Ohio House approves nearly $2B in projects, some local reps decry process

Fast-tracked bill leaves some lawmakers spurned

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

The Ohio House voted 75-19 Wednesday to fast-track $1.65 billion in state capital spending and appropriate another $350 million toward local projects across the state.

Some local lawmakers touted the tens of millions of dollars in local projects included in the bill. Others opposed it saying there was no transparency in choosing those projects, and the $2 billion spending bill was unveiled less than a day before they were asked to vote on it.

The bill moved hastily without much committee deliberation, and is the final action the House will take before March’s primary election — it’s seen by some as a primary bargaining chip. It will likely not be taken up by the Senate until both chambers reconvene on April 10, at the earliest.

Montgomery County projects

The bill, known as H.B. 2, is the first hint at what local projects could receive state funding through a $700 million one-time “Strategic Investment” fund that was created using state surplus funds over the last budget cycle. GOP lawmakers say the surplus is a result of fiscal conservative spending; Democrats say it was aided by massive federal COVID relief aid.

The House bill deals with only half of the $700 million in the local project pot. It’s expected that the Senate will dole out the remaining half when it takes up the bill.

A county-level breakdown of projects was not available Wednesday. But Montgomery County lawmakers released a list of 27 projects totaling $15 million in the House bill.

Those include a $2 million allocation for a youth development workforce center at the Dayton Boys and Girls Club; a $1.25 million appropriation for a workforce development site in the Kettering Business Park; another $1 million each toward Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Schuster Center, Countryside Park, the historic Wright Factory Site, improvements in downtown Centerville, and so on.

“Listening and learning from our communities about what they need is key to our collaboration,” said Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering, in a joint statement released with Reps. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., and Tom Young, R-Washington Twp. “Funding these transformational projects will have a lasting impact on our region.”

Rep. Willis Blackshear, Jr., D-Dayton, the lone Democrat in the Miami Valley, told this news organization that the one-time strategic fund, which is a first for Ohio, has given lawmakers the chance to “strategically focus on projects with a regional impact” and help get those projects over the finish line.

Springfield Rep: Government ‘Broken’

Other area lawmakers lament they weren’t invited to the table.

Freshman Rep. Bernie Willis, R-Springfield, aired his frustration with the bill on Facebook on Tuesday, calling the ordeal “today’s installment of ‘How broken is your state government(?)’”

“Once again, hundreds of millions of your dollars (are) being voted on with no transparency or full committee process or real input from your elected representatives,” Willis wrote.

He noted that his district asked for $7 million to build a sports and wellness center next to the Springfield Family YMCA. “We did not even get considered,” he said.

House District 74, which covers Springfield and the entire northern section of Clark County, received only $375,000, according to Willis, which is only enough to pay for half of one lower-priority project.

Willis accused GOP leadership of playing favorites with the funds.

When this news organization asked House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, if he understood frustrations from some of those in his caucus that felt left out, he said: “No, because everybody that wanted to be part of the process was part of the process.”

Butler County projects

State Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, released a list of Butler County projects slated for funding totaling over $6 million.

They include $4 million toward Butler Tech; $1 million to turn Hamilton’s historic Shuler and Benninghofen Woolen Mill into residential units; $1 million toward upgrading the Riversedge Ampitheater; $400,000 to provide a new apartment for survivors of domestic violence; $225,000 to revitalize Boys and Girls Club’s East Clubhouse and Grand Clubhouse gymnasiums, among other things.

Tommy John, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton, told this news organization the funds were “critical” for the renovation of the two Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton gymnasiums, one at the East Avenue facility and the other on Grand Boulevard. The buildings were built by donors and businesses the 1960s and 1970s, and have been homes away from homes for thousands of Hamilton kids.

“In order to continue to provide a service after school, having the best facilities for our kids is of the utmost importance,” John said. The funds being considered by state lawmakers will be half of the funds needed for the renovations as the other half “were already raised from local donors in Hamilton and businesses.”

‘What a coward’

In addition to Willis, other area lawmakers who voted against the bill included Reps. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester; Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria; Bill Dean, R-Xenia; and Scott Lipps, R-Franklin.

Some pushed for a plan to forego specific projects and instead distribute the $350 million as property tax refunds to residents.

This included Gross, who told this organization that she had not received any communication from leadership during negotiations. Ultimately, Stephens repeatedly ignored a handful of dissenting Republicans and did not allow their motion to hit the floor.

“What a coward,” remarked Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova, after repeatedly being ignored.

Carruthers, a Stephens ally, castigated the refund idea, noting that it would come out to about a $31 benefit per person.

Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., told this news organization that he couldn’t square voting against the bill, despite mostly being left out of negotiations, because he felt the county and his district fared well.

“For me, it’s been about looking at it from a bigger point of view. I want to support my county, I want to support my district, these monies will go toward good things for that,” Hall said before the vote.

Other spending

H.B. 2 was also used by the House to fulfill its portion of a $50 million obligation the state has with Beemok Capital.

The investment group recently bought the Western and Southern Open, Mason’s world-renowned tennis tournament, but considered relocating. The group decided to keep the tournament local in exchange for millions of dollars in public-private partnerships.

The bill includes $13.75 million for the tournament, which was celebrated by Rep. Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon. The state already appropriated $22.5 million in its biannual budget and Mathews said he expects the Senate to pick up the remaining $13.75 million when the chamber takes up the bill.

In addition to local projects, H.B. 2 allocates $397 million toward state universities; $150 million toward Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections facilities; $100 million toward large local jails; $600 million toward local school buildings; and another $400 million to state and local infrastructure programs.

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