Ohio Governor Mike DeWine enters the Ohio House chamber to deliver the Ohio State of the State address at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
Photo: AP Photo/Paul Vernon
Photo: AP Photo/Paul Vernon

DeWine pushes for gas tax, water safety, fighting infant deaths

Governor gave his first state of the state address Tuesday.

He said he wants to establish the H2-Ohio Fund to pay for protections for local water systems and Lake Erie and other water issues.

“From aging infrastructure to failing septic systems to nutrient pollution to threats of lead contamination, communities throughout Ohio face different and unique water problems,” DeWine said.

Water customers in Dayton and Montgomery County had to deal with a serious water main break in mid-February that caused a water-boil advisory impacting hundreds of thousands in the area.

Related: Water outage: City receives 24K comments, 12K calls during emergency

The governor also called for creating a new Narcotics Intelligence Center to help stop the flow of illegal drugs, expanding “wrap around” social services for children and establishing a new public health fund to leverage public and private money for awareness and prevention programs.

“I loved every minute of the speech. I hope we can find the money to fund it because that question is always on the table but these are priorities. These are investments,” said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering. “We don’t often think of spending on education and children’s health as being investments but they are.”

Details of how much money DeWine wants Ohio to spend on these initiatives are expected when he introduces his two-year state operating budget proposal on March 15.

Ohio one of worst in nation for infant mortality

“Family is everything. Education is the key to equality and opportunity. We must be fierce and passionate advocates for, and defenders of, the defenseless — those ‘in the dawn of life, the twilight of life and the shadows of life,’” DeWine said in the 45 minute speech to the Ohio General Assembly.

The governor highlighted Ohio’s alarmingly high infant mortality rate and the state’s ranking as second in the nation for accidental fatal drug overdoses.

In Ohio, 7.2 babies per 100,000 live births don’t make it to their first birthday, compared with the national rate of 5.8.

The rate among Ohio’s African-American babies is 15.6. And Ohio’s overdose death rate is 46.3 per 100,000 people, compared with the national rate of 21.7.

DeWine noted that Ohio’s foster care system has seen a 25 percent increase in children placed in care since 2013.

He told his health and human services team — all women — to stand.

“Their focus will be on people — not on bureaucracy. They will work with you. And they will serve as partners with their counterparts at the local level,” he said.

Making case for more money for roads and bridges

Also pending is DeWine’s two-year transportation budget proposal, which includes an 18-cent-per-gallon hike in the gas tax starting July 1. It would raise $1.2 billion a year in additional revenue — 40 percent of which would be shared with local governments.

Related: Ohio’s gas tax hike would begin July 1, if approved

DeWine painted it as a matter of public safety. “If we do nothing, more Ohioans will get hurt and more Ohioans will die.”

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said the transportation budget bill may get a floor vote this week but it’s unclear whether lawmakers will back the 18-cent increase or something less than that.

“We’re not really sure yet. We do know that there needs to be an investment in Ohio’s highways, bridges and roads,” he said.

Likewise, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, was non-committal about the proposed gas tax increase.

Related: John Kasich pushes values in last State of the State speech

Former governor John Kasich decided to issue bonds backed by future tolls to be collected by the Ohio Turnpike as a means of boosting funding for roads and bridges. But DeWine said it would be irresponsible to continue going into debt for road needs. The Ohio Department of Transportation holds $4 billion in debt and pays $390 million a year on it, he said.

He said the $1.2 billion revenue request is a conservative, minimalist approach to maintain roads and do a modest amount of new work.

Lawmakers react

State Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, said he appreciated the moderate, inclusive tone of the speech as well as DeWine’s push to invest in human development and skills to fix long-term problems. “He talked about facing those challenges head on. That’s appealing to a lot of us.”

State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said he was happy to hear the governor talk about investing in early childhood care and development, though he added that he believes parents should share responsibility in improving their parenting skills if the state assists their children.

Other issues

Other issues DeWine promised to address:

* investing in state parks and preserves;

* mandating a four-year tuition guarantee at all Ohio’s public colleges;

* tripling the number of at-risk babies and new moms served by home visits by health officials;

* improving foster care and elder care programs;

* increasing job opportunities for people with disabilities;

* and boosting job training and career tech programs.

“I know that through our Ohio grit and determination and by undertaking bold, daring and transformational efforts, we will move Ohio forward,” DeWine said.

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