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Former Ohio lawmaker warns constitutional amendment resolution could hurt progress

Former Ohio lawmaker and newspaper editor Mike Curtin talks to reporters at the Ohio Statehouse about problems with a proposal to make it harder to pass ballot issues in Ohio in the future
Jo Ingles
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Former Ohio lawmaker and newspaper editor Mike Curtin talks to reporters at the Ohio Statehouse about problems with a proposal to make it harder to pass ballot issues in Ohio in the future

A former Democratic state lawmaker is calling on Republicans in the Ohio Legislature to slow down and take a more careful approach to legislation that could make it harder to pass ballot issues in the future.

Majority Republicans are sponsoring a resolution that would raise the threshold for passing proposed constitutional amendments to 60%, require petition signatures from all 88 counties and eliminate the 10-day grace period for those signatures.

Mike Curtin, a former lawmaker and Columbus Dispatch editor, said raising the threshold for passage to 60% could hurt future bond issues for important public services like schools, highways, housing, job development and other infrastructure projects.

He said, of the 18 bond issues Ohio voters decided since 1980, one dozen were approved with a 50% plus one margin that is currently required. But if a 60% margin had been in place, that number goes down to eight and two of those eight issues would just barely clear the threshold.

"Future Ohio governors and lawmakers will inevitably need to seek voter approval of bond issues for a variety of programs to meet challenges of the times, challenges that we cannot even imagine today but we know are coming. Our state's ballot history demonstrates clearly that a 60% requirement for approval could be a debilitating barrier to Ohio's progress in the future," Curtin said.

For example, in 1982 Ohioans approved an issue that provided low-interest loans to first-time homebuyers purchasing affordable housing. That issue would not have met that 60% threshold.

Curtain said that program allowed thousands of Ohioans to be able to afford to purchase a home at a time when they could not otherwise because of high-interest rates. Another example was a bond issue passed by voters in 1999 that built and repaired many dilapidated schools throughout the state.

Curtin said Ohio lawmakers need to slow down and take a thoughtful, well-researched approach to this issue.

"This was a rush job. It was a rush job on a monumental question, shifting a 111-year-old right that Ohioans have had to amend their state constitution to making it darn near impossible to do so with a 60% threshold so it's a major power shifting," Curtin said.

Republican legislators have argued that the resolution would protect the constitution from special interest groups that could spend millions of dollars to pass an issue that's beneficial to them.

New signature requirements

Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) is the lead sponsor of the resolution. He said the new resolution, with the additional requirement for petition signatures to come from all 88 counties, would create a buy-in from all around Ohio.

“If an amendment is going to apply to every Ohioan, then every community should have a hand in putting that potential constitution amendment on the ballot,” Stewart said.

LaRose was a vocal supporter of the resolution last November. But that plan did not make changes to the petition signature requirements. LaRose even said changing the signature requirements would benefit deep-pocketed special interest groups.

"If you were to raise the signature threshold, that would make it effectively harder for citizens to put an issue on the ballot and that would disadvantage those truly citizen groups that want to get out there with clipboards to make it happen," LaRose said.

LaRose added that, "if you raise the signature threshold, you may actually comparatively advantage the special interests because if the special interests can afford to pay a million dollars to hire people with clipboards."

When asked whether LaRose would now support the current plan because it has a signature requirement, his spokesman, Rob Nichols, said "The secretary strongly feels changes in something as significant as our state constitution should require a broad consensus for approval. We believe the best way to do that is by increasing the threshold necessary for passage, but we are open to other ideas if they achieve the same result."

Impact on developing ballot initiatives

Many Republican lawmakers say it's important to do something now to try to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments. Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) has said he has enough votes in the Senate to pass the resolution.

Groups are currently organizing efforts to enshrine abortion rights in Ohio's constitution. There are also efforts to raise the minimum wage, reform redistricting again, and allow ranked-choice voting.

Republicans who oppose those issues say it needs to be more difficult to enshrine something in the state constitution. Curtin somewhat agreed with that point.

Curtin was a member of the former Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission. He and another member floated the idea of raising the threshold to 55% as part of a compromise plan between people who wanted to make it harder to put language in Ohio's constitution and those who didn't.

But he said there was no support for it at the time. Curtin said citizens still need to have the power of direct democracy on important state issues.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.