COLUMBUS — A Republican-backed bill making it tougher to use the ballot box to overturn laws and amend the Ohio Constitution soon could find itself before voters.
Passage of Senate Bill 47 on Wednesday by a party-lBiline vote of 23-10 prompted bipartisan opponents to vow they will use the referendum process as it now exists to ensure it never becomes law.
The bill, which now goes to the House, would prevent ballot campaigns from gathering more signatures after submitting their petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office for scrutiny by county boards of elections, a period of time that can last weeks.
The process would have to stop during that time and could not restart until a 10-day grace period is triggered if the secretary of state determines the initial set of petitions came up short.
Supporters argued that the bill is designed to prevent petition efforts from gaming the system and manipulating constitutional deadlines to their benefit.
“From 1997 to 2012 we had 30 such cases of referendum, constitutional amendment, or initiated statute petitions…,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati).
“The time period that it took the secretary of state to validate the sufficiency of the first batch of signatures varied from 16 days on the low end to 58 days on the high end.
“We have had some committees getting the benefit of 116 days worth of signatures and other committees getting 158 days,” he said. “That is not fair. That is not equal. That is not uniform.”
Opponents countered that it would handicap grass-roots efforts while doing little to prevent deep-pocketed special interests, such as casino owners in 2009, from spending millions to bring in out-of-state professional petition circulators to put their own issues over the top.
“The question we are asking at We Are Ohio is, what is broken?” said Dennis Willard, spokesman for the coalition of labor, Democrats, and others who successfully challenged Senate Bill 5, the Republican-passed collective bargaining law that voters rejected in 2011.
“What is the problem with giving people the freedom to circulate petitions and giving them the grace period that has worked so well for the citizens of Ohio?” he asked.
Currently petitions are circulating for constitutional amendments to legalize medical marijuana, undo Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage, and to have Ohio follow Michigan in becoming a “right-to-work” state.
The petition provisions, however, would likely have the most impact on ballot challenges to laws passed by the General Assembly because of their tighter time limits.
Referendum campaigns have 90 days from the time a governor signs the bill into law to gather signatures to place the law on hold until voters can decide it.
Senate Bill 47 not only has angered Democrats but also conservative elements of the Republican Party.
Both have succeeded in amending the Constitution and challenging laws via the ballot box.
The highest-profile example for labor and Democrats was Senate Bill 5.
Republicans used the process in 2011 to send a message to President Obama by amending the state constitution to assert individual rights over health-care insurance decisions.
The petition provisions are also opposed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Chris Littleton, a former Tea Party leader, was involved in the 2011 health-care amendment and is now spokesman for Ohioans for Workplace Freedom.
That group is pushing a constitutional amendment to prohibit employees who refuse to join a workplace union from being forced to pay fees in lieu of dues.
“For grass-roots people who don’t have millions of dollars like special interests have to get on the ballot, we need that time…,” he said.
“Very clearly, that is the intent of the original language for Ohioans to be able to amend the state constitution by citizens and individuals who come together. That’s a very long process.”
Mr. Seitz took note of the opposition the bill faces from both sides of the political spectrum who fear they are the target of the legislation.
“In reality, it’s about none of these things,” he said.
“It is about having one set of simple, easily understood rules that apply no matter your cause.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.