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Capital budget signed by governor notable for its omissions

No funding for Clean Ohio, community development projects

The $1.74 billion two-year capital budget bill signed by Governor John Kasich Monday may be distinguished as much for what it doesn't fund as for those projects it does.

Billed accurately as a "restrained" budget – previous capital spending plans have been twice as generous – the bill for fiscal years 2013-14 omits any funding for "community projects," such as parks, theaters and museums, and for the extremely popular Clean Ohio program.

Efforts by minority Democrats to include funding for community projects, for which the General Assembly routinely spent approximately $100 million in previous capital budgets, fell on deaf ears in the House of Representatives, which passed the bill (HB 482) March 22.

Likewise, a concerted push by environmental groups to have funding for the Clean Ohio program substantially increased in the bill was rejected in the Republican-controlled Senate.

During a hearing on the bill March 28, dozens of witnesses pleaded with the Senate Finance Committee to increase Clean Ohio funding in the bill from $6 million to $100 million.

Twice voters statewide have authorized the issuance of up to $200 million in bonds, most recently in 2008, to finance brownfields cleanup, greenspace and farmland preservation and development of recreational trails throughout the state.

Although the state could still issue $100 million in bonds, the funds used to pay off Clean Ohio debt – profits from the sale of liquor – have been diverted to fund Kasich's JobsOhio program.

As a result, the Clean Ohio brownfields program, which has funded the cleanup of more than 300 contaminated industrial and commercial sites around the state, ran out of money in January.

Josh Knights, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, was one of the many witnesses who asked the Senate Finance Committee to increase the appropriation for Clean Ohio, which he described as a "remarkably successful" program.

Committee chair Sen. Chris Widener (R-Springfield) told the witnesses the increase in appropriation could be included in other legislation moving through the House and Senate, adding he is in support of the Clean Ohio Fund.

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate meanwhile said they remain unsure of whether an increase would be seen elsewhere.

Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) said he is in conversations with the lower chamber and administration about opportunities to fund Clean Ohio, “but it’s too early to tell if those conversations are going to bear fruit right now.”

“I think they’ve identified the priorities for Clean Ohio, and I think the voters of Ohio have spoken about their interest in the Clean Ohio program,” he told reporters. “If this is the right time we want to try to find a way to satisfy those needs, but right now I’m OK with the $6 million that is included in the capital bill,” he said.

House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) said the program is obviously well supported by Ohioans.

“It’s obviously a good program; the question is do we want to sell bonds – it’s a bond-funded program – do we want to sell bonds at this point, and the governor’s indication was he would prefer not to do that,” he said after session.

Beth Venderkooi, director of state policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, encouraged "appropriate amounts" of the $100 million available through the Clean Ohio Fund be provided for farmland preservation. The Clean Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase program has preserved more than 20,000 acres of farmland, she said.

Patricia Kovacs, chairwoman of the Gahanna Bicycle Advisory Committee, said she is particularly interested in increased funding for the Clean Ohio support for trails. She said in Gahanna, the Big Walnut Trail is halfway complete and in Columbus there is a two-mile gap in the center of the Alum Creek Trail, which would provide a 30-mile path when complete.

"The Alum Creek Trail is part of the Ohio to Erie Trail, which will connect the Ohio River in Cincinnati to Lake Erie in Cleveland and provides Ohio residents and visitors with a cross-state, off-road bike and walk trail that is unrivaled in the nation," she said.

The two projects have Clean Ohio Trail Fund applications that are in "limbo," she said, urging the committee to approve the Clean Ohio Fund appropriation.

Krista Magaw, Tecumseh Land Trust executive director, said Ohioans are not "spendthrifts" and that is why they support the program that provides cost-effective incentives for smart growth. "Clean Ohio's components are also critical to attracting new businesses and skilled workers to Ohio.”

The Clean Ohio program gives farmers an option besides developing their land for housing "that people don't really need," Tecumseh Land Trust board member Jim Timmons said. They are able to sell their development rights and continue to farm.

More than a dozen other witnesses representing a variety of organizations also testified in favor of Clean Ohio funding, but in the end it was to no avail.

The capital budget bill was voted out of committee and passed on the floor of the Senate later in the day.  The bill appropriates:

  • $675 million for the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which funds school construction projects around the state.
  • $400 million for construction projects at state institutions of higher education.
  • $365 million for the Ohio Public Works Commission to fund local water, wastewater and road and bridge projects.
  • $288 million for state agency projects, 95 percent of which is devoted to maintenance and renovation of existing facilities, such as:
  • $67.9 million for projects at the state's 28 adult prisons and $15.5 million at juvenile justice facilities;
  • $30 million for the Department of Administrative Services, including $15.5 million for the state of Ohio Computer Center;
  • $10 million for the Department of Mental Health to support community housing, treatment and support projects;
  • $14.6 million for the Department of Developmental Disabilities to fund projects at its 10 developmental centers;
  • $51.2 million for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to do maintenance and improvements at state parks and forests.
  • $18.8 million for a new National Guard armory in Delaware.
  • $11.9 million to build a state-of-the-art crime lab for the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation on the Bowling Green State University campus.
  • $10 million for coal research and development at the Department of Development.

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