The debate over Ohio’s 2019-20 transportation budget is over the gas tax. But it’s also over a couple other things, starting with the General Assembly’s drive to recover its voice.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine wants to boost Ohio’s gasoline tax, now 28 cents per gallon, by 18 cents – to 46 cents per gallon. And the governor wants to index the tax to inflation.
But Thursday, the Ohio House of Representatives, run by DeWine’s fellow Republicans, and led by Republican Speaker Larry Householder, of Perry County’s Glenford, instead approved a much smaller increase of 10.7 cents per gallon, phased in over two years.
According to the Legislative Service Commission, the Transportation Department’s state highway construction line-item will provide about $788 million during the year that will end this June 30. That’s current revenue, without a gas-tax increase.
DeWine wanted that line-item to provide $1.2 billion for the 2019-20 fiscal year. The House instead agreed to $675 million, about 44 percent less than the governor’s request — and about 14 percent below current state highway construction funding.
For the 2020-21 fiscal year, DeWine wanted legislators to provide $1.24 billion for the highway construction line-item; the House instead agreed to $851 million, about 31 percent less.
Earlier, in a 71-27 vote, Householder and his allies crushed a bid by “conservatives” to weaken Ohio’s prevailing-wage law for building trades workers on publicly funded construction. Republicans who want to cut the wages of Ohio’s building trades workers must not know that a genuine conservative, Robert A. (“Mr. Republican”) Taft, then in Ohio’s Senate, was among the General Assembly members who voted “yes” in 1931 to create Ohio’s prevailing wage law.
The Senate, run 24-9 by Republicans, gets the next crack at the highway budget, but it’s unlikely to offer DeWine significantly more than the House has. Eventually, though, the bill could go to a Senate-House conference committee, where – given Slinky-like “rules” – anything can happen.
Imagine, as a hypothetical possibility, that DeWine’s administration offered legislators, in return for a gas-tax increase closer to the amount he wants, a full-court-press, fast-track deal with Kentucky for a new Ohio River bridge in traffic-choked Cincinnati. That might make anti-tax southwest Ohio Republican legislators salivate like Pavlov’s dogs.
Besides taxation, though, this also helps explain last week’s House vote: When 20-year Democratic House Speaker Vern Riffe was in charge (1975 through 1994), the Ohio House was a governor’s constitutional equal, not his gofer. Riffe’s GOP successors, Reynoldsburg’s Jo Ann Davidson and then Householder, during his first speakership, seemed to see things the way Riffe did.
But the legislature eventually became less a counterbalance to governors than their enablers. Helping nudge that along was 2011-18 Republican Gov. John Kasich, who preferred telling rather than asking people to do things. Today, in contrast, if any rubber stamps were lying around Ohio’s House when Householder became speaker in January, they’ve been thrown into the junk drawer.
Next year, voters will decide who keeps or wins the House’s 99 seats. Next year is also a presidential election year, with heavier voter turnout than 2018’s. Given those facts of life, no General Assembly leader wants his or her caucus members to be seen as easy sells on a tax increase. That, too, helps explain why the Ohio House pruned the governor’s gas-tax request.
Earlier last week, DeWine gave the General Assembly his first state of the state speech. DeWine emphasized, in word and gesture (for example, by introducing key Cabinet members) that he wants two-way, not one-sided, communication with legislators. This, too, was telling: On policy, his speech led some Democrats to say, in so many words, “Mike, we hardly knew ye.” That is, DeWine seemed to jolt liberals because he didn’t recite the Republican Party’s litany of social-policy shibboleths.
DeWine’s approach couldn’t surprise Ohioans who’ve paid attention to his politics. Besides, Mike DeWine’s stances are hardly drastic departures, in direction or tone, from Ohio’s earlier Republican pragmatists. And that’s what Ohio’s GOP governors have been on many issues since James A. Rhodes took office in 1963.
One timely example: In January, John Kasich’s Medicaid expansion – 93.5 percent of its cost federally funded this fiscal year (90 percent from mid-2020 on) – provided health-care coverage to almost 611,000 Ohioans, many of them among the working poor. Ohio politics are murky enough without adding amnesia to the mix.