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Legislators may again tap gas tax to fund Highway Patrol

Would divert millions from ODOT construction program

Just a few years ago, transportation advocates persuaded Ohio lawmakers to stop funding the operations of the State Highway Patrol out of the proceeds of the state’s motor fuel tax, freeing up well over $100 million for additional highway and bridge construction projects.

Now a new group of leaders in the Ohio General Assembly is talking about the possibility of reversing course and again allowing the patrol to tap into fuel tax proceeds, which are already on a downward slide.

Although the media has been focused with Governor-elect John Kasich’s plans for dealing with a potential $8 billion shortfall in Ohio’s next two-year general revenue fund budget, the new administration must propose a separate transportation budget early next year, long before it tackles the GRF budget.

While Kasich doesn’t have to submit his GRF budget proposal to the legislature until March 15, the transportation budget – which funds the operations of the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Ohio Department of Public Safety, including the Highway Patrol – must be passed by the legislature by March 30.

Historically, the Highway Patrol’s operations were funded almost totally from gas tax revenues, but in the transportation budget bill passed in 2003, 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 on which ACEC Ohio served 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, and settled on increases of $69.8 million, and as a result the patrol faces a serious funding shortfall in the next biennium.

At the same time, with motorists driving less and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, revenue from the state’s 28 cents-per-gallon gas tax is on the decline.  Net tax revenue has fallen from $1.84 billion in fiscal year 2007 to $1.78 billion in FY 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Taxation.

House Speaker-elect Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) said the patrol has proven to be one of the most effective of state agencies, and said he had no idea why it was taken off the gas tax six years ago.

“I’m concerned about what we face in potential difficulties in Homeland Security that the patrol was designed to address. Obviously there’s a safety factor there as well,” he said in an interview. “I think it’s important for us to take a close look at it.”  Batchelder said public opinion polls routinely give the patrol an 80% approval rating.

House Finance Chairman-designate Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster) said legislators would have to again try to stabilize patrol funding. “It’s been a difficulty in the budget,” he said.

“We’ll have to see what the new administration wants to do with that. And we have some of our own ideas,” Amstutz said.

One option that’s definitely not on the table is an increase in the state gas tax.  Rob Nichols, press secretary for Kasich, said of the Governor-elect: “He’s talked about lowering taxes. We are not going to raise the gas tax, period.”

In the months ahead, ACEC Ohio will be working with other interested organizations to dissuade legislators from allowing further diversion of fuel tax proceeds from highway construction.

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