Ohio Governor's Local Innovation Projects Face Elimination in New Budget

The stat's proposed budget would include cutting the Local Government Innovation Fund and the Straight-A Fund.

by Jim Siegel and Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / June 16, 2017
Ohio Gov. John Kasich Shutterstock.com/Steve Lagreca

(TNS) — Programs that Gov. John Kasich has advocated in recent years to spark innovation and shared services among communities and schools would die under the state Senate's proposed budget changes.

Those include the governor's newly proposed chief innovation officer, a feature of his State of the State address in April.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said the changes proposed this week were not pain-free as Republicans crafted a two-year budget designed to cover a potential $1 billion shortfall in tax revenue.

Those changes include the elimination of the Local Government Innovation Fund and the Straight-A Fund, which have combined to award about $320 million in grants and loans to communities and schools in recent years.

"It was just a priority decision we made and thought the funds could be utilized better elsewhere," said Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-Canton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who said no specific concerns were raised about the funds.

Kasich set up the Straight A Fund in 2014 as a way to help fund innovative ideas to educate Ohio students and reduce costs. It has distributed $263 million in grants for 104 projects.

The governor's office was unfailingly polite when asked about how legislators are treating him with a year and a half left in his final term.

"We will continue to work with both the House and Senate to ensure fiscal stability while finding ways to position Ohio as a leader in emerging technologies that will ultimately spur economic growth and create jobs," said Emmalee Kalmbach, the governor's press secretary.

Tom Ash of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators said the fund has been successful. The idea, he said, was to start shifting some of the focus of the Straight-A Fund toward replicating successful programs that were funded by previous grants.

Ash pointed to distance-learning programs to give more classroom options, and to a transportation project in southeastern Ohio that is helping to save money by using electronic monitors and GPS systems.

"Everyone is pretty well convinced that has saved money by making bus routes more efficient," Ash said. "I think the fund accomplished what it was set out to do. It's unfortunate there is not enough money for the replication part of it."

In 2015, the Dublin schools received nearly $1 million to create a partnership to offer students dual enrollment for an associate degree in information technology. Westerville, partnering with South-Western City Schools and others, got $8.4 million to create a digital portal to assist with professional development and the selection of digital curriculum.

Grant awards were significantly smaller in the past two years, as funding was reduced by about 85 percent. This year, grants included $565,500 to the Columbus schools to improve public-private partnerships and $261,800 to New Albany to help students pursue careers in environmental science, energy and engineering.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Innovation Fund, which had $17.2 million available over the past two years, would see its funding go to zero under the Senate budget plan.

Since 2012, the Local Government Innovation Council has given out $38 million in grants and low-interest loans through innovation and efficiency programs. Most of that money funded about 400 grants.

All of the grant money has been spent, said Todd Walker, spokesman for the state Development Services Agency. About $20 million in loan money is unspent, but Senate Republicans want to shift that into the general-revenue fund to balance the overall budget.

Grove City, in partnership with the South-Western schools and Jackson Township, got a $45,000 grant in 2015 to study potential cost savings from the use of alternative fuels in their vehicles and increasing fuel efficiency. The city of Hilliard got a similar $45,000 grant.

In May, Columbus State Community College received $50,000 to study how to implement shared law-enforcement training.

After grants helped pay for studies, the loans were designed to help communities implement the findings. However, the loans failed to gain much traction, Walker said.

"We reached out to all the grant recipients from phase one, and most had no interest in a loan to do phase two," Walker said.

GOP legislators also might kill off a Safety Capital Grant Program that over the past two years distributed $19.5 million to help communities with public-safety purchases. That included $470,000 last year for Gahanna and surrounding townships to upgrade communications and $160,000 to improve security at the Norwich Township joint safety services building.

In his State of the State address, Kasich announced a plan to better position Ohio economically and technologically to capitalize on high-tech jobs of the future. He sought $750,000 a year to create an Institute of Technology within his office, to be directed by a chief innovation officer to coordinate research and development at universities and in the private sector. The goal would be creating in-demand technology jobs.

The proposal ended up on the Senate's cutting-room floor along with general across-the-board spending cuts of 3 to 4 percent for state agencies.

Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would love to keep those programs funded, along with others, but money is tight. He and others suggested that some of those funds could be restored as the budget debate continues over the next two weeks.

"When we're underwater, everything is on the table," he said. "I don't think the funds were targeted for any particular reason, other than we're trying to find budget lines to remove."

Legislators already had sunk Kasich's proposal to shift taxes to generate a small state income-tax cut.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.