Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: Ohio House Democrats said Monday that key public promises made by Gov. John Kasich are absent from a bill authorizing the sale of $1.5 billion in Ohio Turnpike bonds to fund state highway projects, and they are taking steps to get them in writing.
The lawmakers said a bill released last week excluded a guarantee to keep 90 percent of the bond deal’s proceeds in northern Ohio. The legislation also failed to mention Kasich’s pledge to freeze toll rates for a decade for motorists making trips of 30 miles or less on the 241-mile toll road, which cuts across northern Ohio.
Democratic members of the budget-writing House Finance Committee said they have introduced amendments to place both provisions in the bill, for fear the administration could back out of the commitments otherwise. A hearing is scheduled today, with a committee vote possible Wednesday.
“You can’t tell the people of Ohio one thing and then do something else, and think that members of the legislature are going to be supportive of deceiving the public,” said state Rep. John Carney of Columbus.
Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Faulkner said Kasich intends to keep his promises, but mandating an exact percentage of project dollars to go to one region or a certain toll policy could jeopardize flexibility.
“At the end of the day, those motorists and communities in northern Ohio are going to be so satisfied at getting those projects done,” he said. “They’re not going to care about a couple politicians in Columbus squabbling over a dollar figure or a percentage.”
When Kasich rolled out his money-making plan for the turnpike in December, he said northern Ohio road projects would get priority treatment — with almost all the money being directed to projects north of U.S. 30.
Going back to 2011, when the administration was exploring a private lease of the toll road, Kasich was expressing the same intention.
A 2011 administration fact sheet said “it is only fair that more than a majority of it go to the regions whose residents have supported the road the most over the years.”
Beyond any fairness issue, the pledge was also viewed as necessary to securing political buy-in from communities along the turnpike that pay more tolls and rely on the roadway for jobs.
Many local government and business leaders who initially backed Kasich’s plan made specific mention of either the money flowing back to northern Ohio or the toll freeze for local travelers in lending their support.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, the Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, said all Ohioans could see toll hikes under the bill’s current language — and northern Ohioans would feel the brunt of any increase.
State Rep. Kathleen Clyde said Monday that she expected debate to center on what constituted “northern Ohio,” what percentage of revenue went to that area, and how communities neighboring the turnpike would establish the nexus needed to secure dollars for their projects.
Instead, she said, “When the bill was rolled out, there was no mention of the money being spent in northern Ohio.”
Some House Democrats critical of Kasich’s plan supported a 2008 proposal by then-Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland that would have diverted about $20 million a year in turnpike revenue to fund a $1.6 billion economic stimulus package. The plan, which ultimately failed, required the money to be used in transportation districts that surrounded the turnpike.
State Rep. Matt Lundy, a critic of the Kasich plan who voted in favor of the 2008 package, cited significant differences in the two proposals.
“This is not the same thing,” he said.