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YOUNGSTOWN State's development efforts must be more creative, says new chief



Published: Fri, August 31, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



He does not favor using state money for 'quality-of-life' projects such as the arts or sporting arenas.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- The incoming director of the Ohio Department of Development wants to use state pension money to provide venture capital to stimulate businesses in Ohio.

If the state's economy is going to improve, Ohio has to be more creative with how it spends its money, said state Sen. Bruce Johnson, whose first official day as development director is Sept. 17.

During a Thursday meeting with Vindicator writers, Johnson, of Westerville, said he favors using a small portion of state retirement system funds -- less than 5 percent -- for venture capital, start-up companies that can be high-risk investments.

"It's a small investment," Johnson said. "We need creative investments. Ohio has fallen behind in the past decade in economic development. We have some options. We need to be creative."

Taxes: Johnson said he does not favor a tax increase as an option to generate more money for the state.

"We need to be competitive on the tax side," he said. "Being a burden to businesses is a ... negative even if we invest the money wisely. I'd rather cut taxes and reap the benefits."

Sports arenas: Johnson is also not in favor of using state money to fund "quality-of-life" projects such as the arts or sporting arenas. That money should be used for projects that bring jobs into the state, he said.

"I'm hoping those investments are behind us," Johnson said. "We shouldn't fritter away money on lifestyle issues. The real investment that needs to be made is for jobs."

Johnson, 41, serves as the Ohio Senate's president pro tempore, the body's second-highest ranking officer. Johnson, who will earn $117,000 in his new job, could not have run for re-election next year when his current Senate term expired because of the state's term limits law. Gov. Bob Taft announced the appointment of Johnson Tuesday.

Johnson dismissed criticism that he does not have the experience to run the Department of Development, which administers the state's economic incentive programs.

"I've been underestimated before and proven my detractors wrong," he said.

Lordstown: Even though he is from the Columbus area, Johnson said he will not ignore the rest of the state. For example, among his priorities is to ensure that General Motors remains in Lordstown.

"Once we get out from underneath the shroud the court has put us under with education, we can move onto economic development and at the top of that list is GM," Johnson said.

"We're more capable now of responding to a Lordstown situation than a small venture capitalist."

GM is very satisfied with the state's incentive package that includes a job retention tax credit, said Douglas Moormann, Taft's executive assistant for business and industry who also met with writers.

skolnick@vindy.com




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