COLUMBUS – After a federal bribery investigation ousted a former House leader, Ohio lawmakers did nothing to repeal or delay the $1 billion nuclear plant bailout at the heart of the alleged pay-to-play scheme.
Caught between lawmakers who wanted to do more to curb the nuclear subsidies and those who wanted to bail out the plants, Ohio's GOP-controlled House couldn't cobble together the votes needed for a change.
“The substance of House Bill 6, not the criminal proceedings, are complex issues on which there’s a wide range of opinion in the legislature,” said House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima. “The diversity of views on what is good and appropriate public policy I think has forestalled a consensus on what should be done.”
On Monday, a Franklin County judge relieved some of the pressure on lawmakers to act by blocking the fees from hitting Ohioans' electric bills next month. The fees subsidize two northern Ohio nuclear plants owned by Energy Harbor, formerly known as FirstEnergy Solutions.
Lawmakers will continue to work to find a definitive legislative solution next year, Cupp said. "Time and circumstances often intervene to make the way forward clearer and so we shall see."
Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, expressed frustration that lawmakers did nothing to address the scandal.
"I think we should have done a repeal, and I think we should have done it a long time ago," he said. "I'm disappointed that that didn't happen."
The proposal with the most support was a one-year delay, but even that was messy. House Republicans did not have the votes needed to stop those fees from being collected in January. So the charges would have hit Ohioans' bills in the first months of 2021 and been refunded later.
A wide swath of interests opposed the delay, ranging from the Ohio Manufacturers' Association to environmental groups.
For most Democrats, anything short of a full repeal amounted to an endorsement of the corrupt scheme that passed the nuclear plant bailout in the first place.
"Failing to repeal House Bill 6 tells big corporations that it’s okay to buy off politicians in Ohio – it’s not," said Rep. Michael O'Brien, D-Warren. "It’s unconscionable that Republicans continue to fight harder for this tainted legislation and their disgraced former speaker than they do for the taxpayers who are going to have to foot the bill for this corrupt legislation."
Former Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, was arrested in late July and accused of using nearly $61 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and others to win control of the Ohio House, pass House Bill 6 and defend it from a ballot effort to block the subsidies.
Four others were charged. Householder's political strategist and a former FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist have pleaded guilty for their role in what U.S. Attorney Dave DeVillers said was "likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio."
Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed House Bill 6 just hours after it hit his desk, said the way the bailout passed was "irreparably flawed," but he would sign anything that improves upon the status quo.
"(House Bill 6) has a smell to it and we have to get rid of the smell," DeWine told The Enquirer. "The best way to do it is to repeal the bill."
He did support a change that would have required an audit of Energy Harbor's books to ensure the company needs the full $150 million a year. That audit would be presented to lawmakers in public hearings and itemize any expense deemed unreasonable or imprudent.
Should that audit have happened before DeWine signed House Bill 6?
“We thought that the need was there," DeWine said. "But you know, that certainly has been an argument and clarifying that, getting the specific facts, I think would be helpful."
Without a change in state law, House Bill 6 will continue to phase out incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Piketon-based Ohio Valley Electric Corporation can still collect fees for two coal plants, including one in Indiana.
No change was made to a last-minute addition to House Bill 6 that guarantees a certain level of income for FirstEnergy Corp. Called "decoupling," the change will make a portion of the company "recession-proof," fired CEO Chuck Jones told investors.