Budget Director Tim Keen presented the first full capital budget in years to lawmakers, saying Gov. John Kasich’s administration now feels the state’s finances are healthy enough to return to supporting local projects. 
The $2.39 billion budget, introduced by Rep. Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster) as HB497, includes funding for K-12 and higher education building projects, the Public Works Commission, state parks and prisons, the Clean Ohio program and community projects. 

The budget director said in testimony to the House Finance and Appropriations Committee that the administration would like to see the bill passed and signed by April 2 so it can go into effect by July 1, preventing an interruption in ongoing projects funded by re-appropriation of previous capital funds also included in the bill.

Keen said the $2.39 billion package is comparable to the last capital budget introduced under normal circumstances. There was no capital budget in 2010, and Kasich sought a scaled-back budget in 2012 based on the state’s financial troubles. Prior to that, capital budgets were inflated by securitization of tobacco settlement payments sought by the Strickland administration, Keen said. 

The biggest chunks of funding in the package include almost $500 million for the Board of Regents and higher education institutions, $675 million for school facilities projects and $444 million for the Ohio Public Works Commission.

Keen said the $236.4 million appropriated for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is aimed at helping to reduce the significant list of deferred maintenance projects at state parks and forests.

Keen said the budget includes a historically higher amount of money for improvements at state prisons. The $130 million appropriated to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is driven by the fact that some decades-old prisons are getting to the point of needing extensive renovations, including roof replacements, new HVAC systems and other upgrades. Youth detention facilities get $36.1 million, which among other projects will pay for new housing units at a Circleville facility, with new housing at other facilities slated for future biennia.

The Ohio Department of Transportation also gets a larger-than-usual allocation of $100 million in HB497, which Keen said reflect the development of a multi-year plan for systemically addressing maintenance facility needs.

Keen said the budget also departs from past practice of not funding technology projects via capital spending on two matters: $45 million for cloud-computing and other statewide IT upgrades at the Department of Administration Services and $10 million to replace the banking system at the state treasurer’s office. The current system is so old that it can’t get security upgrades and could be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, Keen said.

Reps. Denise Driehaus (D-Cincinnati) and Jack Cera (D-Bellaire) brought up local officials’ frustrations with their project requests being deemed ineligible for capital funding. Keen said borrowing authority is limited to specified purposes, and said if he could go back he would have emphasized that point more heavily in giving guidance to local officials. Keen said the fact that this is the first normal capital budget in six years might have contributed to the problem. 

Keen told Rep. Debbie Phillips (D-Athens) that he believes funding in HB497 for improvements at the state fairgrounds and Ohio Expo Center will be sufficient to keep the All-American Quarter Horse Congress returning to Columbus. The Expositions Commission is in line for $49 million in the bill, $38 million of which is for an all-purpose exhibition building and a new animal exhibit building.

Cera noted the increase in prison appropriations, along with a burgeoning inmate population, and asked if the state will need to build more prisons. Keen said the administration would prefer to focus on community corrections, noting part of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction appropriation is for that purpose.