COLUMBUS -- Mahoning would be one of half a dozen counties with reduced registrations for certain commercial vehicles, as part of a pilot program included in the state's biennial transportation budget.
The provision was added to the final version of the two-year spending plan OK'd March 27 by a conference committee of the Ohio House and Senate.
A full vote of both chambers will take place in coming days; Gov. John Kasich has line-item veto authority to strike portions he doesn't support prior to adding his signature before the end of the week.
The $7.8 billion transportation budget, which is separate from the larger two-year state operating budget, includes funding for road and bridge projects and other spending by the Ohio Department of Transportation and a handful of other agencies.
The Ohio House and Senate OK'd their own versions of the legislation, and a conference committee met Monday to hash out a final version agreeable to both chambers.
The six-member panel -- four Republicans and two Democrats -- stripped out several provisions approved last week by the Ohio Senate, notably language requiring at least $33 million in state funding for public transportation programs, shifting $30 million in Volkswagen emissions settlement money for transit upgrades and diverting $48 million in motor fuel tax receipts to local road and bridge projects.
Rep. Robert McColley (R-Napoleon) said, following talks to the attorney general and others, it's too early to solidify the Volkswagen settlement spending. And the Senate proposal for increased local project funding, he added, could impact state transportation officials' ability to leverage federal funds.
The conference committee also altered the Senate-passed language that would have required voter approval in counties seeking to impose an additional $5 local vehicle registration fee, instead leaving that permissive increase for road and bridge projects subject to voter referendum but potentially adoptable via approval by commissioners or county governing boards.
Additionally, lawmakers opted to add two counties to the list of four OK'd by the House for a pilot project to reduce to $15 from $30 registration fees for certain commercial vehicles. Mahoning and Stark counties were included in the final list, with the program to run through 2018 and '19.
Other changes OK'd by the conference committee included language that would:
Allow boaters to keep tabs on water skiers or others being towed behind by using a rearview mirror, rather than requiring an additional person on board to keep watch.
Making a failure to display a front license plate on a legally parked vehicle a secondary offense.
Limiting a pilot project allowing variable speeds on highways to specified stretches of road in the Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati areas, instead of roads in up to 10 counties, as approved last week by the Senate.
The final vote by the conference committee was 4-2, with both Democratic members objecting.
Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Cincinnati) said language added in the Senate allowing a new rider on natural gas bills of up to $1.50 per month, from $3 per year, to cover the costs of economic development-related projects had not been discussed in the Ohio House and would hurt residents in her district.
She also voiced concern that counties could increase vehicle registration fees an additional $5 without requiring a vote of the people.
" I have been really trying to work as hard as I could to keep fees down to a minimum," she said. "I represent a district that has a lot of people on fixed incomes ."
Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus), the other minority party member of the conference committee, added in a released statement, "What is in the conference report takes the good things that were in the Senate version of the bill and gets rid of them. By removing the provision that would increase revenue to the Local Transportation Improvement Fund, we are failing once again to assist local governments. Most egregiously, we are eliminating an additional $15 million dollars a year to help fund public transit. My caucus made public transit funding one of our top priorities and it is unfortunate to see our handwork and effort discarded."
But McColley said the final bill will provide support for local projects.
"There's an awful lot in this budget that does help local governments," he said. "For example, there's an increase in the grant program allocation for the Ohio Public Works Commission that's going to result in approximately an extra $7 million-$8 million being granted to local governments. ODOT has demonstrated continuing support of local governments with roughly $330 million in discretionary income over the past few years being given to local governments without any requirements that it be done. Even the $5 license plate fee that's in this bill, it's all about helping local governments."
Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.