IDEAS: House Bill 6 could be the plot for a great Statehouse novel

Credit: Laura Bischoff

Credit: Laura Bischoff

When readers scan headlines, they may think repealing HB 6 — which forces electricity customers to subsidize the Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear power plants — would sweep the 2019 law away.

But the pending “repeal” keeps in place subsidies Ohio electricity consumers pay to bail out two coal-burning power plants (one in Indiana) are run by Ohio Valley Electric Corp., whose owners include Ohio electric companies.

The coal plant subsidies were tucked into HB 6 to win votes for it. Energy Harbor Corp., a one-time FirstEnergy Corp. tentacle, now an independent company, owns Perry and Davis-Besse. So, if you’re an Ohio electric company with no stake in Perry and Davis-Besse , why would you stick your neck out? But: If you own shares in cash-bleeding coal-fueled power plants, and HB 6 would make Ohio consumers ratepayers subsidize them, too, hey, you’ve got yourself a sweet deal.

The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association is among those fighting the coal plant subsidies. According to RunnerStone L.L.C., a consulting firm the OMA retained, “[Approximately] $700 million in potential Ohio customer paid subsidies [to the OVEC coal plants] are projected to be paid through 2030.”

Meanwhile, consider this irony: In 2019, what’s now Energy Harbor begged for passage of HB 6 to keep Perry and Davis-Besse running. Legislators passed HB 6. Now, due to changing federal policies, HB 6 (left as-is) might hurt Perry and Davis-Besse with federal regulators. That is, by “repealing” HB 6, the legislature is doing exactly what it did in 2019 — dance to whatever tune the utility lobbies play.

The novel on Ohio Statehouse politics hasn’t yet been written. Billy Lee Brammer’s “The Gay Place” (1961) is about Texas politics and a governor who calls to mind Lyndon B. Johnson. (If you’ve got a first edition of Brammer’s book, hold it close; it’s money in the bank.)

Then, there’s Garrett Epps’s equally unforgettable novel, “The Shad Treatment” (1977), about the fictional Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Thomas Jefferson (“Tom Jeff”) Shadwell. Many readers saw a resemblance between Shadwell and liberal whirlwind, Henry E. Howell Jr. (1920-1997), once the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor, who ran three times for Virginia’s governorship.

A great novel on Ohio politics would have to include characters inspired by memories of 16-year Gov. James A. Rhodes and 20-year House Speaker Vern Riffe, larger-than-life Appalachian dealmakers who shaped the Ohio that we live in today.

The third pivotal character in a great novel about political Ohio: A master lobbyist. That super-smart character might call to mind Neil S. Clark, one-time maestro of the Statehouse lobbies. He died March 15, at age 67, an apparent suicide. Clark’s wife and his two children survive, as do many friends.

A federal grand jury indicted Clark last summer on corruption charges connected with the legislature’s 2019 passage of — what else? — House Bill 6. As noted above, that law, nearing partial repeal, forces consumers to bail out the Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear plants, once owned by FirstEnergy. Clark must be considered innocent of the charges he faced because a jury didn’t, and now can’t, judge them.

The Columbus Establishment may be sweating over the emergence — if and when is uncertain — of what’s being termed a tell-all book Clark wrote, an insider’s expose of Statehouse lobbying. Depending on what’s in the book, careers and reputations may be at risk. As for Neil Clark’s reputation, he was brilliant and ruthless and privately generous. He went after what he wanted, and usually got it. People at the Statehouse had never seen anyone like Neil Clark. They never will again.

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. Previously, he was a veteran Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

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