Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Drug-cost issue first to qualify for Ohio ballot

Push to redraw congressional districts every decade may not make deadline

COLUMBUS — Ohio voters will have a chance to weigh in this fall on forcing lower government drug prices, and they might decide whether to etch a crime victims’ bill of rights into the state constitution.

But advocates for removing some of the partisan politics from how Ohio redraws congressional districts every decade will race against the clock to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures they need to put their proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

July 5 marks the deadline for filing petitions to put citizen-driven proposals on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. So far, just one has qualified, setting up a potentially expensive barrage of advertising involving the pharmaceutical industry.

Ohioans for Fair Drug Prices and the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation gathered enough signatures to put a proposed new state law in the laps of lawmakers more than a year ago.

Legal fights over signatures’ validity created delays and lawmakers ultimately ignored the proposal, but the so-called Ohio Drug Price Relief Act will be on the 2017 ballot. It would require the state and its programs to pay no more for prescription drugs than what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs negotiates.

It’s likely to be an expensive campaign for an off-year election.

“We believe we can raise the money to get our message out,” said Dennis Willard, spokesman for Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices. “A ‘yes’ vote will mean lower taxes and lower drug prices for the sick and suffering and will teach greedy drug companies and CEOs a lesson.”

The opposition, Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue, includes a broad coalition including veterans, medical and safety professionals, labor, patients, business, and clergy.

They “will do everything they can to ensure voters are thoroughly educated about the facts of this proposed statute,” spokesman Jenny Camper said. “Health policy experts who have studied the proposal say it would be very damaging to Ohio and Ohioans.”

Unlike a constitutional amendment, which would require voters to sign off on any future changes, this question would enact a state law, which the General Assembly could change or repeal at any time.

There have been petition drives for other proposed ballot initiatives, including efforts to legalize marijuana, to make Ohio a “right to work” state, and to toughen legislature term limits. But none appears to have momentum to cross the July 5 finish line.

Professional petition circulators are in the field gathering signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment, dubbed Marsy’s Law, stating that crime victims “shall be protected in a manner no less vigorous than the rights afforded to the accused.”

It is named for Marsalee Ann Nicholas, a 21-year-old college student shot and killed in California by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her mother and brother walked into a grocery store after visiting her grave about a week after the murder and ran into the ex-boyfriend who had been released on bail prior to his conviction for second-degree murder.

“Some people were surprised this was already not in the Ohio Constitution,” said Aaron Marshall, spokesman for the effort financed largely by Broadcom Corp. founder Henry Nicholas, Marsy’s wealthy brother and a Cincinnati native.

“Others who have had some experience as victims know there are roadblocks in the system,” Mr. Marshall said.

Victims would be notified of their rights and could request notification at every step of the process. They could weigh in on proposed plea deals, sentencing, and parole proceedings and would be notified of offenders’ release or escape.

They could seek financial restitution and would have a right for proceedings to occur without unreasonable delay.

So far there doesn’t appear to be organized opposition.

The effort to put proposed congressional redistricting reforms on the ballot is running short of time. New petition language was submitted last week to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine after he rejected the first submission’s accuracy.

The attorney general has another week to sign off on revised language, and then the Ohio Ballot Board would decide whether the issue should appear on the ballot as one or multiple questions. All of this costs time needed to gather at least 305,591 valid voter signatures.

“The goal is to go gangbusters, but it would be very surprising if we were able to hit that July 5 deadline,” Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said. “On the other hand, we were astonished that 131 volunteers were able to gather 3,000 signatures in four days” to submit new petition language to Mr. DeWine.

The amendment would extend reforms 71 percent of voters approved in 2015 for the remapping process for state legislative districts, after each federal census, to congressional districts.

If the issue is delayed until 2018, it could still take effect in time for the next congressional maps in 2021.

Petition efforts typically have to gather many thousands of additional signatures to compensate for others that are deemed invalid for some reason. Most successful efforts use paid signature gatherers.

“Any time you have to gather on the order of 500,000 signatures, it’s a difficult, time-consuming, expensive process,” Mr. Marshall said. “It’s a high hurdle in Ohio to make the ballot for voter initiatives. But if you have something that enough people are interested in and have the resources, you can clear the hurdle.”

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

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