Dark money and other corporate spending sway policy in industry’s favor
“What we see are literally corporations using their financial clout to steer public policy in their direction and for their benefit at the expense of the general public,” Sen said. “Dark money is behind a lot of it.”
“Dark money” refers to spending to influence public policy, where the funds can’t be traced to the original donors. Former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers has said dark-money nonprofit groups are ripe for abuse as a money-laundering tool.
Evidence at Householder’s trial showed FirstEnergy, its affiliates and others spent roughly $60 million on HB 6. Prior to Householder’s arrest, public records had revealed only a tiny portion of that money.
More recently, the Energy and Policy Institute linked The Empowerment Alliance, which has multiple gas industry links, to a political action committee that spent more than $1 million on last year’s elections. The group has also promoted state and local legislation labeling natural gas as “green energy.”
Additionally, the Center for Media and Democracy has found links between dozens of Ohio lawmakers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a corporate-funded group that favors fossil fuel development and opposes renewable energy standards. At least seven lawmakers on a committee set up under a 2014 law that cut back and froze Ohio’s clean energy standards for two years were members of ALEC.
Corporations also spend lots of money in plain sight at both the state and federal levels, Sen said. As a group, for example, utilities, fossil fuel industries and nuclear interests have long ranked among Ohio’s top givers for reported political donations.
Voter suppression hurts people most impacted by pollution
“Voter suppression is in front of us right now, and it’s becoming greater as the days go by,” said Ericka Copeland, director of the Sierra Club of Ohio. HB 458, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in January, adopted strict voter ID requirements. The law also shortened the timeframe for early voting, limited the use of ballot drop boxes, curtailed curbside voting and imposed limits on provisional ballots.
“The very people who are most adversely affected by the corporate interests that dominate our government today are the very people whose votes are silenced,” Sen said. Underresourced communities — disproportionately comprising people of color — face higher risks from pollution and energy costs.
Without financial resources to sway policies and elections, “all they’ve got is their vote,” said Ashley Brown, who formerly served on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Other limits on public engagement
When SB 33 criminalized various activities under the guise of protecting “critical infrastructure,” the 2021 law limited people’s ability to organize and protest against pipelines and other fossil fuel industry activities, Sen said.
More recently, HB 507 labeled natural gas “green energy” and jump-started proposals to drill under state parks and wildlife areas. A pending lawsuit challenges the law for violating the state constitution’s single-subject rule and for lawmakers’ failure to hold any public hearings on it after the natural-gas provisions were added.
“These are absolutely anti-democratic because they’re not allowing people to participate in what our state government is passing,” said Leppla, who is one of the attorneys representing the Ohio Environmental Council in the case.
The single-subject rule matters, Leppla said, because “a really important component of democracy is that people can understand what’s moving through our statehouse.” HB 507 started as a simple two-page poultry bill but swelled to 88 pages as more subjects were lumped in. Likewise, the failure to hold hearings after the addition of the oil and gas provisions prevented people from testifying against those provisions before the bill became law, she noted.
“The comment period is an essential part of Ohioans having access to elected officials’ ears, to be very clear about what they worry about and the consequences,” said Turcer at Common Cause Ohio. This summer’s scandal about fabricated comments on drilling proposals compounds the problem, she said, because it becomes harder for public officials to trust the comments they do get.
People’s voices are also silenced by state laws limiting local governments’ authority to take action on a wide range of issues, including environmental matters, budgets and gun violence, Turcer said. For example, a 2021 law prohibits local governments from banning natural gas or propane hookups in new buildings.
“The next step in corporate control would be to ensure that the electorate is not informed,” Sen said. “And one way to do it is by interfering with public education.”
Pending legislation would gut diversity, equity and inclusion programs and require “both-sides” teaching about climate change policy and other “controversial” topics at state colleges and universities. SB 83 is “definitely raising concerns about equity and opportunity and inclusion,” Copeland said, noting that the Sierra Club of Ohio opposes the bill.
What can be done?
“One of the things that’s clear is all of the different ways that hurdles are put before Ohioans who are just trying to make sure that we can breathe clean air and drink clean water,” Turcer said. “But what is clear to me is that people want to take power to improve their communities. They want to use the tools that are available to them to get more accountable government, and to ensure that citizens have their rights. And that is a huge upside.”
In August, voters rejected a Republican-backed amendment that would have made it nearly impossible to pass citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. A reproductive-rights amendment is on the ballot this fall, and efforts are underway to get an amendment on next year’s ballot to put a nonpartisan commission in charge of redistricting. Future amendments might address a wide range of issues, potentially including climate change, Turcer said.
The history of social movements also offers hope for getting more action on climate change, Sen said. He cited the 20th century’s pushes for labor unions and civil rights as examples. Each movement “came from the bottom up. It came from popular pressure that got so strong that at some point in time, the people in power had to concede.”