TWINSBURG, Ohio — Amid allegations of the potential harassment and intimidation of people gathering signatures for a referendum on the nuclear bailout, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost had a succinct but stern warning: knock it off.
Yost’s warning comes as signature gatherers to the proposed HB-6 referendum have reported aggressive petition blockers or educators that have reportedly tried to dissuade residents from signing petitions. Two dueling groups, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts (the anti-bailout group) and Ohioans for Energy Security (the pro-bailout group) are in the midst of an ever contentious fight to have voters decide on the controversial legislation by way of the 2020 ballot.
Representatives of both camps have been seen soliciting and collecting signatures at various public events and festivals, including the Tremont Art Festival last weekend.
Enacted into law earlier this year, the controversial HB-6 legislation places a surcharge on ratepayers utility bills that benefits FirstEnergy’s generation subsidiary. The legislation, which also guts the clean energy mandate, will raise $150 million annually to help FirstEnergy Solution's nuclear and coal-fired powerplants.
Recently, another pro-bailout group, Generation Now, began hiring so-called petition blockers or educators to try to discourage voters from signing the petition against the bailout. Some signature gatherers have claimed that the petition blockers have been aggressively interfering with the petition process, bordering on intimidating or harassing behavior.
Yost said the evidence has been anecdotal. It is unclear how prevalent the behavior has been. However, one case attracted headlines when a Columbus-area petition blocker reportedly broke a man’s cellphone as he was collecting signatures outside of a library.
“People that oppose this referendum have a First Amendment right to oppose it and to speak out but that right ends where intimidating and coercion begin,” Yost said on Monday. “The bottom line here is knock it off.”
The pro-bailout group has also drawn scrutiny for its demonstrably misleading television ads, which claim the Chinese government is quietly invading our electric grid. Furthermore, the rhetoric warns that giving your name to those circulating petitions would defund American jobs and energy.
The advertisements have aired on local television and radio stations, including News 5.
The lone China connection comes from the fact that three out of the four natural gas-fired plants have been legally financed in part by the Industrial Commercial Bank of China, according to reports in Power Finance and Risk, a trade publication.
However, what the dubious ads fail to mention is that the Industrial Commercial Bank of China has lent more than $160 million to FirstEnergy as part of three financing deals, according to an annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Those deals also included more than two dozen other banks.
The anti-bailout group, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, has until late October to amass 266,000 signatures to get the referendum on the 2020 ballot. While the issue has been contentious, Yost urges both sides to abide by state and federal law.
“Respect your neighbors. Respect their rights. Most of all, respect our society and our system here in Ohio that allows for a referendum, allows for petitions, allows for free speech,” Yost said. “It looks like this would be on the ballot in 2020 so we’ve still got almost a year before we have to get there. Obviously, the conduct surrounding any campaign reflects on the campaign.”
Yost urges signature gatherers to report incidents of harassment and intimidation by calling 1-800-282-0515.