COLUMBUS — A lawmaker panel signed off on biennial transportation plans Wednesday, setting up what could be a lengthy floor debate in the Ohio House.
Two of the biggest points of contention concerned toll rates on the Ohio Turnpike and road and bridge commitments in northern Ohio.
The House finance committee OK'd two-year spending plans for the Ohio Department of Transportation and several other state agencies that are separate from the larger $63 billion-plus state budget expected to be finalized by midyear.
The committee also gave its approval to legislation that would leverage billions of dollars for road projects statewide using future toll revenues from the Ohio Turnpike.
The bills were moved on mostly party-line votes, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposing.
The legislation is expected to be considered on the floor of the House Thursday, where the bills likely will be passed and forwarded to the Ohio Senate for further consideration.
The turnpike bill solidifies a plan outlined late last year by Gov. John Kasich and calling for the state to 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 language on the spending and toll goals was not included in the legislation OK’d by the House finance committee Wednesday.
Administration officials say including such provisions could hurt future road and bridge projects.
But Democrats say not including the language in the legislation amounts to a broken promise by the governor.
"Without assurances that the money will be spent in northern Ohio or that our fuel tax won't be diverted to others parts of the state, this is double taxation on northern Ohioans," said Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent. "They're going to have to pay their tolls when they travel on the turnpike and their motor fuel tax with no assurance that that money will go to their communities, like that turnpike money is required to be used now."
Rep. Mike Foley, a Democrat from the Cleveland area, added, "This seems to me to be taking an independent, good running piece of infrastructure and changing it to a political football for a reelection campaign in 2014. That really disturbs me."
Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Republican from Wooster and chairman of the House finance committee, called the turnpike plan a "conservative proposal."
"I think we've seen a good recommendation that has been well vetted and has been presented in ways that I think are reasonable...," he said.
Rep. Ross McGregor, a Republican from Springfield and primary sponsor of the turnpike legislation, added, "I have not heard from one citizen of northern Ohio [opposed to the bill]. ... I think [lawmakers opposing the legislation are] manufacturing a problem that doesn't exist."
Democrats offered a number of amendments during Wednesday's finance committee hearing. All failed, though minority party members likely will offer comparable amendments during the floor debate on the legislation.
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at email@example.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.