Ohio’s operating budget may face some serious realignment next year, but the supposedly precarious financial conditions have hardly put a dent in the number of local requests for capital project assistance in separate bricks-and-mortar legislation.
Documents submitted to the legislature over the last several months detail hundreds of millions in proposals for local community projects such as theaters, museums and parks.
Many of those requests have been collecting dust since the beginning of the year as the split and oftentimes-combative General Assembly has continued to put off action on the bill that mostly authorizes new debt to pay for state buildings over a two-year period.
That action could be further delayed depending on the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections, or in light of the state’s looming fiscal crunch.
Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) said no decision had yet been made on whether to take up a capital bill during lame duck session.
“If we didn’t pass the capital bill in the lame duck it wouldn’t be the first time that capital appropriations were done in the next fiscal year,” he told reporters this week.
Only twice in the last three decades has the biennial schedule for the capital bill been adjusted considerably. Policymakers refrained from issuing new debt in the financially strapped 1979-80 cycle (113th General Assembly), and political differences pushed the processing of the 2004 capital measure into the next year HB16 (126th General Assembly).
The 2004 delay occurred after then-Senate President Doug White dropped the gavel sine die earlier than expected amid legislative disagreements with former Speaker Larry Householder. By quickly passing the bill in 2005, the General Assembly avoided funding disruptions for major projects.
This year brings a new dynamic in the form of partisan uncertainty, with some Republicans advocating for a delay pending a change in the political winds.
Among those is Sen. Keith Faber (R-Celina), a member of the Senate Finance & Financial Institutions Committee, who said legislative action on a capital budget could depend on the outcome of the elections.
“I certainly would think that if the administration changes and, or the House changes, that all those are factors to be considered when we decide what to do about a capital budget,” he said in an interview.
Amanda Wurst, spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Strickland, said lawmakers should put politics aside when determining the best course for the capital budget.
“It is difficult to imagine a more cynical proposition than to let pure politics dictate these kinds of governing decisions, but the governor remains hopeful that, ultimately, legislative leaders will determine timing based on what is in the best interest of the state,” she said.
The Strickland administration has been planning for months on a $1.8 billion capital budget for fiscal years 2011-2012. In preparing for the successful Third Frontier ballot issue last spring, the administration said that total, which is in line with recent capital bill bond amounts, could be issued within the state’s 5% debt cap.
Nevertheless, a capital appropriations bill has yet to be introduced, and Dave Isaacs, spokesman for Speaker Armond Budish (D-Beachwood), said the speaker and Senate president have only had “limited discussions” on the subject.
“It’s premature to speculate on what may or may not be taken up in lame duck,” he said.
Sen. Faber even questioned whether the legislature should take up a capital bill at all this session regardless of who wins on Nov. 2.
“I just don’t see the need to do it, unless there’s some pressing state need or pressing state requirement that has to be done because it’s time sensitive,” he said.
In any case, appropriation earmarks for community projects should definitely not be on the legislature’s lame duck agenda, he added.
“How do you explain to voters that we’re going to probably be looking at over a 15% budget hole, but yet we’re going to reward and do various community projects?” he said. “Capital dollars, no matter what the discussion is, are state tax dollars because you have to do the debt service.”
Funding for community projects in the capital budget has gone up and down over the years depending on the availability of extra general revenue fund money for the predominantly bond-backed legislation but has hovered around $100 million in recent biennia.
Per usual, this year’s requests are exponentially larger than what will be divvied up to the local communities, which historically have depended on the state to fund a portion of their major improvement projects.
The project types run the gamut – from $500,000 for an elephant exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo to $8.2 million for various city projects in Mansfield.
Among the larger requests submitted thus far is $10 million each for the Cleveland Museum of Art and the NCR research lab center at the University of Dayton.
Cleveland and Cuyahoga County jointly requested about $24 million, including $5.5 million for the Coast Guard Point project, $5 million for the Great Lakes Science Center-NASA Visiting Center in Cleveland, $4 million for park improvements to Malls B & C, $3 million for the Gordon Square Arts District and $2 million for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber asked for $27.52 million to fund “priority projects” such as Central Riverfront Park ($3 million), the Cincinnati street car line ($3 million), Hamilton County stadia ($2.5 million) and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden ($2 million).
The Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce is seeking more than $16 million for projects in Lucas and Wood counties. Those requests include: $7.2 million for the Lucas County Multi-Purpose Arena; $4.75 million for the Toledo Science Center; and $2 million for the port authority.
The City of Columbus/Franklin County is among the few major metropolitan areas in the state that has yet to submit a list of capital requests, however money has been requested separately for the Columbus Zoo ($1.15 million) and the Ohio to Lake Erie Trail ($2 million), among other area projects.
A sampling of other community project funding proposals submitted by regional consortiums and lobbyists:
· $300,000 for the Eulett Center in Adams County.
- $2 million for the College of Nursing in Ashland County.
- $1 million for the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
- $1 million for the Canton Symphony Orchestra.
- $3 million for Blossom Music Center.
- $1.575 million for The Wilds conservation park in Muskingum/Guernsey County.
- $2 million for Lighthouse Youth Center at Paint Creek in Ross County.