By JIM SIEGEL
The Columbus Dispatch
Oil and gas interests that successfully fought a fracking-tax increase pushed by Gov. John Kasich poured money into Republican legislative campaign coffers during the budget debate this year.
Calling Ohio’s current drilling tax woefully low, Kasich last year tried and failed to persuade GOP lawmakers to increase the severance tax on the emerging shale-drilling industry. He reintroduced the proposal in February as part of the new two-year budget, only to have majority Republicans swat it away again.
Asked in June about the chances of getting the tax passed in the future, Kasich said, “I think we wait for (House Speaker William G.) Batchelder to retire.”
Shale drilling known as fracking has exploded in Ohio, and as lawmakers consider how to regulate and tax the industry, Statehouse lobbying and the campaign donations that go with it also has ramped up considerably.
In the last two-year election cycle, oil and gas interests pumped about $830,000 into Republican legislative campaigns, including $131,000 from fracking giant Chesapeake Energy, $111,000 from NiSourceand $255,000 from the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Dispatch analysis shows.
Through the first half of 2013, the industry has given more than $242,000 to state lawmakers and candidates. Batchelder was the top recipient, pulling in about $25,500; followed by Rep. Ron Amstutz of Wooster, the House Finance Committee chairman ($23,200); and Senate President Keith Faber of Celina ($20,500).
GOP legislative leaders never expressed much interest in the drilling-tax increase, which Kasich argued would put Ohio more on par with other states. Some, including Amstutz, questioned the administration’s numbers and argued that lawmakers shouldn’t do anything to impact a booming industry in its infancy.
“Political donations have never driven policy decisions in the Senate,” said John McClelland, spokesman for Faber. “It never happened before, and it’s not going to happen now.”
A House GOP spokesman made a similar assurance.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council called the lobbying by the oil and gas industry a “ near-bulletproof operation.”
“Governors and lawmakers of all stripes have taken their best shot, including our current governor,” he said. “It seems like the law only changes when this industry allows the law to be changed.”
With large majorities secured by gerrymandered districts, legislative Republicans are crushing Democrats in fundraising. The House Republican caucus reported $2.1 million on hand, compared with $66,000 for the Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans have $2.1 million on hand versus $48,000 for Democrats.
GOP lawmakers picked up a healthy sum from e-school operator William Lager, who gave $180,000 - already approaching the $243,000 he gave for the last entire two-year campaign cycle. The operation and funding of charter schools is always a major budget discussion, and most charter schools benefitted along with public schools when funding was increased.
The budget included a cap on e-school enrollment, including at 1,000 students for new e-schools, and now allows e-schools to provide career technical education.
Batchelder was by far the top legislative fundraiser, bringing in $516,000 in the first six months. His top donors included $12,000 from FirstEnergy CEO Anthony Alexander, $10,000 from American Electric Power, $12,155 from the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association; and $10,000 each from charter-school operators Lager and David Brennan.
Faber raised $245,000 in the first half of 2013. His largest individual contributor was $11,500 from Lager — an amount he also gave to other top GOP leaders — while the Ohio Beer and Wine Association gave him the maximum $12,155.