Gov. Mike DeWine remains steadfast about the need for a significant increase to Ohio's gasoline tax, despite pushback from legislative leaders who argue a lower boost to the tax would be sufficient to fund road and bridge projects.
In a meeting with the Beacon Journal editorial board Wednesday, DeWine said the tax is key for moving Ohio forward and allowing the state to compete with its neighbors. Ohio's current 28-cent-per-gallon rate is lower than every surrounding state but Kentucky.
“The big question is: Is this state going to move forward?” DeWine said during the hourlong meeting. “You can’t do other things if you don’t do this.”
DeWine also highlighted several other priorities for his first term, including several that will be part of the state budget proposal he'll roll out Friday.
DeWine proposed an 18-cents-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax in the transportation budget. Ohio hasn’t raised the tax in 14 years. The state transportation director has said the current tax is insufficient for state and local governments to maintain current roads or finish major new construction projects.
The Ohio House has proposed a more modest increase to the gas tax of 10.7 cents, and Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said this week that the Senate’s proposal will be lower than the House-passed increase. The Senate is expected to introduce a substitute transportation budget Monday and to vote on it next week.
DeWine’s plan would raise $2.5 billion in additional revenue over the next two years, compared to about $1.1 billion in the House’s proposal.
DeWine called his proposal on Wednesday a “minimalist approach” to addressing the state’s infrastructure needs.
DeWine and Jack Marchbanks, the state transportation director, have warned that a more modest gas tax hike could stall major infrastructure projects. In the Akron area, one of the larger bridge projects to replace the Route 8 bridge that spans the Little Cuyahoga River Valley in Akron is currently funded but could be pushed out to a later date, depending on what happens, said Justin Chesnic, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
The $130 million project to replace the 1,500-foot-long bridge that links Akron with its northern suburbs is scheduled to start in late 2020 and continue through 2024.
DeWine, who was accompanied by several of his newly appointed cabinet members, also highlighted several other initiatives, including:
• Local government: DeWine said he is looking for ways to assist local government through targeted approaches, such as his gas-tax proposal, which has wide support among local government officials, including in the Akron area. He said this will give them more of a choice about what they want to do with their local funds.
“If they spend less general fund money on roads, they can spend it on hiring police,” he said. “This will be meaningful help that we are giving them.”
• Specialty courts: DeWine said his budget will include funding for 30 more specialty courts. Summit County Common Pleas Court has several specialty programs, including two drugs courts and a new mental health court.
“These things work,” DeWine said. “We know that they work.”
• Children’s services: DeWine wants to nearly double funding for county children’s services agencies.
Other topics DeWine discussed were the need to address lead poisoning among children living in older houses, the high mortality rate among African-American infants and Lake Erie's water quality. He'll announce more details about his Lake Erie proposal in a Thursday news conference.
Asked where the money would come from for his initiatives, DeWine said his non-transportation budget will have no new taxes and will be balanced. He said the budget will define what he sees as “unfinished business” and how he believes this should be addressed. He acknowledged, though, that state lawmakers may have different ideas.
“It will start the debate,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com and on Twitter@swarsmithabj.