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Legislators’ Secretive Maneuvers Undermine Rights of Nature in Ohio

Legislators are secretly inserting language into bills that undermines people’s ability to protect ecosystems.

The emissions from the Gavin Power Plant are seen on September 11, 2019, in Cheshire, Ohio.

For weeks, a legislator’s identity was kept secret by the Ohio General Assembly. When constituents asked who inserted language denying the rights of nature into the 2020-2021 House budget bill, their elected representatives simply shrugged their shoulders and told those of us who asked, “Nobody knows.”

Yet, somebody introduced the destructive language into the House budget bill, which says that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate or bring an action in a common pleas court and no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in such court.”

The language is directly aimed at discouraging people from passing new Rights of Nature (RON) laws, which give citizens legal standing to sue major polluters on behalf of a natural entity, such as a river or an entire ecosystem. RON laws are a response to the failure of conventional environmental laws that were systemically designed to make it nearly impossible for people to protect the health and safety of their communities and the environment from corporate harm and unjust laws.

An example of a RON law is the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a historic measure that made international waves this year when the people of Toledo, Ohio, passed their own law protecting Lake Erie from corporate agricultural pollution. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights is different from other environmental laws because its language subordinates corporate “rights,” holds corporations liable, and directs all proceeds from lawsuits to a dedicated fund for restoring the lake.

This year’s budget bill was passed as residents in Williams County, Ohio, were submitting signatures for a county charter to protect the region’s sole source of drinking water, the Michindoh Aquifer, from corporate privatization.

Who would do such a thing? Especially at a time when, according to Gov. Mike DeWine, one of Ohio’s top two problems is Lake Erie’s agricultural pollution? And why would it be so important to actively safeguard anonymity?

Perhaps a legislator who represents influential agricultural entities that consider the RON movement a threat to their profitability is responsible for the language. Traditionally, when corporate interests are threatened, legislators are quickly called upon to make those threats go away. We have seen it happen before.

For instance, Ohio HB 463 is a similar law that aimed to undermine the state’s RON movement. In that case, language aimed at squashing citizen-led initiatives — which communities advancing RON laws and ordinances utilize — was slipped into a much larger foreclosure bill the day before the vote. That bill was passed in December 2016, just before the General Assembly’s holiday recess.

Against the Will of Communities

The Community Rights and RON movements have recently taken hold in Northwest Ohio, a place where corporate agriculture is deemed king. Corporate animal factories abound in this region and are permitted by the state to pollute not only at the expense of communities who rely on having clean land, air and water to survive, but also at the expense of nature itself.

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights brought worldwide attention to Ohio’s fledging RON movement. In February 2019, as Toledo voters passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights with an overwhelming majority, we all watched the vote add sparks to the RON movement, which has been moving forward in the state for seven years.

Yet the destructive language was anonymously inserted the day before the House vote on the state 2020-2021 budget bill, which passed quickly in a fast-and-loose process that circumvented normal democratic legislative procedure that typically requires public input and debate on the House floor. The Senate soon followed suit. The language protects corporate interests and was passed by the full General Assembly, and quickly signed into law by Governor DeWine. Our elected representatives were desperately hoping that no one noticed.

Through a recent citizen’s public records request filed by a board member with my organization, the Ohio Community Rights Network, the identity of the person who introduced the RON-challenging language was revealed to be Northwest Ohio State Rep. James Hoops (R-Napoleon), who represents corporate agricultural interests as well as thousands of human constituents in three rural Ohio counties. His district includes Williams County, where residents have been working hard to pass their own RON law to protect the Michindoh Aquifer from a corporate water privatization scheme.

Indeed, the document obtained through a second public records request has revealed that the budget bill’s RON-destroying language was directly handed to Hoops from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. An email from the Chamber to the representative states, “Language in this amendment stating that [nature and ecosystems] do not have standing is essential to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Chamber’s mission statement says, “The Ohio Chamber staff promotes the chamber’s pro-business agenda with Ohio’s elected officials and manages membership services that help Ohio chamber members run their businesses.”

State representatives may be pretending to stamp out the RON movement in order to satisfy their corporate sponsors, but they are also painfully aware that it’s too late to stop it, legally.

Legitimate law is not made by secretly passing legislation in omnibus fashion. For one thing, it violates Ohio’s “single-subject rule” requiring each legislative bill to relate to one subject at a time. It also circumvents citizens’ right to public input and debate. However, duplicitous legislating without transparency is something we’ve come to expect from the corporate-controlled Ohio Assembly. In fact, the General Assembly frequently passes such illegitimate, unjust laws.

Many people believe the illegitimacy of such laws can be brought to light and perhaps made right if somebody challenges them in court. But those in power rest easy knowing this is rarely an option for the people who lack resources and exclusive influence. The deck is stacked against people seeking protections from corporations in all branches of government. Judges commonly uphold unjust laws in order to protect legislators and corporations.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just an individual government official or one political party, branch or level that is to blame; the entire system is fixed against the rights of the people and nature. And when a new way of looking at things comes along, like the Rights of Nature movement — which put the rights of people and nature before the rights of corporate polluters’ profits — legislators must hide their identities and pass secret unjust laws to protect the interests of the corporate elite.

Our RON work in Ohio is part of a much broader network of organizations working to advance Community Rights and the Rights of Nature across the country and in places around the world. We help each other by bringing people together to build relationships, forge bonds and strengthen the movement.

It’s time for the people to take a stand: to implement community rights and RON in the places where they live and end an unjust system that is set to destroy the rights of people and nature. The illegitimate actions by the Ohio Assembly will not stop us from exposing and eventually changing the system’s dark-monied, anti-democratic methods of protecting corporate profits above the rights of people and nature to exist and flourish.

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