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Transportation budget bill to be introduced this week

Funding of Highway Patrol a key issue

The state transportation budget bill, the first of several major two-year budgets that must be approved by the Ohio General Assembly before the new state fiscal year begins July 1, is due to be introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives this week.

Given that the transportation budget is funded almost entirely from state gasoline taxes and fees and federal highway dollars, there probably won't be much controversy surrounding the two-year spending plan – unlike the next general fund budget, which legislators may have to slash by as much as $8 billion to bring it into balance.

Ohio House of Representatives Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) said maintenance and construction of highways would be the focal point of the next transportation budget, not trains, referring to the 3-C passenger rail plan authorized in the last budget bill but subsequently killed by new Governor John Kasich.

One of the few controversial issues to be confronted during deliberations on the transportation budget is whether to divert motor fuel tax funds to support the State Highway Patrol.

Historically, the Highway Patrol’s operations were funded almost totally from gas tax revenues, but in the 2003 transportation budget bill legislators opted to wean the patrol off the gas tax to make more funds available for highway and bridge construction.  The agency now is funded primarily from fees on driver licenses, license plates, vehicle registrations, and vision screenings.

Two years ago, a patrol funding task force recommended a series of fee increases that would have generated an additional $106 million for the law enforcement agency. Legislators recoiled at the size of the boost, however, and settled on increases of $69.8 million.  As a result the patrol faces an estimated $50 million funding shortfall in the next biennium.

Batchelder said he was supportive of fully funding the Patrol but wasn’t sure where the additional money would come from, whether from the gas tax or from some other source.

The Patrol's budget technically is enacted as part of the  Department of Public Safety’s budget, which will be considered later this spring along with the general fund budget.  If the consensus is to go back to funding the Patrol from gasoline tax revenue, however, such a provision would have to be included in the transportation budget bill.

“We have to do something,” Batchelder said, adding: “I’m fairly well-known as an advocate of the Highway Patrol.”

The transportation budget bill must be passed prior to April 1 if it is to take effect at the start of the new state fiscal year on July 1. 

“Following action by the Senate in mid-March, we intend to have the transportation budget finalized (in a conference committee, if necessary) and back to Governor Kasich for his signature by the week of March 28,” House GOP spokesman Mike Dittoe said.

Batchelder said the House planned “extensive hearings” on the measure.

“We’re going to have to shift gears,” he told reporters. “I think the last session was the session of the choo choo and this is going to be the session of repair and maintenance – particularly in the bridge and super highway area.”

Former Governor Ted Strickland’s administration insisted on language in the transportation budget to facilitate federal funding for a high-speed rail system in the state, however, those plans were scrapped by Kasich even before he took office.

Although Kasich said last week he would consider selling or leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private venture if he could raise $2.5 billion from the transaction, the speaker said he doubted the future of the turnpike will be considered as part of the transportation budget bill.

“At this point I don’t think the governor has retained anyone to take a look at what it may be quote, ‘worth,’ unquote,” he said. “Until we have that I don’t think most of our members are going to want to vote on doing anything with it.”

“We may have a long-term lease possibility, but we won’t know that until we have an appraisal."

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