By David R. Celebrezze, Outreach Coordinator, the Ohio Environmental Council
Even when issues are cut and dry on what is environmentally best, if wording is not crafted just right, the environment may still lose out. A case in point is the recent budget bill fight here in Ohio.
The State of Ohio passes an operating budget every two years that takes effect July 1. The Governor introduces his version of the budget to the State House of Representatives. Once the House votes on the bill it moves to the Senate for their vote. If the Senate passes a different version of the bill it then moves to Senate/House Conference Committee to iron out the differences. Next, the bill heads back to each respective house for a vote. Once passed, it is up to the Governor to sign (or line-item veto) it into law.
This year’s budget bill included several amendments that would have gutted environmental protections. In the original version of the budget bill, Governor Taft (at the request of the Ohio EPA and pressure from environmental groups) requested that the 401 wetland impact fees be increased from $15-$200 to $250-$25,000 with a cap for local governments. This increase would allow the program to be 80% applicant funded instead of the current 90% taxpayer funded. However, in the dead of night, the Ohio House of Representatives amended this section at the request of the homebuilder industry. The amendment would have increased the range of mitigation, removed protections from category 2 (medium quality) wetlands, opened up state scenic rivers to developers, created a two-tiered review process that tied the Ohio EPA Director’s hands in denying a permit, and added an onerous provision that the applicant would only pay the fee if approved -a perverse incentive for the Ohio EPA to approve all applicants.
This amendment was added to the budget bill Sunday night and subsequently passed a few short hours later. From the very beginning the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) dubbed this amendment the “Bulldozer Amendment” because it gave developers a license to bulldoze and destroy Ohio’s remaining (less than 10%) wetlands.
As word spread of the damage the “Bulldozer Amendment”would cause, the OEC formed a loose coalition of 15 state-wide groups to stop it. The groups in the coalition represented hunters, anglers, conservationists, and environmentalists. As a coalition we had several conference calls to ensure everyone had the same over-arching message, while allowing flexibility on minor issues.
From the start we referred to the amendment as the “Bulldozer Amendment” to the press and in internal discussions This created consistency and repetition, which lends itself to easy understanding among the public. In fact, elected officials and editorial boards were using the term to describe the amendment. Each group sent action alerts to their members and list serves with the same message.
As a coalition we targeted several key legislators, heads of committees, Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, Governor’s Office and swing legislators. The coalition sent several sign-on letters to these targets that acknowledged any positive changes, but suggested specific improvements to the amendment. In many cases, the Senate letters were the first piece of information the Senators received on the issue.
In the end, the Senate and House/Senate Conference Committee removed the most egregious aspects of the amendment and the Governor vetoed the remaining harmful section. This victory happened for several reasons: messaging in the media, grassroots pressure, radio ads, press events, fact sheets, and finally, and very importantly, the Ohio EPA stood with us in opposing this legislation. We did not agree on all parts but we worked together on overlapping concerns. By working in tandem, we had a strong front that represented different parts of the community. This coalition represents years of working together on different environmental issues and building up trust and understanding.
For more information on this victory please contact David R. Celebrezze, Outreach Coordinator, the Ohio Environmental Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.