Columbus – Ohio’s big cities could see special treatment from the state with income tax breaks on new jobs, more money for school construction and free broadband services for urban businesses under a plan unveiled Monday by new Democratic House Speaker Armond Budish.
However, those potential freebies wouldn’t come without a price – Ohio’s urban areas would have to participate in state purchasing cooperatives and abide by the results of a study focusing on whether regionalizing services such as fire and trash pickup would save public dollars.
Cities also would have to match the income tax break on newly created jobs with their own municipal tax breaks.
The push for regionalism by the first House speaker from Northeast Ohio in more than 70 years could provide a needed spark for local leaders, who have promoted regionalism for years but made little progress. Budish is the first powerful lawmaker in Columbus to take the lead on the idea.
During his opening remarks to the 99-member House, now controlled by Democrats for the first time in 14 years, the Beachwood Democrat wasted no time pushing an agenda for urban areas that he said the Republican-controlled legislature has overlooked.
Budish called specifically for a compact between the state and major cities with special incentives in exchange for what would be an eventual move toward more regionalism.
“I don’t anticipate forcing any cities to do anything, but with incentives and review, there may be a number of services that can be offered more efficiently by groups of cities or regions getting together,” Budish told reporters after his speech, which officially kicked off the 128th General Assembly.
The 55-year-old Democrat also pledged to step up the use of successful tax credit programs such as those targeted at green businesses, new technologies and innovative businesses. He offered no details on how any of these plans would be paid for, saying all such conversations would take place when lawmakers discuss Ohio’s next operating budget this spring.
New House Minority Leader Rep. Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican and well-known fiscal conservative, sounded open to the idea of targeted tax incentives and special help for cities.
“I might or might not agree with the policy recommendations he is making, but we simply have to save the cities,” he said. “What we have to do is run a far more constructive program for the cities, we have to get law and order back in the cities and have to do things in the schools that will get the middle class to come back to the cities.”
Keith Dailey, spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, said “there were a number of worthy ideas” put forth by Budish, including the idea of increased collaboration among regions.
“The governor has been successful taking that approach with the University System of Ohio in looking to increase efficiencies and find cost savings,” said Dailey.
Budish’s offer to work with cities was a welcome change for local leaders who in recent years felt ignored by the General Assembly in favor of rural communities. The Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association has already overwhelmingly agreed to the concept of a regionalism plan, though details still need to be worked out. So, too, have the mayors of Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.
But mayors did express concern about Budish’s call for cities to waive municipal income taxes for several years as part of the deal.
“We look forward to working with Speaker Budish and have already talked about scheduling periodic meetings with him to discuss issues important to Cleveland,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in a statement. “While we are enthusiastic about discussing the particulars in his plan, we would be remiss not to include our concern about the waiver of local income taxes.”
Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers also applauded Budish but wants more details.
“I am definitely for the whole concept of regionalism, but obviously the devil is in the details, so I would like to know more,” Akers said in an interview.
Budish rolled out his urban agenda on the most ceremonial of days for state lawmakers as oaths of office were delivered on the House floor by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Moyer to groups of 11 lawmakers at a time.
On the Senate side, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton did the honors for Republicans, who dominate the chamber, 21-12. Appeals Court Judge Joe Vukovich swore in the Senate Democrats.
Thirty-three House members were sworn in for the first time.