Higher threshold for Ohio constitutional amendments plows forward

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Republican leaders are pushing a resolution through the lame-duck legislative session to raise the threshold for amending the state constitution, hoping to get it on the statewide ballot in May.

House Joint Resolution 6 came up for a third hearing Thursday in the House Government Oversight Committee, unusually combining testimony from supporters and opponents.

State Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Hillsboro, the committee chair, said “there’s a chance” the committee will meet again Monday — also an unusual move.

On Nov. 17, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, announced a fast-track effort to raise the threshold for passing voter-initiated state constitutional amendments.

Under that proposal, amendments initiated by the General Assembly would still only need a simple majority of the statewide vote to take effect, but voter-initiated amendments would need to pass with at least 60% support.

But at its first hearing, state Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, immediately replaced the announced resolution with a substitute that would also raise the threshold to 60% for amendments initiated by the General Assembly.

The proposal is now known as Substitute House Joint Resolution 6.

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Supporting the resolution Thursday was Travis Taylor with the Opportunity Solutions Project, which he described as a nonpartisan group, though it largely supports conservative and libertarian causes.

Taylor’s testimony mostly echoed what LaRose and Stewart said in introducing the resolution.

The great bugaboo for the proposal’s Republican backers is funding from unnamed “outside interest groups” or “out-of-state billionaires” on campaigns to change the state constitution.

Asked by Swearingen for examples of this happening, Taylor cited Maine’s adoption of ranked-choice voting in 2016.

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, noted that the Opportunity Solutions Project itself is an out-of-state group, though Taylor said he was personally an Ohioan. OSP is based in Florida.

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, opposed the resolution. If anything, raising the threshold for approving amendments would benefit big-money donors, since only they could bankroll the massive campaigns needed to get 60% support, she said.

“Citizen initiatives aren’t overused,” Turcer said. “There hasn’t been a citizen-initiated ballot measure since 2018.”

Of the 20 amendments made to the Ohio Constitution since the turn of the century, three-quarters were proposed by state lawmakers.

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To make the ballot as a lawmaker-led initiative, the resolution will need a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a supermajority.

Currently, voter-initiated amendments get a statewide vote if they first gather signatures from 10% of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. That’s 402,598 people, according to unofficial totals from the 2022 election.

LaRose has said legislators hope to push the resolution through before the legislative session ends, getting it on the ballot in May, an off-year election with traditionally low voter turnout.

He and Stewart proposed the resolution less than two weeks after the passage of two Republican-backed constitutional amendments, both of which came through the General Assembly: prohibiting noncitizens from voting in any Ohio election, and adding a requirement to the rules for granting bail.

If HJR 6 passes, it would affect a potential vote on legalizing abortion. In May, anticipating the overturn of Roe v. Wade – which came in June – Ohio Democrats announced they would start a citizen petition campaign to write protection for abortion into the state constitution.

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