DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s first major battle of his term is an unexpected one for a Republican – raising taxes.
DeWine and his administration want to raise the state gas tax to fund road repairs and projects. Ohio is near the population center for much of North America, and there are more vehicles on the road than ever, and more roads and bridges in need of major repairs.
Working class activist and TV star Mike Rowe has written that the country is on the verge of an infrastructure crisis.
Solving the crisis has put Republicans at odds over the new gas tax hike proposal, even friends like State Rep. Niraj Antani (Miami Twp.) and Ohio Department of Transportation Press Secretary Matt Brunning, who have worked together in the past. Antani doesn’t want to raise taxes, while ODOT has sent releases and presented charts and graphs on its website stating the state doesn’t have any recourse.
Antani doesn’t see raising the gas tax as the best solution.
“To expect the gas tax will cover all expenses for roads doesn’t work,” Antani told 2 NEWS. “With electric vehicles, and CNG vehicles (cars running on natural gas), they won’t pay any of this tax. Out of state vehicles and semi-trucks that use our roads, they won’t pay that tax because they buy much of their gas out of state.”
Antani believes taking money from the general fund would work better than raising the gas tax for several reasons.
He said the state spends $72 billion a year between the state and federal funding it receives, with half of it already allocated toward education and Medicaid, as well as other funding allocated to prisons and developmental disabilities, but priorities matter.
“(The gas tax) is a $1.2 billion endeavor,” Antani said. “We do millions in earmarked pet projects, and there are other areas to cut spending elsewhere. People expect us to make hard decisions.”
Antani said there’s enough money in the general fund now to fund road repair and most Tier I level major projects. He said Tier II and III projects – the most major – couldn’t be covered unless some pet projects get shelved. And there are downsides for local governments if the tax isn’t passed, but the legislature could deliver better solutions.
“A large portion of the gas tax goes to local governments,” Antani said. “If we use general revenue funds for the state dollars, yes the local governments may not get the funding they would from a tax increase. There are other ways to help them, such as restoring local government funding or giving them money out of the general revenue fund.”
“The credit card is maxed out”
Many of those projects were funded by then Gov. John Kasich’s decision to fund projects by bonding against the Ohio Turnpike.
This allowed ODOT to keep up with the road maintenance issues in the state, but according to testimony from ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks, there’s currently $390 billion in debt that needs paid from the Turnpike bonding before ODOT can do another project.
“We have a shortfall,” ODOT Press Secretary Matt Bruning said. “The credit card is maxed out. We have nothing left to borrow or bond against.”
The year Ohio raised its gas tax was in 2005. The legislature passed a bill to raise the tax two-cents over three years in 2003, raising it to its current rate of 28 cents to point. In a series of charts and graphs on the ODOT website, the department said with the current rate of inflation, a dollar in 2003 (when the last gas tax increase was passed) would be worth 53 cents in 2019.
This is ODOT’s position on the tax increase, which would save the state from a nightmare scenario of unfinished maintenance repairs, leading to explosive costs down the road.
“In construction, inflation is higher in general,” Bruning said. “We’ve already delayed $150 million in maintenance projects. It’s like changing the oil in your car every 3,000-6,000 miles. The choice is to do that, or replace your engine when it blows up.”
Bruning said more fuel-efficient cars, while also essential to the environment and the pockets of Ohioans, are cutting into the funding generated from the gas tax.
“(Also) when it comes to electric vehicles or natural gas vehicles, the director (Marchbanks) has been clear that’s something the legislature has the ability to address,” Bruning said. “It’s something we will need to do at some point.”
Bruning said ODOT typically spent an average of $1.7 billion per year on projects, a number Antani believes can be squeezed from the general fund.
Antani is also concerned about the effect the tax increase will have on the economy. He said drivers who travel 13,000 miles a year would pay an extra $90 a year because of the tax and an extra $5,400 over the course of a lifetime.
“There’s also a federal gas tax, and if the federal government decides to raise it, we’ll be hitting Ohioans with two increases,” Antani said. “I don’t think Ohioans expect us to raise their taxes. They work on factory floors, in schools, at small businesses and its’ their money in the end, not ours.”
Last week the Ohio Department of Transportation released numbers showing what state and local governments could expect from the proposed increase. Montgomery County would be eligible for $1.78 million in more funding, as would the state’s other counties. Dayton could receive up to $2.8 million more in funding, while Kettering and Huber Heights were among area suburbs that could receive over a million more in funding in 2020 if the tax proposal is passed.
Antani didn’t know if the tax would pass or not.
“I plan to vote against it,” Antani said. “I know among my colleagues, there are people who agree with me and people who disagree, so we will see.”