Ohio House Speaker accused of playing favorites with a $350M spending bill

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, is facing backlash from a handful of Republican lawmakers after they say he played favorites with last week’s fast-tracked spending bill that allocated $350 million in surplus funds to hundreds of local projects across the state.

Outcries have come from members who either felt the final bill was unfair or thought that the process was too quick, too opaque, or that they weren’t included in final negotiations.

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The chamber voted 75-19 to pass House Bill 2 less than 24 hours after the details of the nearly $2 billion spending bill were released to lawmakers and the public.

Some local lawmakers lauded the bill, which included $37.4 million in projects for Butler, Clark, Montgomery, Greene, Warren, Darke and Preble counties. But Clark County only got funding for one project worth $375,000 — one of the lowest funding levels in the state — and Miami and Champaign counties got zilch.

State Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, issued a statement Friday blasting the process for bypassing public input, being fast-tracked to a vote after an 11-minute hearing and they excluding 16 counties from funding.

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“As legislators, it is our duty to be well-informed on the contents of the bills we support. Caucus discussions and debate did not happen with this bill. It was then hastily rushed onto the House floor,” she said.

Stephens noted that this bill had been talked about in the House since July. He said leadership had made it clear that lawmakers had until Dec. 18 to meet with their communities and until Jan. 10 to submit a list of priority projects to House leadership.

When this news organization asked Stephens after the vote if he understood the frustrations of some Republicans, he answered, “No, because everybody that wanted to be a part of the process was part of the process.”

Bill opponent Rep. Bernie Willis, R-Springfield, said he met the deadline but received no communication from House leadership until the bill was finalized. He disagreed with the speaker’s assessment.

“That’s just not what happened. We put in priorities with projects from our districts and didn’t have any feedback on that until literally the very last minute,” Willis told this news organization after the vote. “Everybody met the deadline, but once all that went in, there was no feedback on what was going to happen with those things.”

“The person who was supposedly tasked with reaching out to me, specifically, just told me (after the vote) that he thinks he had the wrong (cell phone) number for me,” Willis added, noting that leadership also canceled the regular Republican caucus meeting that typically takes place before session.

Willis said the $375,000 his county received for the A.B. Graham Memorial building is only half of the price tag on the low-priority project.

Ohio has 99 House Districts, each drawn to contain about the same population. Evenly dispersing $350 million among those districts would give each just over $3.5 million. Of course, that isn’t exactly how these budgetary processes work, given that some projects can reasonably be deemed more worthy of money than others.

Dan Baker, Ohio House majority finance director, told this news outlet that House leadership approached H.B. 2 the same as it has approached every budget bill the state has passed in recent history — locals meet with representatives to develop priorities, those priorities are submitted to leadership, and leadership picks accordingly.

Some critics of the bill call it political theater ahead of the March primary intended to bolster Stephens’ allies.

“It’s hard to piece together, but if you are a member that voted for the speaker last January, you did very well in this bill — millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars. If you’re a member that did not vote for the speaker, you’re getting the table scraps,” Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, told the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau after the vote.

One notable exception to this claim is Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., who has historically held an adversarial relationship with Stephens but nonetheless walked out of Wednesday’s House session feeling satisfied with the funds coming to Montgomery County.

“I mean, we did well in our county. I’ll take the $(14) million, but there wasn’t enough transparency. Some people didn’t get anything, some people weren’t even talked to about the bill. We need to be more open and transparent,” Plummer told this news organization. “There was a lot of games played… His team got well-funded, a lot of our team got nothing, and that’s not fair. That’s politics. It shouldn’t happen, but it did.”

Other supporters of the bill included Reps. Willis Blackshear Jr., D-Dayton: Tom Young, R-Washington Twp.; Andrea White, R-Kettering; Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton; Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp.; Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek; Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon; and Tim Barhorst, R-Fort Loramie, whose district includes Champaign County.

Several other area lawmakers joined Gross and Willis in opposition to the bill, including Reps. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria; Bill Dean, R-Xenia; and Scott Lipps, R-Franklin.

State Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, whose district includes Miami County, was absent from the session.

The numbers passed in the House are subject to change. The chamber only allocated $350 million of the state’s $700 million pool of surplus funds. The Senate, which likely won’t take up the bill until April, is tasked with spending the remaining $350 million and potentially alter the House’s appropriations, too.

Here’s a full list of local projects, by county:

Butler County: 9 projects, about $5.1 million

  • Shuler Benninghofen Mixed-Use Project; $1 million
  • Riversedge Ampitheater Expansion; $1 million
  • Oxford Student Safety Project; $800,000
  • Madison Township Park Revitalization; $500,000
  • Liberty Playground Replacement Project; $500,000
  • Great Miami Trail Corridor; $400,000
  • Welding Lab Program Expansion in Fairfield Twp.; $231,540
  • World Class Clubs: Repairing Community Gymnasium; $225,000

Champaign County: None

Clark County: 1 project, $375,000

  • A.B. Graham Memorial; $375,000

Darke County: 3 projects, $1.1 million

  • Western Ohio Regional Fire Training Facility; $750,000
  • Historic Bear’s Mill Infrastructure Restoration; $275,000
  • The Darke County Fish and Game Association; $120,000

Greene County: 4 projects, $2.3 million

  • Future Development of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; $1 million
  • Spring House Park: Phase One; $1 million
  • OhioMeansJobs Greene County Improving Accessibility Project; $175,000
  • Ohio Veterans’ Children’s Home Expansion and Upgrade, Phase 1; $150,000

Miami County: None

Montgomery County: 26 projects, $14 million

  • Miami Chapel Inspire Zone Youth Workforce Development Center — Boys and Girls Club; $2 million
  • Kettering Business Park; $1.25 million
  • Schuster Center; $1 million
  • Countryside Park Revitalization; $1 million
  • Dayton Aviation Heritage Site, Wright Factory; $1 million
  • Uptown Centerville Connectivity and Development Improvements; $1 million
  • Harrison Twp. Police Headquarters Renovation; $750,000
  • Jefferson Twp. Community Improvements; $600,000
  • Centerville Schools Safety Access; $500,000
  • BOLT Innovation Center; $500,000
  • Community Health Centers of Greater Dayton-West Carrollton Health Center Construction; $500,000
  • Homefull Housing, Food and Jobs Center; $500,000
  • Dayton Dream Center Transitional Housing; $500,000
  • Robinette Park; $400,000
  • Homefull’s Healthy Start Child Care and Early Learning Center West Dayton; $350,000
  • East End Whole Family Services Hub Facility Expansion and Renovation in Dayton; $300,000
  • Dayton Airshow; $300,000
  • Germantown Covered Bridge; $275,000
  • Old North Dayton Park Expansion Project; $250,000
  • Grant Park Accessibility Improvements; $250,000
  • Flyghtwood Sports Life and Leadership Campus; $250,000
  • Miami Twp. Public Works; $250,000
  • Preservation of Dayton Woman’s Club Historic Mansion; $100,000
  • West Memory Gardens Flood Mitigation Project; $75,000
  • German Township Channel Maintenance; $60,000
  • Miamisburg Historical Society Improvements; $40,000

Preble County: 1 project, $700,000

  • Preble County Fairgrounds Stall Barns; $700,000

Warren County: 1 project, $13.8 million

  • Cincinnati Open Tennis Tournament, $13.75 million

Follow DDN statehouse reporter Avery Kreemer on X or reach out to him at Avery.Kreemer@coxinc.com or at 614-981-1422.

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