IDEAS: Ohio’s home rule law is really more anti-local

Some Ohio General Assembly members demonstrate why, since 1912, Ohio’s constitution guarantees cities and villages local self-government – that is, home rule. Latest Statehouse caper: A bid to let the oil and gas lobby push cities around.

Scenario One: It’s before home rule took effect in 1912. You’re an electric utility that owns a streetcar line (a common linkage). In that pre-family-car era, streetcars were the way Ohioans got to work. If you owned a streetcar line, you all but printed money.

Trouble is, a city regulates fares, a headache your monopoly doesn’t like. You, the streetcar (or electric company) must find somebody who (a) has the power to let you charge what you want, and (b) doesn’t have to face local voters.

Solution: You wine and dine the General Assembly and get it to, in effect, impose higher streetcar fares on the city that’s fighting you. After all, relatively few General Assembly members are from the targeted city, so its voters can’t unseat pro-fare-hike lawmakers. Besides, Charlie the Lobbyist is a good guy. So the legislature strips a city of power over fares – what, in effect, legislators once tried.

Scenario Two: You’re a city’s political boss. You promise certain … businesses … that if they support your party, you’ll leash the cops. Trouble is, the mayor is from the other party; he picks the police chief. The boss treks to the Statehouse and has the General Assembly pass a law ending or weakening that mayor’s control of his city’s police. That happened.

That was how things could go till, in 1912, voters approved the Ohio Constitution’s home rule amendment. Before that, the General Assembly could and did pass so-called “ripper bills” to let special interests override the elected officials of cities and villages.

True, Ohio Supreme Court decisions on home rule are all over the map, literally and figuratively. For instance, ask your mayor why she or he can’t keep frackers from sinking wells in the middle of your neighborhood. Answer: House Bill 278 of 2004, which gave the state “exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells ...” That is, your city or village council is powerless over fracking. The bill was sponsored by future Senate President Thomas Niehaus, a suburban Cincinnati Republican who’s now a prominent Statehouse lobbyist. Likewise, the handgun lobby’s Statehouse fanboys have successfully blocked cities from trying to at least restrain Ohio’s handgun plague.

The anti-local-voter push never stops. In the last week or so, members of Ohio’s House and Senate have introduced more home rule rippers:

One would forbid cities and villages (and counties and townships) to ban the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity – or ban or regulate pipelines. Another ripper would forbid cities and villages (and counties and townships) to limit or ban natural gas service. That’s hardly likely. Instead, that bill, and the fossil fuel bill, are Republican Valentines sent to oil and gas lobbyists.

Forbidding cities and villages to concern themselves with pipeline safety is downright sinister: According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, “From 2009 to 2018, the number of [pipeline] incidents, injuries sustained, and the yearly costs associated with pipeline incidents all rose compared to annual averages from 1999 to 2008.”

Meanwhile, “someone is killed with a gun every six hours in Ohio,” according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. If that doesn’t faze our legislature, why would the occasional pipeline fireball?

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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