General Assembly must be realistic about gas tax

Gov. Mike DeWine is facing a revolt from members of his Republican Party in the Ohio General Assembly – and he’s only been in office since Jan. 14.

At the heart of the disagreement is DeWine’s push for an 18-cent-a-gallon increase in the tax on gas and diesel. Ohio’s motor fuel tax now stands at 28 cents a gallon. It has been more than 15 years since the last increase.

Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled House rejected the governor’s plan and instead opted for a 10.7-cent-a-gallon boost in the gas tax and a 20-cent hike on diesel.

The increases are contained in the two-year, $7.9 billion transportation budget adopted by the House on March 7 and sent to the Republican-controlled Senate.

The support of House Democrats was key to the passage of HB 62 because a large number of Republicans refused to go along with Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican.

But the governor’s troubles have followed him to the Senate, where the GOP majority has made it clear his 18-cent tax increase is dead on arrival.

Indeed, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, has said his chamber’s tax hike may be even lower than the House’s 10.7 cents.

A Senate vote is expected this week, which gives the governor one last chance to make the case for his proposal, which was unveiled last month.

Although we strongly agreed with the administration that Ohio is in desperate need of construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of highways and bridges, we weren’t ready to endorse its plan.

But after conversations with DeWine, Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks and others, we have concluded that the argument can easily be made for the 18-cent increase.

In a perfect world, administration officials would have traveled the state hosting public hearings on the need for more tax revenue.

Deadline looms

But time is of the essence because there’s a March 31 deadline for the adoption of the transportation budget.

We urge Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House to take a step back from their versions of the transportation budget and seriously consider what the administration has put forth.

Here’s the bottom line: Ohio’s transportation needs are so great that the $2.5 billion the DeWine gas-tax increase would generate over two years does not allow for any unnecessary spending. That’s why the department of transportation will be looking to cut operating costs by reducing the payroll.

In the first year, the roughly $1.2 billion would be split between ODOT and local governments.

In fiscal year 2020, ODOT will provide $750 million in additional funding to pave roads, fix guardrails, fill potholes, clear snow and ice, maintain bridges and improve safety.

ODOT has calculated what local governments and other transportation-related entities would receive. The amounts are posted online.

We would urge residents to access the information before rushing to judgment on what the governor has proposed.

It is instructive that even critics of the plan acknowledge there is a backlog of work that must be tackled to upgrade Ohio’s transportation system.

Neither the House nor Senate versions of the transportation budget will address the needs of the state.

As ODOT Director Marchbanks put it: “A status quo budget is a stand-still budget. A state that stands still falls behind.”

Since all politics is local and all decisions made in Columbus have local ramifications, here’s something for the people of the Mahoning Valley to consider: Without additional funding, new interchanges to connect state Route 11 to the Ohio Turnpike and to Niles Vienna Road would not be completed.

Likewise, a new interchange on Interstate 80 at state Route 304, the southern portion of the state Route 82 beltway and the completion of the widening of Western Reserve Road from Market Street to Interstate 680 will be put on hold.

In a meeting with The Vindicator’s Editorial Board, Gov. DeWine warned that failure to pass the administration’s transportation budget “will stifle economic development “ in Ohio.

“It would just be a real mistake,” the governor said.

We couldn’t agree more.

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