for power over the same period, based on bonuses tucked into the Seitz bill.

Its provisions allowed utilities to award themselves bonuses — financed by ratepayers — for helping customers become more energy-efficient. At the expense of Ohioans, Mr. Seitz was prepared to whisk his watered-down version of the state’s clean-energy law, which the Ohio Manufacturers Association labeled “a huge electric utility giveaway,” through the Senate and to Gov. John Kasich’s desk before the end of the year.

The name of Senator Seitz rings a bell with utility companies. But the bell tolls for the rest of us about what almost happened to Ohio’s clean-energy transition.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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