MARTINS FERRY - State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, answered questions about Ohio's budget and cuts in local government funding during a Monday town hall meeting.
Gentile expressed concerns about the priorities of the $63 billion budget which was passed in June, criticizing the focus on tax relief rather than investment in communities and schools. He noted the failure to restore numerous cuts made during the last budget.
"The fund wasn't cut this last time," he said, adding that communities and local governments were still suffering from the cutbacks.
He underlined the importance of strong communities and said local services were necessary for the economy to grow with the incoming investments of oil and gas industries.
"Income tax cuts are going to be a huge part of this budget bill. Phased in income tax reduction," Gentile said, adding this will be a small benefit for average Ohioans. "Those tax cuts were made at the expense of most Ohioans."
Gentile explained that to derive revenues for a tax cut the budget eliminated the rollback provision of 12.5 percent on new levies, which will make passing levies more difficult.
Regarding the issue of a severance tax, Gentile noted the proposal was not part of the budget and was tabled. The proposed expansion of Medicaid also was left out of the budget.
He noted several ongoing initiatives including legislation that would streamline the process of helping veterans seeking further education to convert their skills into school credit. Some schools already have such a policy, and Gov. John Kasich has issued an executive order supporting the plan, but Gentile said legislation would create a uniform and stable policy.
Gentile added that a key issue for future debate is the need for local governments to capture their share of revenue from the expanding tax base. Gentile hopes for legislation to ensure the return of 50 percent of income tax funds to the local counties from landowners who are leasing their mineral rights.
"We've got to find new ways to capture revenue going forward and make sure we leave a legacy behind," he said.
There is currently $2 billion in the Ohio's surplus funds, he said.
"They have cut the funding so far down that it makes it difficult to operate," said Mattins Ferry Mayor Paul Riethmiller, adding that smaller communities are facing worse hardships. "They actually balanced the state budget on the backs of the small communities."
Belmont County Auditor Andrew Sutak underscored the burden placed on the municipalities by the funding cuts. He said any income tax alleviation will be more than drained by the cost of maintaining police and fire services and infrastructure maintenance without state funding. He pointed out the further drain of an increased sales tax without a local benefit.
Several guests brought up issues related to education, pointing out that new standards have been instituted too quickly, with an evaluation and ratings system that may not reflect all the components of the building and classroom. An undeservedly low rating will also make the passage of levies more difficult, they said.
Other guests pointed out issues such as oil and gas vehicles operating without Ohio plates and giving no local benefit. Sutak suggested requiring permits. He added that this could generate funds to maintain streets utilized by the out-of-state vehicles.
Gentile said efforts are being made at the Office of Workforce Development to produce an annual report of the number of Ohioans and Ohio-based companies working in the oil and gas industry.
Among other issues, Belmont County Commissioner Ginny Favede pointed out the possible environmental concerns of fracking water being stored in the county when it is banned in other states. She noted the state is collecting a fee for use of the two disposal wells in the county.