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Published: Thursday, 3/21/2013

Referendum reform awaits one signature

Ohio foes say bill will restrict voters’ ability to challenge laws

BY JIM PROVANCE BLADE
COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — A bill that critics contend would weaken the people’s power to use the ballot box to directly confront actions of their government is headed for Gov. John Kasich’s desk.

Supporters of Senate Bill 47 argued that the bill brings uniformity to Ohioans’ constitutional right to turn to the ballot to pass laws they like and overturn those they don’t, a process they claimed can now be abused.

Rep. Mike Curtin (D., Columbus) conceded that there might be issues that should be addressed concerning the right of initiative and referendum. But he argued those issues would be better addressed by a current commission more broadly studying potential changes to the Ohio Constitution.

“These are sacred powers of the people, and we should not change them lightly,” he said. “Use of referendum is exceedingly rare. The use of initiative is very rare, and we should be able to forge a bipartisan consensus if we’re going to change how those sacred powers are utilized in this state.”

Senate Bill 47, sponsored by Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), writes between the lines of the 1912 constitutional amendment granting voters the power to second-guess lawmakers’ decisions.

Among other things, the bill halts the gathering of signatures once an initiative petition seeking a constitutional amendment or new state law, or a referendum seeking repeal of a law, is initially filed with the secretary of state.

Currently, citizen committees continue to gather additional signatures of registered voters while county boards of elections pore over those already filed to verify their validity. The committees then have more signatures already in hand if the secretary of state determines the initial filing was short of the required number of signatures, a decision that opens a 10-day window for the committee to fill the void.

The proposed changes are expected to have a greater impact on voter referendums challenging a law passed by lawmakers before it takes effect because such efforts have just 90 days to gather the necessary signatures.

“Instead of a 100-day period — 90 plus 10 — as clearly specified in the constitution, circulators have been getting between 116 days and 158 days to collect signatures,” Rep. Mike Dovilla (R., Berea) said. “This lack of uniformity is unfair and runs directly counter to the clear intent of the 1912 amendments to our constitution.”

He said there’s also the potential that a secretary of state, Ohio’s top elections official, could game the system in favor or against a petition effort by fast-tracking or delaying the signature review process to give a committee less or more time.

The House voted 56-37, with a single Republican, Rep. Ron Young (R., Leroy), joining the chamber’s Democrats in opposition. The Senate then voted 23-10 along party lines to rubber-stamp House changes in the bill and forward it to Mr. Kasich.

Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) noted that he, as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, has been involved in three referendum efforts in recent years. That includes 2011’s high-profile voter rejection of a Republican-passed law restricting the collective-bargaining clout of public employees.

Two others to challenge a Republican-passed redistricting map and an even broader election reform law were sidetracked by court delays and legislature maneuvers. He stressed that referendums will still occur even under the new rules.

“The majority may make this a little more difficult,” Mr. Redfern said. “We’ll overcome those difficulties. We’ll succeed.”

Opponents of the bill called for Mr. Kasich’s veto. The measure has faced opposition from the right and the left, both of which have had success in recent years using the initiative and referendum process to enact and kill laws.

“The right of initiative and referendum provide vital checks and balances for our state government,” said Samuel Gresham, of the government watchdog group Common Cause Ohio. “SB 47 diminishes those checks and balances and will render citizens nearly powerless to stop government over-reach.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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