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Published: Saturday, 5/24/2008

Latest bill prevents turnpike from helping fund jobs plan

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -The state will have to look to its own savings account rather than the Ohio Turnpike to help fuel a $1.57 billion economic stimulus package under a revised bill proposed yesterday.

The Senate Finance Committee put its brand on the House-passed jobs package in anticipation of a full chamber vote next week. The amended version removes all references to the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio and makes the state's budgetary reserves, or rainy-day fund, the source of the $200 million involved.

"It's clearly raining in Ohio," said Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), a committee member. "This is out of our bank account. Creating jobs in our state is an appropriate use of those dollars."

Gov. Ted Strickland prefers the $1.57 billion jobs package that initially called for the independent turnpike to pony up as much as $20 million a year to pay off $200 million in borrowing plus interest for transportation projects across the state.

"He has serious concerns about using the rainy-day fund for new expenditures,'' Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said. "Obviously, the fund by design is intended for emergency purposes. We don't know what the future will hold. There is also a concern that making use of the rainy-day fund for new expenditures will have an adverse effect on the state's credit rating."

Under pressure from northern Ohio lawmakers, the House this week approved a revised package that could cut in half the turnpike's obligation. Instead, the House version would have used anticipated revenue from hotels, restaurants, and gas stations that pay to advertise on blue exit signs on state highways to offset the turnpike's share.

The turnpike's share of the revenue would have been earmarked for 21 northern Ohio counties while the sign program funds could have been used anywhere in the state.

The latest version of the bill in the Senate strips all references to either the turnpike or the sign program from the jobs package's financing, which would leave the governor no language on which to use his line-item veto pen when the bill reaches his desk. Ohio governors have the authority to remove language from appropriations bills, but they can't add language.

"It's protected at this point," Mr. Wagoner said.

There is about $1 billion in the state's rainy-day fund, which is designed to serve as a backup in the event of economic downtowns and budget shortfalls. The governor and lawmakers, however, largely have kept their hands off the fund while dealing with their latest budget problems.

Under the Senate version, the $200 million would be transferred to the Ohio Public Works Commission to be used for projects across the state, eliminating the need to borrow the money. That would reduce the debt costs of the package, which involves about $970 million in new borrowing.

The package culls cash from sources such as the state's tobacco prevention efforts, liquor sale profits, and future budgets.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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