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Ohio lawmakers fail to deal with tainted energy bill

Posted at 4:00 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 16:00:47-05

CLEVELAND (AP) — Ohio lawmakers ended their 2020 legislative session late Tuesday without repealing or replacing a scandal-tainted bill that provides a $1 billion bailout for two aging Ohio nuclear power plants, among other provisions.

The Legislature adjourned for the year after sending Republican Gov. Mike DeWine a number of bills for his signature. But after more than four months of negotiations, it failed to reach a deal to fix House Bill 6, the 2019 legislation under scrutiny since then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others were arrested in late July.

Federal authorities say Householder led a $60 million bribery scheme secretly funded by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. to win legislative approval for a $150 million annual subsidy for the nuclear plants, which were once operated by a wholly owned FirstEnergy subsidiary.

Lawmakers received an 11th-hour reprieve on Monday when a state court judge in Columbus issued a preliminary injunction stopping the fee from being added to bills for a vast majority of electric customers in the state. A portion of the now-halted fee is supposed to raise $20 million a year to subsidize as many as five large-scale solar farms, none of which are producing power yet.

Most Democrats and some House Republicans favored a straight repeal of the nuclear bailout bill. Republican House leaders supported a version that would have delayed collection of the fee for a year.

FirstEnergy is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. Federal authorities allege FirstEnergy helped fund the scheme led by Householder to win the bill’s passage and to fund a dirty-tricks campaign to prevent Ohio voters from having their say on the bill in a referendum.

Current House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Republican from Lima, issued a statement Tuesday night that said a variety of opinions on what is “good and appropriate public policy has forestalled a consensus on what should be done: revise, repeal, replace, partial revision, partial replacement, partial repeal, total repeal with no replacement.”

The Legislature will continue working on a bill next year, he said.

“Time and circumstances often intervene to make the way forward clearer,” Cupp said. “We shall see.”

Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican who personally supported a full repeal of the bailout bill, said Tuesday that he allowed the House to take the lead on determining the bill’s fate. Obhof could not seek reelection in November because of term limits.

“My position, and I think I’ve been very clear from the beginning on this, is: ‘Would we have passed the bill in July 2019 knowing what we know today?’ and the answer is ‘No,’” Obhof said. “I am hopeful that my colleagues who are back in January will find a way to deal with this.”

The nuclear plant bailout is not the only troubling part of the bill for some legislators.

The bill also contained a new charge that began being collected for most Ohio electric customers in January 2020 to subsidize two aging coal plants owned by a consortium of electric utilities. One of the plants is in Indiana. More than $80 million has been collected thus far, according to the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel website.

Another provision in the bill guarantees revenue for FirstEnergy’s three Ohio electric companies at the same level earned in 2018, one of the hottest Ohio summers on record. Collections for the revenue guarantee are more than $16 million since the provision took effect in February.