Ohio House budget slashes additional funding for public transit

ohio statehouse

The Ohio Statehouse (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yesterday, the Ohio House passed its version of the state’s biennial budget, HB 64. The proposed budget, which is the largest in state history (by far), appropriates $131.6 billion in total spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. This includes $71.5 billion in General Revenue Fund (GRF) appropriations. The bill now goes to the Ohio Senate, which, based on reports from The Plain Dealer, will pay it no mind and develop a budget of its own. The next two-plus months should be…interesting.

HB 64 sets aside more than $700 million less than Governor John Kasich had requested in his budget proposal, which he released in February. Yet, according to Plunderbund, the GRF spending is still 43% more than the final budget passed under Governor Ted Strickland. Moreover, HB 64 far exceeds the cap on increased GRF spending set in place by the Republican-controlled stated legislature in 2006. As Plunderbund explains, while the State Appropriation Limit law dictates the state cannot increase GRF appropriations by more than 3.5% in any given year, this budget blows that (stupid) limit out of the water. Under HB 64, GRF spending would spike by 11.3% in FY 2016 and 4.7% in FY 2017.

Last month, I noted that the Governor’s budget increased GRF spending on public transit by $1 million per year, to $8.3 million annually for FY 2016-2017 from $7.3 million in FY 2014-2015. (According to Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC), the state actually spent $10,134,611 during FY 2014.) As I argued at the time,

This proposal represents the first year-over-year increase in state transit spending since 1998. Given that the state has reduced GRF spending on transit by an astonishing 83.5% since its peak in the year 2000, even this modest increase is kind of a big deal. While $1 million is a drop in the bucket in the big picture – it doesn’t even take the state back to 2011 funding levels – it may signal that Ohio is at least slowing the rate at which it has slashed transit spending. I mean, even a $1 increase would be notable in this environment.

Well, it looks like even this modest enthusiasm was misplaced. HB 64 does away with this additional funding, locking in GRF spending on transit at $7.3 million for the next two years. Whereas transit accounted for a pitiful 0.035% of the GRF in FY 2014, this number will decrease to just 0.02% in FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Let’s express that in per capita terms, shall we? Based on projections from state’s Development Services Agency, Ohio’s population will reach 11,549,120 this year. That should grow to roughly 11,554,270 and 11,559,420 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Accordingly, the state will spend a whopping $0.63 per person on transit each year.

Clearly, Ohio does not prioritize public transit. To show how little our legislators care about this issue, I have collected a few other budget line items from the Ohio House’s budget, for comparison’s sake:

  • Ohio Grape Industries (spending to promote the state’s wineries): $970,000 per year for FY 2016-2017
  • Art acquisitions for public properties: $225,000 per year
  • Choose Life (state issued license plates to discourage abortions): $75,000 per year
  • Ohio State Racing Commission (“dedicated to the protection, preservation, and promotion of horse racing and its related industry components”): $31,535,000 million per year
  • Ohio State Fair Harness Racing: $235,000 per year
  • Coal Research and Development Program (a program to “development and implementation of technologies that can use Ohio’s vast reserves of coal in an economical, environmentally sound manner” LOL): $234,400 per year
  • Coal Research & Development General Obligation Bond Debt Service: $5,991,400 in FY 2016, $5,038,700 in FY 2017
  • Ohio-Israel Agricultural Initiative (a program to “improve agricultural trade and R&D ties between Ohio and Israel”): $200,000 per year
  • State printing costs: $21,568,075 in FY 2016, $21,688,106 in FY 2017

This is just a small selection of the things that Ohio lawmakers would rather fund than public transit.

We already know, for instance, that ODOT spends more money to mow the grass alongside Ohio’s highways than it does on transit. We’ll also apparently spend nearly $1.2 million to find “a less costly and easier way to cut the grass and manage the trees and shrubs along the state’s interstates and highways.” Oh, and did I mention that the state has set aside more than $200,000 for legal fees to uphold our ban on same sex marriage? But $1 million more for transit is unthinkable.

Sadly, I can’t even say that this budget passed strictly alongside party lines. That’s because, while 5 Republican representatives jumped shipped and voted against the bill, 3 Democrats actually voted in favor of it. All three of these legislators – John Barnes, Bill Patmon, and Martin Sweeney – hail from Cleveland, where nearly one-quarter of households lack access to a car.

One day, maybe we’ll break the car-centric fever raging through the Statehouse. Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through in a state that has no problem spending $429 million on a freeway bypass for a county that’s home to 25,000 people, but cannot find another dime for the nearly 250,000 people who ride transit each day (PDF) in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus.

Update: (4/24 2:20pm): To provide some additional context on just how far Ohio’s level of transit funding has fallen, I wanted to add the comparable funding data from 2000, the year in which transit funding peaked. In 2000, Ohio’s GRF reached $20.2 billion. That same year, the state spent $44.32 million from the GRF on transit. As such, transit expenditures accounted for 0.11% of total GRF spending, 10.6 and 11.12 times more than it would reach in FY 2016 and FY 2017 under the House’s budget, respectively.

I also had some questions about how I got the number of people who ride transit on a daily basis in Ohio’s three largest cities. I took the annual number of transit riders for each city in 2011 from the American Public Transit Association, summed them, and divided that number by 365. That total was 243,299.5 riders per day. Because this is averaged across the entire year, it obviously overestimates the number of riders on weekends and significantly underestimates the number of commuters on weekdays. It also fails to account for any of the other transit authorities in the state.