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COLUMBUS — Republicans on Thursday ratified Gov. John Kasich’s plan to quadruple Ohio Turnpike debt to finance highway and bridge projects across the state, despite arguments by some of their own that it would lead to double taxation on northern Ohioans.
Supporters, however, praised the plan as an innovative way to deal with a chronic lack of funds to address the state’s aging infrastructure.
“There’s a lot of pride in where we live, but we’re still one state,” said Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima).
House Bill 51 passed by a vote of 58-36 and now goes to the Senate. It is expected to eventually reach Mr. Kasich’s desk.
Northwest Ohio Reps. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) and Tim Brown (R., Bowling Green) were among four Republicans joining Democrats in opposition to the bill. A pair of Cleveland-area Democrats broke ranks with their party to support the measure.
“This is an extra tax we have to pay every time we use this turnpike,” Mr. Damschroder said. “The rest of the state doesn’t have to pay the bill. … This is an issue of fairness.”
Under the plan, a revamped Ohio Turnpike Commission would borrow $1.5 billion against future tolls on top of the $530 million in debt it carries. This is expected to generate a matching amount in federal and local funds for a total construction pot of $3 billion.
Mr. Kasich promised that 90 percent of that first $1.5 billion would be spent in northern Ohio, which has been generally described as anything north of U.S. 30. He has also promised that tolls would be frozen for the next 10 years at current rates for EZ-Pass-using commuters traveling less than 30 miles and that toll increases for all other vehicles would be capped at the annual rate of inflation.
But none of these promises is etched into the bill. The Kasich administration fears that legal restrictions on the turnpike’s ability to raise revenue would affect bond rates.
Before approving the bill, Republicans amended it to specify that any project funded with turnpike bond funds must be deemed to have a “nexus” with the toll road. The bill, however, does not specify what that means and leaves it to the turnpike commission to develop rules governing the process.
“I cannot foresee how a project in, say, Clark County could ever satisfy that nexus requirement,” Rep. Ross McGregor (R., Springfield), the bill’s sponsor, said. “By requiring the nexus, we are ensuring that the majority of the monies from these bond sales will be spent in northern Ohio.”
Rep. Tom Letson (D., Warren) held up Ohio’s neighbors as cautionary tales.
“Pennsylvania has overextended itself,” he said. “They’re about to bankrupt [their turnpike], and Indiana hasn’t taken care of [its leased turnpike]. Theirs is garbage. Yes, garbage. ...
“The real problem from my point of view, and it’s only my point of view, is right now the governor of the state of Ohio has a checkbook with $1.9 billion in it, and he could write the cost of this $1.5 billion bond issue tomorrow, this afternoon if we could get a hold of him.”
The Lucas County commissioners, all Democrats, held a downtown Toledo news conference earlier Thursday to voice their opposition. Legislators should reject “any legislation that doesn’t keep the governor’s promise” of using 90 percent of the funds for northern Ohio projects, said Carol Contrada, commission president.
“Write it down. Be accountable,” Commissioner Pete Gerken said.
All three commissioners unanimously approved a resolution at their weekly meeting on Tuesday to urge the governor and legislature to re-examine the plan.
Northwest Ohio Reps. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), Robert Sprague (R., Findlay), Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), Tony Burkley (R., Payne), and Jeff McClain (R., Upper Sandusky) supported the bill. Mr. Damschroder, Mr. Brown, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), and Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) voted against it. Rep.
Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) missed the vote. So did Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Port Clinton), but the lawmaker who doubles as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party spoke against the bill before the vote.
Staff writer Kate Giammarise contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com, or 614-221-0496.