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Gov. John Kasich has made no secret of his wish to privatize a number of state entities to create new revenue for the fiscally challenged state. One idea that he has revived is leasing the Ohio Turnpike to a private concern.
State lawmakers helped pave the way in June by including an item in the state budget that allows the administration to pursue a lease or sale. The General Assembly would need to approve a request for proposals the administration is in the early stages of preparing, but the legislature will not have the opportunity to sign off on the final deal, still about 18 months off should Ohio reach an agreement.
A key selling point for Kasich is that the billions of dollars the state would get for leasing the toll road would be pumped into improvements for the state’s roads, bridges and waterways and not used to fill state budget gaps. At least that’s what the Republican governor and his minions have said on more than one occasion.
In a February speech in Columbus to the Ohio Newspaper Association, the governor said his ideal agreement would bring Ohio $3 billion. "I can take that money and I can put a billion dollars into infrastructure," he said.
Kasich’s spokesman Rob Nichols told The Plain Dealer in March that the governor doesn’t favor using the onetime money to pay bills or to operate government.
In April, Ohio Department of Transportation director Jerry Wray told the Toledo Blade’s editorial board that lease proceeds would be "dedicated" to infrastructure improvements such as highway construction and harbor dredging focused mainly in Northern Ohio.
A fact sheet the administration prepared on the turnpike proposal in July just before Kasich visited Toledo to promote the leasing idea suggested the same: money would be used for infrastructure.
It caught PolitiFact’s ear recently when Kasich began to switch his tune a bit. During that stop in Toledo, the governor for the first time suggested the lease money could be used to support other areas of the state budget.
In an interview with The Plain Dealer last month, Kasich said: "It is my intention to use this money for infrastructure. But I never said where all this money was going to go. I’m just saying I want to put it in infrastructure -- the bulk will go into infrastructure. But with the federal government, God only knows what those people are capable of doing. If they blow a big hole in our state, we have to look at it. But it’s not my intention.
"Look, we’re already balanced," he continued. "We already have a rainy day fund. We already have money beyond the budget that is appropriate. I don’t anticipate" having to use turnpike lease money for a budget deficit. "But I’m also not going to say, ’no way, no how.’ You always have to have a few options."
The governor might be correct to exercise caution and leave his options open, considering the economy continues to be unpredictable for states like Ohio trying to climb from the grips of recession and fighting to stay below double-digit unemployment rates.
But the idea of leasing the turnpike is a controversial plan opposed by many Northeast Ohio planning groups and political and civic leaders. They worry that the well-kept turnpike will suffer from higher tolls or lax maintenance if it falls into the hands of a private operator interested in maximizing profit. As far as the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and its sister organizations are concerned, the turnpike isn’t broken, so don’t try to fix it.
Kasich is sensitive to their concerns. His administration has tried to ease the tension by dispatching ODOT officials to the area to assure leaders in Northern Ohio, where the turnpike stretches from Pennsylvania to Indiana, that proceeds from the deal will be spent on infrastructure projects around the turnpike and that any private operator would be held to standards to maintain the reputation of the toll road.
If the governor is beginning to hedge a bit, that is a concern for local leaders who believe a lease agreement is inevitable but took some comfort in expecting proceeds to be spent on roads and bridges. Kasich says he is still committed to spending lease dollars on infrastructure but has clearly left the door ajar for other spending opportunities.
We rate the governor’s position a Half Flip.
Telephone interview with Gov. John Kasich, July 28, 2011
The Plain Dealer, "Kasich wants $3 billion deal to lease the Ohio Turnpike," Feb. 10, 2011
The Plain Dealer, "Ohio Turnpike lease would yield big cash for the state, but could mean higher tolls, planning group says," March 8, 2011
The Toledo Blade, "Turnpike may be leased, not sold, ODOT chief says," April 15, 2011
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