In his campaign for governor last year, Republican Mike DeWine accused his Democratic opponent Richard Cordray of planning to raise taxes. And now, within weeks of taking office, Gov. DeWine is proposing an 18 cent hike in Ohio’s gas tax to pay for road maintenance and construction.
The urgency of the transportation funding was not an issue during the campaign but has been a slow crescendo in recent weeks. Last fall, the DeWine campaign aired this ad.
“The last thing we need are higher taxes. But that’s exactly what Richard Cordray would do," an excerpt from the ad said.
It’s a charge DeWine repeatedly made, in ads and in debates, saying Cordray would need to raise taxes to pay for all he wanted to do. And it’s one Cordray denied over and over again.
“We do not need to raise taxes in Ohio. What I will do is raise paychecks," Cordray said.
Infrastructure wasn’t a marquee issue in the campaign – but it did come up. And as it turns out, DeWine did as he said he would in July, when he said he would appoint a committee to look into ways to pay for infrastructure repair and maintenance. He also never totally ruled out a gas tax increase. But Cordray never suggested a gas tax increase at all.
Instead, he said he’d put a $1.8 billion bond issue before voters that would provide money to fix and maintain Ohio’s roads and bridges as well as expand broadband and build new infrastructure projects, all of which he said would create jobs. Essentially, it would allow the state to go into debt, something previous governors have done.
Most recently, Republican former Gov. John Kasich leased the Ohio Turnpike in a bond package in 2012. While it was praised at the time, it created the problem that Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks says the state is now dealing with, in the form of $394 million dollars in debt service payments each year. Marchbanks says the proposed 18 cent a gallon increase in the gas tax, or user fee as he and DeWine call it, is needed but he stops short of criticizing Kasich and his predecessors for taking on the debt.
“I was not on the watch when those decisions were made. I will not comment on whether it was a failure e of leadership," Marchbanks says.
DeWine says he didn’t know the extent of the debt problem at ODOT when running for office but has more facts now.
“For me, it is not the prudent thing to do to borrow more money so that we can postpone the day of reckoning by a year, or two years, or three years. I don’t think that’s responsible," DeWine says.
Marchbanks says someone who drives 13,000 miles a year would pay $2.65 more for gas per week for a 2015 Ford F-150 pickup, $1.91 more if they had a 2015 Jeep Cherokee or $1.61 more per week if they have a 2015 Honda Accord. Democratic State Representative Brigid Kelly (D, Cincinnati) questions whether that type of tax is fair for everyone, especially minimum wage earners who get $8.65 cents an hour.
“You know we talk about $1.61 or $2.65 and so for people in this room, it might not seem like that much. But for people who are trying to make ends meet and can’t, that can be prohibitive and it can be prohibitive from helping them get to work, get to school and to help themselves and their families to have a better life," Kelly says.
Marchbanks says he thinks, ultimately, this tax will end up helping the working poor by improving the overall economy. And that, he says, can mean those people are able to move out of minimum or low wage jobs.
But advocates for public transit say that can’t happen without the state somehow making a significant investment in public transportation. Stu Nicholson with Move Ohio says there are already companies looking to hire but can’t because workers can’t get to them.
“If they can’t bring in the workers to improve their business, then you are getting hurt at both ends," Nicholson says.
Public transit advocates say they want lawmakers to commit a significant investment right now while the gas tax is being considered. Gas tax revenues can only go to roads and bridges, but Marchbanks has said some federal transportation funds could be moved to public transit if more state revenue is available.