COLUMBUS - House Republicans plan to raid Ohio's settlement with tobacco companies to the tune of $20 million to pay for auto-emissions testing in the Cleveland and Akron areas.
"We believe this has a similar goal," House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) said. "We are trying for clean air. We believe this is a health issue for northeast Ohio and an economic issue for the whole state."
The language is expected to be added to the $51 billion, two-year budget that the full House plans to send to the Senate next week. A final budget must be enacted by July 1.
After several years of "borrowing" a total of $352 million reserved for anti-smoking efforts to balance its books, Gov. Bob Taft's latest budget proposal would have left the next two annual installment checks from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and other cigarette manufacturers alone.
"We haven't seen a proposal, but the governor is concerned about using one-time funds to balance the budget," Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said.
Twenty million dollars is roughly how much the Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Foundation will spend over the biennium on its Stand anti-smoking marketing campaign.
"It's a weak attempt to form a link between auto emissions and tobacco prevention-and-cessation programs," said Tracy Sabetta, spokesman for Tobacco-Free Ohio. "The dollars earmarked for the foundation are there to reduce Ohioans' tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke, not to reduce auto emissions."
Anti-smoking activists have advocated raising the state's tax of 55 cents on each pack of cigarette to $1.30 to raise money to repay the funds borrowed from the foundation and expand health care. Mr. Taft has proposed an increase of 45 cents to help balance the budget.
Currently, vehicles in the seven northeastern counties, which have some of the worst ozone pollution readings in the nation, are required under federal law to undergo emissions testing every two years. About 2 million drivers a year pay $19.50 to test each vehicle under a contract with Connecticut-based Envirotest Inc. that expires at the end of this year.
The state is in the process of trying to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow it to discontinue federally mandated E-Check programs in seven counties in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. It has argued that it can meet ozone standards there through means other than E-Check.
The House budget maneuver assumes that the southwestern counties will be exempted and Ohio will exercise its option to exempt vehicles newer than five years from tests in the northeast. The current exemption is for vehicles less than two years old.
"E-Check is part of statewide compliance with federal air quality," Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) said. "If the entire state benefits from compliance, because lack of compliance would mean the loss of federal highway money, then the whole state should share the burden instead of saddling selected counties."
Rep. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) of the House Finance Committee drafting the budget, dislikes the idea of tapping the tobacco fund, but said that provision would probably not be enough for him to oppose the entire budget.
"This would only target one region, but the tobacco dollars reach all citizens in the state of Ohio," Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) said.
The state must submit its plan in 2007 to the U.S. EPA to explain how it will reduce smog levels to meet new stricter ozone standards. Lucas, Wood, and Allen in northwest Ohio are among the counties considered to be in "basic nonattainment" under the newest standards.
The state is not considering emissions testing as one of its methods for bringing those counties into compliance.
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