At the start of this election year, hundreds of workers who lost their jobs with the shutdown of an aluminum smelting plant in southeast Ohio hope for help from the state. There’s now a bill that might do that, but as Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports, there are fears there will be long-term and political implications involved.
The closing of the Ormet smelting plant in Hannibal along the Ohio River across from West Virginia came after the company said it was facing bankruptcy, and went to state regulators to ask them to order its electricity rates dramatically reduced. The Public Utilities Commission ordered lower rates, but not as low as was proposed. Ormet wanted to cancel its contract with AEP so it could switch to a lower-cost retail option.
The situation has energized Democrats who say Gov. John Kasich hasn’t done anything to stop it. But Kasich’s office has said he doesn’t have the authority to override the Public Utilities Commission’s decision. Now the lawmaker representing the district where the plant is located, Democratic Rep. Jack Cera, has introduced a bill that would give a governor the power to terminate agreements between some companies and their utility providers.
Kasich’s Democratic opponent this fall says he backs the bill which is clearly aimed at Ormet, though it doesn’t mention the company. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald says it’s not a perfect bill and there could be some long-term issues in extending the governor this authority, but he thinks it needs to be seriously considered.
“It’s not just for those thousand people," FitzGerald said. "There are a lot of spinoff jobs there in that whole part of Ohio, that are really counting on something being saved and salvaged out of that situation.”
Democrats, led by unionized steelworkers, have been blasting Kasich over Ormet, saying that he has yet to speak out about it or to visit the displaced workers.
But at least one Republican from the area says he’s very concerned about what happened in Hannibal. The plant used to be in Rep. Andy Thompson’s district. Thompson says he’s interested in finding out more about Cera’s bill, but admits he’s cautious.
“I’m a little nervous about procedural changes sometimes," Thompson said. "Because we – with the Controlling Board on the whole Medicaid issue – I want to make sure that we don’t somehow, in an attempt to address one situation, set a precedent that might be problematic elsewhere.”
Kasich doesn’t typically comment on pending legislation. But his spokesman has suggested that a new request should be filed by Ormet with the Public Utilities Commission to break its contract with AEP, so it can switch to retail choice and buy electricity on the free market.