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Bill would help soil & water districts

This past week, the Senate Finance & Financial Institutions Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 155, bipartisan legislation that I sponsored with State Senator Dale Miller (D-Cleveland).

This includes two important provisions designed to help restore funding for soil and water conservation in Ohio, while providing the state auditor with greater flexibility to monitor how government agencies are spending limited taxpayer resources.

Ohio’s number one industry is agriculture. Our state’s farmers not only produce the food we eat and the milk we drink, but they employ thousands of people and have a tremendous impact on our economy.

But for this success and prosperity to continue, we must take care of our land and water resources.

Ohio has 88 soil and water conservation districts (SWCD)—one in each county—which work with land owners in both urban and rural areas to help prevent soil erosion and promote responsible water management. Unfortunately, as the Legislature and governor worked to balance a difficult state budget this past spring, funding for these districts was cut significantly.

After talking with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, I worked to include language in SB 155 to direct a portion of the state’s existing fee on the sale of new tires to help restore some funding for local soil and water districts. In addition, the bill would increase by $10,000 the amount that ODNR can distribute through grants to soil and water districts that currently receive little to no local matching dollars.

According to ODNR, this change could help these districts maintain at least one full-time employee to help the SWCD board perform minimum services for the local community and apply for grants and other sources of revenue to continue their mission.

SB 155 also includes a provision championed by Ohio Auditor of State, Mary Taylor, which will give the Auditor’s office greater flexibility and discretion to conduct audits of state agency spending every two years.

Current Ohio law allows the Auditor to charge most public offices for the cost of performing their audit.

However, the Auditor’s office also conducts biennial audits of approximately 70 state agencies, which are supposed to be paid for through an appropriation at the Department of Administrative Services.

The most recent state budget bill, however, did not provide this appropriation.

Therefore, in an effort to ensure the Auditor’s office has the resources needed to move forward with their important work, SB 155 would delete the requirement in state law that payments for biennial audits come from DAS.

When Sen. Miller and I introduced SB 155 shortly after the budget passed last July, the bill also included a provision that would have decoupled Ohio law from several recent federal tax changes to help restore funding for the state’s disability medical assistance program and adoption services.

Unfortunately, with the start of a new year, the resources from decoupling are no longer available, so this language was removed in committee.

But, Sen. Miller and I remain committed to finding alternative sources to fund these very important programs.

Finally, you may recall that in a column last October, I wrote about a very capable and valued bus driver in the 17th Senate District, with more than 20 years experience, who lost her job because of more stringent criminal background check requirements for school employees, which the General Assembly approved in 2007.

Late last year, Gov. Strickland signed House Bill 19, which included an amendment to allow the Ohio Department of Education to rewrite these background check rules to ensure students are kept safe from dangerous people, while at the same time making sure good employees are not removed from the classroom or the school bus because of unintended consequences.

As a result, it appears that the bus driver should be able to return to work soon.

The Senate is gearing up for a busy next few months. I will continue to work to keep you informed about issues that are important to our region and the future of this state.

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.