The people of Toledo, along with supporters of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR), were disgusted to find out in early May of this year that language was inserted into the state budget bill, just before the House passed its version of the budget, to undermine LEBOR and Rights of Nature in Ohio. Which representative was responsible for adding this language and who or what group was behind it? I, and other members of the Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN) set to find out.
On February 26, 2019, the people of Toledo passed LEBOR with 61% of the vote. This landmark law granted rights to Lake Erie and its entire ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve. It also empowers citizens – as part of that larger ecosystem, and who have the right to a healthy environment – to stand up for the lake when those rights are violated. This is the first-of-its-kind law in the United States to grant rights to an entire body of water and its ecosystem. Similar rights of nature laws have passed in Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, India, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia.
Since the late 1990’s, Lake Erie has been plagued with toxic algal blooms and five years ago there was a massive bloom that significantly affected the people of Toledo. It created a crisis so dangerous that they were not able to even touch their water for several days, let alone drink it. Motivated by this, a campaign was formed by a group of Toledo citizens to do something about it after years of neglect from industry and the legislature. Out of this LEBOR was born.
So, mysteriously, on May 9, 2019, Section 2305.011 appeared in the budget bill for the very first time and stated that, “… nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate or bring an action in a common pleas court; it prohibits any person, on behalf of nature or an ecosystem, from bringing, or intervening in, an action in such court; and it prohibits any person from bringing an action against a person who is acting on behalf of nature or an ecosystem.” That same day the Ohio House passed its version of the budget with this language. Subsequently, in spite of testimony to remove this section from the budget bill, the Senate passed its version of the budget with this section on June 20, 2019 and the governor DeWine signed it into law on July 17, 2019.
I, along with other members of OHCRN contacted the Legislative Service Commission and all representatives of the Ohio House to find out who was responsible for this last-minute amendment to the budget. No one could or would tell us. Isn’t the budget supposed to be the Peoples’ budget and isn’t the process supposed to be transparent? At least that is what the legislators tell us.
I decided to submit a public records request to the Chairman of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Oelslager, and found out that it was Rep. James Hoops (R-Napoleon) who was responsible for this language submitted in an omnibus amendment to the budget. Hoops represents district 81 which is in the northwest corner or Ohio.
I did not believe that Rep. Hoops came up with this on his own, so I decided to submit another public records request to him to see who was behind it. I received emails between Hoops’ office and Zach Frymier, who was the director of energy and environmental policy with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. (He has since been promoted to state government affairs manager for AEP). On April 11, 2019, Frymier wrote to Hoops’ legislative aide and asked “I’m hoping to find some time (like everyone else) to run something by Chairman Hoops regarding the Lake Erie Bill of Rights that passed in Toledo in February. We have some language that we’d request be considered for the budget. Though obviously it would have to be submitted after tomorrow’s deadline we’d still like to have a conversation.” The legislative aide quickly set up the appointment and Hoops and Frymier met less than two hours later.
Then on May 2, 2019, a rough draft was sent from a research associate with the Legislative Service Commission to Hoops legislative aide and she forwarded it directly to Frymier, just ten minutes later writing, “Hi Zach, LSC sent this to me as a draft. Does this wording make sense to you?” Later, that same day, Frymier wrote back, “The statement that nature and ecosystems do not have standing currently contradicts what the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is current law in Toledo, states. Language in this amendment stating that they do not have standing is essential to what we’re trying to accomplish. If we could get that added I would be very grateful.”
The process of steathly adding last-minute amendments to a bill that have nothing to do with the bill, just to get something through for the benefit of big-money interests, is as slimy as the toxic blue green algae that Toledoans are trying to prevent. It has happened many times before, as it did in December of 2016 when a last-minute amendment was inserted into HB463 to give Boards of Elections the unconstitutional power to keep duly qualified citizen initiatives off the ballot. This corrupt practice is an affront to democracy because it circumvents public testimony and discussion and shuts out the voice of the people. In essence, it creates illegitimate law and makes it even more obvious that the Ohio General Assembly is corporate-controlled. It means that we the people are actually following laws written by corporations, instead of corporations following laws written by the people, which is what LEBOR is.
The passage of LEBOR is something that should be celebrated by Ohio, and the Ohio legislature and the governor could have been leading the way forward in recognizing this. It drew international attention and some of the grassroot activists responsible for LEBOR were invited to speak at the United Nations on International Mother Earth Day this past April. In a time when we are experiencing a climate crisis and the rate of extinction of species is accelerating, we can no longer see nature as just property and a resource but something that has rights itself. This is a paradigm shift that is so desperately needed and represents a way forward for the survival of our planet. We are not separate from nature; we are an integral part of it. If we continually allow nature and ecosystems to be polluted and destroyed, then we are also destroying ourselves.
So, the Ohio Legislature and the Governor chose a backwards path rather than a vision forward on this issue. More money may be thrown at Lake Erie’s algae problem but we will see little change, if at all. The corporate system we live under will not allow it. However, the Community Rights and Rights of Nature movements have taken hold and the Ohio General Assembly cannot stop them.
Bill Lyons is a co-organizer of Columbus Community Bill of Rights and a board member of the Ohio Community Rights Network.