The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
COLUMBUS, Oho — After more than an hour behind closed doors, a bloc of Ohio Republicans led by state Rep. Derek Merrin, Monclova Twp., trooped through the Ohio Statehouse.
The faction — thirty-odd lawmakers who wound up on the losing side of the House Speaker’s race last week— climbed three floors and squeezed into the clerk’s office.
After pausing for photos they filed a new version of their proposal to make it harder for Ohioans to pass constitutional amendments.
The proposal asks voters to raise the passage threshold for future amendments. The idea proved controversial and ran out of steam at the tail end of the last legislative session.
But with the resolution taking center stage now, as spurned Republicans lock horns with new Speaker Jason Stephens, it seems clear many in the party aren’t ready to drop the issue.
New Year’s resolution
Right after his plan went off the rails, sponsor Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, said he was “Looking forward to January.” Stewart noted then that Republican numbers were thin — a point he’d warned about previously — but argued there was plenty of support in the caucus.
The outlook got a bit murkier after the speaker vote. Stewart, an ally of presumptive speaker Merrin, was set to be a part of leadership this term. After the floor revolt gave the gavel to Stephens, Stewart seemed to indicate his proposal was collateral damage.
Wednesday, though, Stewart filed his “Ohio Constitution Protection Amendment” alongside more than 30 GOP co-sponsors. He noted two substantive changes from the previous version.
“The new version would require that signatures come from all 88 counties instead of just 44,” Stewart said. “If an amendment is going to apply to every Ohio and then every community should have a hand in putting that potential constitution amendment on the ballot.
“We’re also going to eliminate the cure period for constitutional amendments,” Stewart added. That period allows citizen-led organizations to gather additional signatures if their initial batch doesn’t meet requirements to make the ballot.
Even with Wednesday’s show of force, Stewart has a long way to go to get his resolution on the ballot. Three-fifths of the members in both chambers have to approve the resolution first. In the House, that’s 60 votes. Only 45 Republicans voted for Merrin in speaker’s race, and only 38 participated in Wednesday’s rogue caucus meeting — a handful of them over the phone.
Getting the band back together
While Stewart counts votes, supporters outside the House appear to be gearing up for another try, too. After previously deferring to House lawmakers, Secretary of State Frank LaRose seems to be on board. Monday at Gov. Mike DeWine’s inaugural celebration, LaRose said he wasn’t done pursuing changes.
“What I was talking to the new speaker about and to Rep. Stewart about was the importance of getting this done,” LaRose explained.
LaRose introduced the plan alongside Stewart last November, and he trotted out a version of the argument they’ve offered before.
“Today people might want to pretend or think that it’s about, abortion or redistricting or whatever issue, but 50 years from now, it could be about holograms and flying cars,” LaRose said. “We just don’t know what the things are that are going to come up, but if it can’t get 60% it probably belongs in the Ohio Revised Code and not in the Ohio Constitution.”
Shortly before HJR 6 stalled out, Cleveland.com obtained a memo written by Stewart urging GOP members to back the proposal. In it, he directly tied the effort to short-circuiting future abortion and redistricting ballot measures.
Opponents are lining up, too. In a statement Wednesday, Jen Miller from the League of Women Voters of Ohio promised a fight.
“For over a century, everyday Ohioans have had the freedom to collect signatures and pass ballot initiatives that make our lives better,” she said. “This resolution is unnecessary, unpopular, and undemocratic, and our broad coalition stands ready to defeat it.”
Democratic House Leader Allison Russo addressed the issue with reporters on Monday as well. She acknowledged “throughout even lame duck, speaking with both (Rep.) Merrin and Speaker Stephens, (the proposed amendment threshold change) was something that I expressed concern about.”
She didn’t directly address whether killing any future proposal was part of a deal with Speaker Stephens.
Stewart’s initial plan was to get the question on the ballot this May. To make that happen, lawmakers would need to pass the resolution by Feb. 1. Russo noted with leadership still figuring out committee membership, that’s not looking likely.
Stewart, though, argued his colleagues are ready to advance the resolution, and he put the ball in Speaker Stephens’ court.
“We certainly believe in introducing it today that we have ample opportunity to do that again,” Stewart said. “So we’re ready to pass it. It’s a question of whether the current leadership’s appetite is there as well.”
“What Representative Stewart deserves and what the citizens Ohio deserve is a debate on this issue,” Merrin chipped in. “We want to have a debate and see where see where the votes are at.”
For all their bluster, Merrin’s camp faces some challenging math. The chances of them peeling off a single Democratic vote are virtually nonexistent. Even if all 45 Republicans who didn’t back Stephens are on their side, they still can’t force a floor vote.
That maneuver, known as a discharge motion, requires a majority of members to sign on — at least under previous House rules. Convincing five members to back a discharge motion, and then fifteen to back a controversial ballot measure, may not be an insurmountable task, but it’s far from likely.
Speaking Wednesday, Merrin and Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, put special emphasis on the rules package for the coming session. They argued the House should set rules giving greater latitude to individual members and sap some of the speaker’s power to control the process or punish members.
Whether they’ll propose making it easier to force a vote is unclear. Why Speaker Stephens would go along with it if they did is similarly unclear.
For his part, LaRose kept things positive — focusing on the goal rather than the ways and means. He wants to see the idea advance “whether it’s in the next few weeks or the next few months.” And in a feat of understatement, LaRose brushed off its previous failure.
“The goal here was always to start a conversation,” LaRose said. “We’ve certainly done that.”