COLUMBUS (AP) -- Gov. John Kasich and Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday announced they will ask voters in May to renew and expand a popular public-works program to pump $1.87 billion over 10 years into water, sewer, road, bridge, and other local projects.
They also plan to launch a 10-year, $50 million-a-year effort to address a backlog of infrastructure needs at state parks as part of next year's expected borrowing-fueled capital budget for bricks-and-mortar projects.
They see these as logical extensions of this year's controversial move by the state to borrow $1.5 billion against future Ohio Turnpike tolls to pay for highway and bridge projects well off the turnpike corridor, a first-time move designed to deal with a backlog of projects while spurring creation of construction jobs.
"This will be very good for shining up the state. …" Kasich said after speaking to a meeting of chambers of commerce from across Ohio. "When you manage yourself right, you have space (before reaching the debt limit)."
Voters last approved a $1.35 billion program in 2005 with 54 percent of the vote. At the time, it was part of a broader $2 billion bond issue that also included a new Third Frontier fund investing in high-tech research and innovation.
They were combined into one constitutional amendment at the time because Third Frontier had previously failed with voters as a stand-alone measure.
The public-works program was seen as popular partner that boosted Third Frontier's chances. Voters have since renewed Third Frontier on its own.
"As a fiscal conservative, I'll be the first one to tell you (that) you should never use debt to pay for ongoing expenses," Senate President Keith Faber, R.-Celina, said. "It is OK, if you're going to do capital infrastructure, to fund that with a longer-term repayment because the people who will benefit in the future are also the ones who are going to help pay those costs."
The program funds projects at the rate of $150 million a year. That would climb to $175 million during the renewed program's first five years, then $200 million for the next five years. "It really doesn't change our debt service," Faber said. "It really continues on what we've been doing."
The program is popular with local governments and its renewal would come at a time when Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have been criticized for past cuts in aid to local governments.
"These same Republican officials have cut over $1 billion to our local communities," said Rep. Michael Ashford, D.-Toledo, the No. 3 House Democrat. "The state is sitting on $1.5 billion, and now they want to use a credit card instead of writing a check.
"I'm concerned because a future generation of taxpayers will have to pay for this down the road so the Kasich administration can make an easy decision today," Ashford said. "Who's to say what our economy will look like then? Let's hope it looks a lot better than it does right now."
Senate Democratic Leader Joe Schiavoni, D.-Boardman, agreed the program has been popular with local governments, but he said the proposal unveiled Wednesday doesn't go far enough.
"Let's be clear. You can't fix Ohio's infrastructure problems with an additional $25 million a year," he said. "That's why Senate Democrats will continue to push for bigger investments in our local communities to address the billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure needs that exist across the state."