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Ohio legislature passes its first budget test

After much debate and compromise, the House and Senate reached agreement this past week on a $7.3 billion transportation budget for fiscal years 2010-2011.

This includes $5.8 billion for the Ohio Department of Transportation to help support key highway and bridge construction projects over the next two years. The proposal, House Bill 2, which was signed by the Governor on April 1, also allocates $1.9 billion in federal stimulus dollars to improve our state’s infrastructure and create jobs.

Many observers were concerned if the budget process would work with a Democrat-majority in the House and a Republican-majority in the Senate. Admittedly, at certain points during the debate, it did seem like a long-shot that the legislative and executive branches would come to a consensus.

As I mentioned in a previous column, I had very strong concerns about several provisions in the House-passed version of HB 2, including primary enforcement of seatbelt violations, the installation of speed cameras in construction zones on Ohio highways and unchecked tolling authority for the ODOT Director. I am happy to say that all these provisions were removed in the final version of the bill.

Members of the House and Senate and the Strickland Administration did reach a compromise to allow ODOT to establish tolling on new road construction, with oversight from a legislatively-mandated board.

In addition, the Governor’s proposal to establish Transportation Innovation Authorities—a group of local entities that would have the ability to use taxes and fees, including tolling, to help fund public improvements—was put aside for consideration in a separate bill.

I was also concerned about the geographic distribution of federal stimulus dollars for transportation projects and worked to include an amendment in the Senate version of HB 2 to ensure these funds were directed fairly to all parts of the state. The amendment became unnecessary after the Administration announced on March 26 that $774 million in federal stimulus funds will go to support 149 road and bridge infrastructure projects in 87 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The governor’s proposal to restore passenger rail service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati was another issue that received significant debate over the past several weeks.

The administration wanted to move forward with the plan quickly, so Ohio could compete for $8 billion in one-time federal stimulus funds earmarked for rail development in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

However, many of my colleagues and I were concerned that the plan lacked details and the state would have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars every year to subsidize rail operations. Not to mention, the Governor wanted these stimulus funds to be sent through the Controlling Board instead of the full General Assembly.

The Legislature and the Administration reached a compromise on the issue. The Governor was given the green light to apply for federal rail infrastructure funds, but before construction can begin, these dollars must be approved by a supermajority vote of 5-2 by the controlling board, with support from two members of the House and two members of the Senate. Then, any money to cover the operation of passenger rail in the state would have to go through the full General Assembly.

The final version of HB 2 also eliminated a $5.75 increase in the state’s license tag renewal fee, but other charges, such as fines for late vehicle registration, were increased to partially replace the revenue.

In addition, an emergency clause was added to the bill to allow federal stimulus resources to go to unemployed Ohioans.

HB 2 is not a perfect bill—budget bills always include some compromises—but it passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

I hope this positive result helps set the framework for the General Assembly’s work on the state operating budget over the coming months.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.