Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has found himself in a tough position right at the start of his administration – having to raise a tax that hits most Ohioans. And Democrats have pounced on him for it.
During last fall’s campaign for governor, Republican Mike DeWine ran tough ads – one claimed Richard Cordray would “raise taxes and kill jobs."
DeWine made similar claims in debates, such as the final one in Cleveland in October. “If you total up all the money Richard says he’s going to spend, there’s absolutely no way that you could do this without raising taxes. It’s abundantly clear that he wants to raise taxes,” DeWine said on the debate stage.
DeWine beat Cordray by just under 4 points, and he’s been governor for around six weeks.
Faced with a hole of more than a billion dollars at the Ohio Department of Transportation, it’s DeWine who’s raising taxes, proposing an 18 cent hike in the state’s 28 cent gas tax – a 64 percent increase. “You have to have a gas tax increase. There’s no doubt,” DeWine said at an event last week.
DeWine’s request is now with state lawmakers. But it shouldn’t be too much of a shock.
Rising road construction costs and flat revenues from the gas tax, which was last raised in 2003, were well known issues, and though former Gov. John Kasich’s decision to leverage the Ohio Turnpike was praised in 2012, it was also known the revenue would run out in 2019 – leaving the state with debt service payments of more than $390 million each year.
DeWine had obviously considered infrastructure funding when he spoke to a meeting of local officials from around the state in July, explaining he’d appoint a commission to look into funding solutions.
“We’d put together a group – and give them a relatively short period of time to come back, do a quick assessment,” DeWine said then.
And DeWine also said he was not ruling out an increase in the gas tax, if that was the group’s recommendation.
Cordray criticized that approach at that time, instead touting a bond package to borrow money to cover repairs on roads and bridges, as well as fund public transit and broadband expansion. “We do not need tax increases at this time. That’s off the table as far as I’m concerned,” Cordray said in August.
But Cordray never said what he’d do if voters rejected it.
DeWine’s plan came about quickly just as he had described – the commission was appointed two weeks after his inauguration, and it held two meetings the next week, with a total of two hours of testimony. The group recommended DeWine suggest a gas tax increase just over a week later.
At an Ohio Associated Press forum two days before he unveiled his gas tax increase, DeWine admitted he knew there was a financial issue at ODOT, but he says he had no idea of the gravity of it at that event last summer. “My understanding of it’s better than it was in July of this past year, so it’s more evolved than it was – just one day I said, ‘there’s a big problem’,” DeWine said.
Infrastructure didn’t play a huge role in the campaign, which featured lots of discussions about health care, local government funding, rape kits and the criminal justice package on the ballot known as Issue 1.
Cordray recently tweeted that his bonded finance package would not have included new taxes for infrastructure, and he says DeWine pledged not to raise taxes but said that Cordray would. Cordray ends his tweet with these lines: “Now first thing out of the box he is proposing a tax increase. And he calls it being “honest” with voters.”
But Republican strategist Bob Clegg says that’s not a fair criticism, because he says the gas tax increase proposal shows how devastating ODOT’s financial situation is.
“Once you become a public official – when you’re campaigning it’s one thing, but once you become a public official, you gotta do what’s best for all of your citizens. And you can’t worry about the political implications of it," Clegg said.
Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper stresses that he’s not outright opposed to the gas tax increase, which is supported by Democratic mayors and county commissioners. But he maintains what DeWine did during the campaign was dishonest, because by saying Cordray would raise taxes, DeWine implied he wouldn’t.
“I think it’s appropriate that, whatever the debate ends up being around the gas tax and how we solve the infrastructure, I think people in politics should be held accountable when they were very dishonest and not forthright, and in this case, wholly hypocritical – attacking someone on the thing that they themselves were considering doing.”
DeWine isn’t the first Republican to raise taxes, of course. Kasich increased the state sales tax in one budget to pay for an income tax cut. And there have been proposals to broaden the sales tax to cover untaxed items, or increase fees for certain licenses – a move that can feel like a tax hike.