New transit law could open door to bad precedent

Language crafted locally for an amendment to Ohio’s transportation bill that passed last week in Columbus could open the door for tax levies passed for a specific use now to be used by transit agencies as seed money to lure other state or federal grant funding.

That’s a slippery slope that we vehemently oppose.

The questionable practice, made legal last week by the Ohio Legislature, already had been used for many years in Trumbull County. Questions were raised about the legality of using money raised in senior levies to leverage money for a transportation system that benefits other groups of people, and not just seniors.

Calling for a need for a dedicated and continuous funding source in order to leverage sorely needed transportation grants, the Trumbull County Transit Board has been using funds generated by the Trumbull County Senior Services levy to create local matches for grants. Grant funds obtained then are used to fund transportation for Trumbull County riders of all ages — not just senior citizens.

After outcry from some members of the Trumbull County Senior Levy Advisory Council, the practice just recently was called to the attention of the Ohio attorney general’s office with a request for a legal opinion.

Now, however, it’s unclear whether an attorney general opinion will become a moot point or even if Ohio Attorney General David Yost will proceed with issuing the opinion.

According to the measure passed as an amendment to Ohio’s Transportation bill, “funds that are appropriated by a board of county commissioners and expended for social services in the county served by the board may be used as the local match needed to obtain state or federal funds available for the county transit system.”

“In order to allow for the local matching funds, there is a need to add language to the ORC to allow this pooling of local money for federal matching funds,” states a letter of support for the amendment to the director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, signed by Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta. The letter was sent before some changes were made to the amendment’s language.

We can’t help but surmise that the political maneuver was an attempt to head off the attorney general’s opinion by creating law to make the practice legal.

But to move funds approved by voters for a specific use into a pool to be used as seed money to lure funds for other purposes should call into question the integrity of the levy passed for an intended use.

Earlier in the bill’s debate, the measure was opposed by some senior groups, including the Ohio Association of Senior Centers, who said it set a “dangerous precedent for making senior services and senior tax levy funds in general vulnerable to inappropriate redirection.”

In 2005 and then again in 2010 and 2015, Trumbull County voters in good faith approved the 0.75-mill senior service levy. In doing so, they agreed to allow their tax dollars to be spent only on programs — including transportation — that benefit Trumbull County senior citizens, age 60 and above.

We fear the legislation could spell the end for the senior services levy, if voters feel they are being duped. And the repercussions of this legislation could be even further reaching with enormous and lasting effects here and statewide because it could open the door to usurping election results and redirecting levy funds in the future.

At the very least, this new legislation should not apply to previously passed levies already in effect.

We are disappointed at our local legislators who supported the issue in one way or another in Columbus.

The statewide transportation bill passed Tuesday in the Ohio Senate by a 22-10 vote and in the House by a 70-27 vote. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, followed suit within 24 hours by signing the entire bill into law with no line-item vetoes.

Democratic Ohio Reps. Glenn Holmes of Girard, Michael J. O’Brien of Warren and Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, all voted yes on the bill’s passage.

Sen. Sean O’Brien had a hand in crafting the amendment’s language and wrote a letter to support it. Despite that, O’Brien put on record a “no” vote for the bill, which still passed handily as expected, even without his support.

We urge Ohio Attorney General David Yost to continue his work on this issue and relay his opinion, as previously requested by Trumbull County commissioners.

Yost must weigh all the issues at play, including the legalities and impact of the newly passed legislation.