By Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: A private economic development agency created by Gov. John Kasich to move “at the speed of business” has been slowed to a near halt in obtaining its startup money as it awaits the outcome of a lawsuit.
A bond sale that JobsOhio expected to complete in the first quarter has not yet taken place, leaving it without $100 million it would have used to create business incentives.
The delay also has left the state without the first $500 million it would get under a deal requiring it to transfer 25 years of profits from state liquor sales to JobsOhio in exchange for the up-front bond money. The deal could raise as much as $1.4 billion for the state.
Despite the hurdles, Ohio has added or retained 100,000 jobs in the past year, a quarter of what it lost during the previous four years. Kasich ties the progress to the new approach.
At the same time, Kasich, JobsOhio’s financial guru Mark Kvamme and budget director Tim Keen all have been cautioning state lawmakers not to look at a projected $265 million budget surplus as real money. Unless the bond deal is done by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, Keen testified recently, the state’s apparently rosy budget picture could quickly turn south.
Attorney General Mike DeWine has thrown a further wrench into things by raising new questions about the public records rules lawmakers are debating for JobsOhio. He says broad wording in a bill that cleared the Ohio House on Wednesday and has headed to the Senate could turn otherwise public records private.
DeWine said he is lobbying Kasich and lawmakers to address a provision that says records created or received by JobsOhio are not public, regardless of who has custody. DeWine believes it could shield from public view documents that state agencies share with JobsOhio.
“Once it was shipped to JobsOhio, it would get immunized from public disclosure,” he said. “That transferring agency wouldn’t have to disclose those documents, and that’s just wrong. It goes against all of our long history of openness and public disclosure of information, and it just couldn’t have been what was intended.”
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the administration doesn’t necessarily agree with DeWine’s reading of the language, but will work to address his concern.
Confidentiality is considered important to JobsOhio’s ability to negotiate with private companies interested in investing in the state, just as it was for the Ohio Department of Development whose job-creation functions JobsOhio is assuming. Prior to the creation of JobsOhio, records of state economic development offers were often not available under public records law.
“What we want to do is give them the power to do a whole lot more,” Nichols said. “We’ll never be satisfied when it comes to job creation. We want them to be able to do more with more, always.”
Records access has been a particularly sticky issue for JobsOhio because of points raised in the lawsuit: Ohio’s constitution prohibits the state from becoming a joint owner or stockholder in a private company.
“Why the framers wanted to make it unconstitutional is for accountability over taxpayer money,” said ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg, whose organization helped bring the lawsuit. “Even though the attorney general is actually defending the governor on this JobsOhio suit, the very issue he raises gets to the heart of the issue that a nonpublic entity can seal off records on how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”
DeWine said he sees the records issue and the lawsuit as separate. The trial court dismissed the suit, and an appeal is under way in the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus.