COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 22: State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, during the Ohio Senate session, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

BY:  –  Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio state senators began hearings Tuesday for their measure to impose a 60% supermajority to pass constitutional amendments. If the proposal passes both chambers with the support three-fifths of members, it goes to the ballot.

The sponsors of the resolution are also backing a bill to revive August elections — just in time for their supermajority ballot measure. They introduced that bill on Tuesday, as well.

The supermajority resolution, SJR 2

In committee, state Sens. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, and Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, described their proposal as an idea whose time has come.

 COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 22: State Sen. William DeMora, D-Columbus, speaks against SB21 during the Ohio Senate session, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal) 

“SJR 2 preserves the ability of any group to propose amendments to the Constitution,” Gavarone argued. “But it also ensures that all communities are represented for purposes of determining what ideas will make it to the ballot.”

Gavarone recently sponsored a suite of new voter restrictions in Ohio elections that was passed by the Ohio General Assembly and signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and she is sponsoring a host of other, new election changes.

Although Gavarone’s Senate resolution establishes the same 60% threshold for passing constitutional amendments included in the House version, it doesn’t carry other provisions. The House resolution, HJR 1 would require organizers gather signatures from all 88 counties. Current law requires signatures from 44. The measure would also eliminate the “cure period” in which signature gatherers can collect additional petitions if their first effort falls short.

Democrats on the committee criticized the idea of subverting majority rule. Sen. Bill DeMora, D-Columbus, asked the sponsors if they’d be willing to apply the same standard in the legislature.

“Are the sponsors okay with 14 members of the Senate or 40 members of the House, stopping any the bill from getting passed?” he pressed. “Because that’s what this is doing. It’s allowing 40% of the population to stop what the clear majority wants to pass.”

McColley called that a “false equivalency” because, he said, their resolution changes the process of amending the constitution, not proposing initiated statutes.

 COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 22: Senate Majority Floor Leader Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, speaks in favor of SB21 during the Ohio Senate session, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)August elections

When lawmakers scrapped August elections, they made two arguments for the idea — the expense and the abysmal turnout. In the most recent example, statewide turnout was just 8%.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose was among those urging lawmakers to remove that Tuesday in August from the elections calendar. But this Tuesday, LaRose made a different case.

“Allowing local municipalities for example, or local school districts or local sewer districts or whatever else, to have a sneaky levy when nobody’s paying attention is problematic,” LaRose said. “A statewide issue is a very different thing.”

“There will be very few people in the state not aware that there is a constitutional question on the ballot in August,” he argued. “You’d have to be in a cave to perhaps not realize that that issue was there.”

In committee, McColley and Gavarone defended the move. They argued they’re only adding one more instance to the list of allowable August special elections.

“What this legislation does is it broadens that language it opens the door slightly more,” McColley argued, “to specifically include general assembly initiated constitutional amendments.”

“We are not reinventing the wheel with this legislation,” McColley added.

For all their effort to downplay the change, allowing constitutional amendments on the August ballot is exceptionally rare.

The last time — and the only time — that happened was in 1926. The measure authorizing municipalities levy assessments to cover the cost of improvements failed.

 COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 08: State Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, during the Ohio Senate session, February 8, 2023, in the Senate Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal) 

Looking ahead

Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, who chairs the committee, is moving forward quickly: hosting hearings for the supermajority resolution and the August elections bill on successive days. The committee hears from proponents Wednesday. During the previous attempt to pass the supermajority requirement, only one outside group showed up in person to testify in favor of the idea.

Asked if proponents are planning to show up this time, Rulli said, “we have started lining them up.” He also committed to making time for supporters and opponents to have their say on the proposals. Rulli pointed to ongoing hearings for a medical marijuana overhaul as an example.

 Ohio Chamber president Steve Stivers, speaking alongside Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, left, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (photo by Nick Evans for OCJ) 

“I think I gave a good taste of how I think everyone’s voice needs to be heard,” he said. “We’re gonna give them the five to eight minutes. If there’s 10 we welcome them, if there’s 50 we welcome them. We want everyone’s voices heard.”

One organization unlikely to offer its support by Wednesday is the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. At a press conference for a different measure alongside Rulli and LaRose, Chamber president Steve Stivers said he’s still polling members.

“We’re evaluating both of those proposals, and we have not taken a position on either the August (elections) or the 60% threshold as they currently exist,” Stivers said. “But (we) are talking to our members to figure out what the right approach is for us.”

In a nod to the abiding critique of the supermajority resolution — that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to undermine an abortion rights amendment — Stivers insisted the Chamber’s interest is only in business.

“I want to be very clear we do not take a position on social issues,” Stivers said. “Protecting the Ohio Constitution, to the Chamber, means protecting it from things that would make Ohio less competitive as a place to do business.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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