COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate's latest budget plan unveiled yesterday wades into the dispute over Toledo's proposed coke plant, pumps $1.5 million more into the city's marina project, and offers $500,000 to encourage an economic Phoenix to rise from the ashes of downtown Wauseon.
The $52.3 billion, two-year budget plan could get an extremely rare unanimous vote on the full Senate floor today, following a similar vote in the House in April.
"I don't know if we should hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' or kiss each other," said Sen. Ray Miller (D., Columbus), a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
The more than 100 revisions approved yesterday leave intact Gov. Ted Strickland's proposal to underwrite a record property tax cut for senior citizen and disabled homeowners and advance school construction by selling off the next 40 years of payments from Ohio's settlement with tobacco companies.
The budget would dramatically boost investment in higher education while largely leaving alone Mr. Strickland's numbers for K-12 education.
Mr. Strickland yesterday defended his decision to personally intervene in the dispute over proposed construction of the FDS Coke Plant in East Toledo and Oregon along Lake Erie.
The committee yesterday added language at his request to allow the director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to retain jurisdiction of a previously issued permit and modify it later even while it's under appeal. The modification, however, can also be appealed.
The unidentified investors making up the U.S. Coking Group have maintained the current permit is too restrictive, while environmental groups have argued that the governor's language will allow the EPA director to do an end run around the appeals process.
"There was the possibility of up to an $800 million investment in that project in that part of the state," Mr. Strickland said. "We think what we suggested here is common sense."
He said experts at EPA will advise him on whether the output of mercury and other pollutants from the plant would be at safe levels as future decisions on the project are made.
"I know the technology for coke plants is increasing dramatically in a positive way," the governor said. "I was just down at a coke facility in Scioto County about three weeks ago, a coke facility of 100 ovens. They're just beginning construction of an additional 100 ovens.
"When you look at the sky above their coke plant, it's as clear as the sky anywhere else in southern Ohio, and I contrast that with the conditions that used to exist from former coke plants in Ohio," Mr. Strickland said. "The difference is like day and night, almost literally."
U.S. Coking Group has estimated the plant would create about 1,500 jobs during its two-year construction and up to 150 permanent jobs thereafter.
The laundry list of last-minute changes to the budget also includes $500,000 in incentives to help new and old businesses rise from the ashes from Wauseon's devastating downtown fire in April. That's $300,000 more than was included in a prior version.
"This grant is real economic development today, because we had seven businesses that were lost there that had 50 employees," said Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta). "Not only are those businesses at risk, but the surrounding businesses that have lost traffic flow due to the downtown fire could be in jeopardy."
As announced Monday, the changes also included $1.5 million in additional state funds toward Toledo's $10 million share of a $25 million Marina District park along the Maumee River.
"I find it absolutely stunning that essentially the new governor has embraced tax reform, has embraced for now the legislature's working on primary and secondary education funding, and we all together marched forward in an aggressive way on higher education," said Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green).
Senate Minority Leader Teresa Fedor (D. Toledo), however, said more work remains.
"Many pieces of the governor's Turnaround Ohio plan are still intact," she said. "However, there's a 1,600-pound gorilla left in the room, and that's education. We weren't able to implement his vision on accountability for charter schools and eliminating vouchers."
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