Columbus -- County commissioners from northern Ohio voiced concern Feb. 26 about Gov. John Kasich's plans to use the state's lone toll road to leverage billions of dollars for road and bridge projects.
Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo and others representing counties from the Indiana border to the Pennsylvania border want guarantees added to legislation to ensure most of the proceeds will be used north of U.S. 30 and that local commuters won't be subject to toll hikes.
"We were assured that the turnpike was not going to be sold; the workers would not be laid off; and most crucially, the proceeds from any debt issued would be kept where the tolls were paid, in northern Ohio," Kalo said.
"In fact we were explicitly promised during the governor's tour and in multiple press releases from the Ohio Department of Transportation that more than 90 percent of any bond proceeds would be kept in northern Ohio, devoted to our highway and bridge projects," Kalo said.
He added, "If this legislation is passed without directing the distribution of proceeds, then there will be no way to ensure that promises are kept after the money will changes hands."
Kalo offered the comments before the Ohio House's finance committee Feb. 26. The lawmaker panel is considering separate legislation that would implement the administration's turnpike proposal. Kalo's testimony was co-signed by Kathleen Chandler, a former state lawmaker and current Portage County commissioner.
Under Kasich's plan, the state would borrow about $1.5 billion, via bonding against future tolls, and hope to leverage another $1.5 billion in local and federal funding.
The administration has said that more than 90 percent of new bond money would go to roadwork in the northern third of the state. Tolls would be frozen for regular users of the turnpike who travel shorter distances.
But no specific language ensuring those outcomes was included in the state transportation budget or the spinoff legislation containing the provisions.
Administration officials have said including specific percentages in the plan could hinder road and bridge repairs.
"If someone limits themselves to spending 5 percent of their paycheck on food, what happens if they run out of food before the next payday?" Steve Faulkner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said in a released statement. "Do they starve to death? It's the same concept here. If 90 percent of the bonded turnpike money is spent, what happens if a project is not yet complete? Do we just throw up our hands and say, 'Well, the legislation is clear, our hands are tied,' and leave a section of a highway incomplete? At the same time, what happens if all projects needed in northern Ohio are complete but we've only spent 89 percent of the bonded turnpike money? Do we find frivolous things to unnecessarily spend money on and waste precious resources we could use elsewhere?"
He added, "The point is we have transportation needs in communities with a nexus to the turnpike and we are going to build those projects sooner using as much bonded turnpike money as we can."
But Democratic lawmakers say that amounts to a "broken promise" from the governor, with no guarantees that money generated from the turnpike will be used to improve the northern Ohio toll road.
"This is a northern Ohio-funded turnpike, and there is no guarantee in the legislation that the money would be directed to northern Ohio," Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent, said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week.
Kalo echoed those concerns in his testimony Feb. 26, questioning whether state officials would shift general revenue funding as part of a budgetary "shell game."
"We've already seen it with the state lottery and K-12 education funding," he said. "Whenever the lottery increases substantially, it's not treated as a gain, it's simply used as an opportunity to contribute less from the general fund, so that overall K-12 funding doesn't increase any faster than it was growing already."
The turnpike legislation is slated for amendments and a potential committee vote this week, with a floor vote possible this week or next.
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.