COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio House committee overhauled Gov. Mike DeWine’s transportation budget bill on Thursday, restoring some proposed funding cuts to public transit while eliminating language targeting distracted driving and raising vehicle fees.
The substitute transportation budget introduced by the House Finance Committee would provide $97 million annually for public transit, including $23.2 million in state funding and $33 million in the state’s share of discretionary “flex” federal funds.
DeWine’s budget had called for cutting the state’s share of transit funding from $63 million to $7.3 million, while offering none of the state’s flex funding, which mostly is used for highways.
The committee also removed provisions meant to crack down on distracted driving, including stiffer penalties for drivers caught using or holding any wireless device while behind the wheel in Ohio.
DeWine, a Republican, proposed his “Hands Free Ohio” as a standalone bill last February, but the bill languished. So he re-introduced it as part of his transportation budget, which funds roads and bridge projects across the state. DeWine has said the proposal is a priority, but it’s so far failed to gain traction in the legislature.
State Rep. Scott Oelslager, a Canton Republican who chairs the finance committee, cited precedent as one of the reasons for the language’s removal, saying state lawmakers “generally try not to put anything dealing with criminal law” into state budget bills.
DeWine said he was “disappointed” when House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Lima Republican, informed him Thursday morning that the distracted-driving provisions would be coming out of the bill.
Cupp said the bill will be re-introduced as a standalone measure, DeWine told reporters during his Thursday coronavirus briefing.
“To me it’s about saving lives. I’m in a hurry about it. But I respect the legislative process,” DeWine said. “The speaker assured me they would hold hearings. We can make our case. I think when people hear the evidence that we can save a lot of lives in Ohio that the legislature will pass it.”
Lawmakers also removed a proposed fee increase that DeWine had proposed to fund the State Highway Patrol.
DeWine had called for tacking an extra $10 onto the state’s annual vehicle registration fee, which is $34.50 before local add-ons for most standard vehicles, and $2 onto the state’s auto title fee, which is currently $15.
The new fees would have raised $127 million a year, which DeWine’s Public Safety department said was needed to offset increased agency costs. The proposed House transportation budget increases the patrol’s operating funding by $35 million. Some Republican lawmakers, including state Rep. Diane Grendell of Geauga County, opposed the fee increases, saying it is the wrong time to impose new costs on drivers.
The bill still requires approval by the full House, and could be changed more in committee. Cupp told reporters the finance committee is scheduled to finalize the bill on Wednesday, with a vote expected by the full House the following day. The bill then would go to the Senate, and requires DeWine’s signature to become law. State law requires lawmakers to approve a transportation budget by March 31.
State Rep. Erica Crawley, a Columbus Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the finance committee, called the substitute transportation bill a “good start.”
“We do believe public transportation has been underfunded as has been laid out in testimony,” she said. “In order to move forward as a state and attract young professionals and businesses, we have to continue to make those investments.”