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Ohio GOP lawmakers favor remake of tainted energy bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — There has been limited progress made by Ohio lawmakers who lined up to repeal and possibly replace a tainted $1 billion bailout for two nuclear plants more than two months ago, increasing the likelihood that around 90% of electric customers in the state will see charges for the bailout next year.

Customers would also find themselves paying to subsidize utility-scale solar projects that have not yet begun to produce electricity. That subsidy, like the one for the nuclear plants, is supposed to be paid based on the amount of power generated.

Bills to repeal legislation officially titled Ohio Clean Air Program but better known as HB6 were introduced in August, soon after federal authorities announced the nuclear bailout was tied to a $60 million bribery scheme overseen by the House speaker.

HB6 has been under intense scrutiny since U.S. Attorney David DeVillers announced on July 21 that House Speaker Larry Householder and four others had been arrested for their involvement in a bribery scheme secretly funded by an unidentified company that clearly was Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. Authorities have described it as the biggest bribery scheme in state history.

Republicans, the majority party in both legislative chambers, say hearings will resume after the Nov. 3 election with an apparent consensus that a replacement bill should maintain nearly all of HB6’s provisions but include strict auditing requirements to determine whether the nuclear plants’ owner needs the money before subsidies are paid.

Democrats argued for that requirement before HB6 was approved with little support from party members last July. The version that became law a year ago calls for annual reviews conducted by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio after subsidies are paid.

A FirstEnergy subsidiary operated the plants until February, when a new privately held company called Energy Harbor took ownership in a deal struck in bankruptcy court. Questions about whether Energy Harbor needs the bailout money arose earlier this year after Energy Harbor received permission to buy back $800 million of its stock, which indicates strong financial health.

Householder was removed as speaker at the end of July. All five men were indicted on federal racketeering charges and have pleaded not guilty. FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones has said the company committed no wrongdoing.

Rep. James Hoops, a Republican from Napoleon, chairs the House committee considering next steps regarding HB6.

“Republicans, like Democrats, are disappointed all of this occurred,” Hoops said of the bribery scandal. “It’s a black eye on the legislative process because of one person. It doesn’t mean this was bad legislation. Now we have to figure out as we move forward what’s best for the state of Ohio and its energy policy.”

Rep. David Leland, a Democrat from Columbus, said HB6 needs to be replaced before discussions on future energy policy in the state move forward.

“The only way we send a message to the people of Ohio that Ohio is not for sale is to fully repeal HB6,” Leland said.

The Legislature missed an Oct. 1 deadline to repeal the legislation and prevent charges from being added to electric bills for around 90% of Ohio customers starting in January. The current bill allows the plants’ new owner, Energy Harbor, to receive as much as $150 million a year based the amount of electricity the plants generate.

The Legislature could repeal HB6 in an emergency measure before year’s end, preventing the charge from being added to customers’ bills, although it appears unlikely as Republicans consider how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit to stop the subsidy from being collected.

“We’re just trying to get our arms around if we do things here how it affects energy policy,” Hoops said. “We’re going to be more transparent and deliberate and make sure everyone understands what the implications are.”

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