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The China Puzzle - How Big Money Can Buy And Protect Legislation

By Bill Woods

Have you received a scary postcard in the mail? It warns not to give your phone number, email address, home address, or other personal information to a particular petition gatherer, because it will end up in the hands of the Chinese Government. Besides making you personally vulnerable to wily Chinese bureaucrats, signing this petition will aid China's plan to invade Ohio's Energy Grid while taking away thousands of jobs! A plethora of TV ads with the same message also blanket the air waves on a regular basis.

What is going on here? Is China really about to take over Ohio's energy resources? The answer to these questions is a resounding no!

What we are experiencing is another round of "dark money" attempting to protect a terrible state law enacted last summer and purchased by the same "dark money." Here is the story in brief. First Energy, a corporation located in Akron, Ohio, is the primary villain in this tale. As the operator of two failing nuclear power plants in Ohio, First Energy tried but failed to persuade the Ohio General Assembly to enact legislation that would subsidize its nuclear facilities. Even a Republican dominated Legislature that is inclined to assist business saw this as a losing proposition.

After this initial defeat, First Energy and its allies decided on a plan based on campaign contributions to elect House and Senate members that would do their bidding. First of all, the plan called for supporting a new Speaker of the House who would be amenable to their bailout legislation. Rep. Larry Householder, a co-sponsor of the unsuccessful bailout bill, became their choice, and he received during the 2018 election year $67,416 in campaign donations from First Energy and the other energy corporations supporting such state assistance.

Next, First Energy supported candidates in eighteen House Districts who ran in the 2018 Republican primary against incumbents who had voted against the bailout. With significant donations from First Energy, fifteen of these challengers won, and twelve of them were elected in the fall general election. These candidates received a large percentage of the approximately one million dollars spent by First Energy's PAC during the 2018 election cycle. Meanwhile, three other PACs representing coal-fired power plants spent another $700,000 in this campaign to line up enough members of the Ohio House and Senate to support a bailout.

The plan worked. First, Larry Householder was chosen by the new House as its Speaker when it convened in 2019. Then, work began in earnest to craft new legislation that would effectively bailout both the nuclear and coal corporations in Ohio. While this Bill was being drafted, several million dollars worth of TV and radio ads touting this approach ran on stations throughout the state.

What emerged and was passed by both the House and Senate in July was a law that would provide a bailout of $1.1-billion to First Energy and the coal plants over a period of seven years. Known as House Bill 6, it was signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine on July 23rd. It should also be noted that DeWine received a $25,000 campaign contribution from the First Energy PAC in 2018.

Almost immediately, a group called Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, began a statewide petition drive to repeal House Bill 6 by the initiative process. It currently works to get 265,774 valid Ohio Voter signatures by October 21st in order to stop the bailout from beginning before a 2020 referendum vote. However, once signature gathering began, a new limited liability corporation named Ohioans For Energy Security began a $3.4-million ad and mail campaign attacking this petition drive.

This brings the story to the present moment and the ads on TV and the post cards designed to scare us about the threat of China taking over Ohio's Energy Grid while misusing our personal information. Although research by journalists and good government groups can find nothing valid about these claims of potential Chinese misdeeds, one possible link has been put forward. Apparently, one energy company that may be supporting the repeal got some financing from a Chinese bank for a natural gas plant in Ohio.

This is speculation and not necessarily true, and it hardly ranks as a Chinese takeover. It does show, however, that Ohio election laws cannot currently stop well-financed false information campaigns. A follow up article will focus on what reform groups such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause propose to do about this dilemma and the crisis of "Big Money" in general.

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