Politics enter Ohio technology jobs program debate

AP News
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Posted: Nov 12, 2009 5:24 PM

The future of a bipartisan, billion-dollar Ohio program that spurs technology jobs is in limbo because of a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over when lawmakers should go to voters to get more bonds approved.

Democrats who control the Ohio House, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and the Ohio Business Roundtable _ generally a bigger supporter of Republicans _ all want another bond issue for the Ohio Third Frontier to go on the May ballot. But Republican Senate President Bill Harris said no one has demonstrated why the proposal should be on the ballot so soon when funding for the program is available through 2011.

The $1.6 billion Ohio Third Frontier program provides startup money for companies in targeted industries such as advanced energy and materials, the biomedical industry, and power and propulsion. A recent independent study found the program, which began under Republican Gov. Bob Taft in 2002, has created about 41,000 jobs. Voters approved $500 million in bonds in 2005.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle sing Ohio Third Frontier's praises. But now there are growing frustrations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans over an inability to settle the question of when it should be renewed and possibly expanded.

"The politics can be an obstacle, but the policy has been a strong success for Ohio," said Brian Hicks, former chief of staff for Taft, who believes there's no strong reason not to go to the ballot in May. Hicks said an agreement can be reached in which either everyone gets credit for Third Frontier, or no one does.

Next year is a banner election year, with Strickland seeking re-election against Republican challenger John Kasich. Concerns over who gets credit for what are paramount.

Strickland, House Democrats and business lobby said May 2010 is the best time to go to the ballot. November 2010 will be in the midst of a highly partisan campaign, May 2011 would be an off-year primary that would require a brand new Legislature to pass legislation almost immediately after being sworn in, and November 2011 is so late that the continuity of funding for technology businesses could be jeopardized, they said.

However, passage in May could give Strickland an economic feather in his cap during the campaign, after Republicans have been hammering him because of Ohio's poor economy.

"I know that my focus is not trying to preclude Gov. Strickland from getting whatever recognition he has earned with the people of Ohio," Harris said.

He said lawmakers need to take their time to make sure they can properly articulate to voters why they need to support the bond issue during a time of high unemployment and heavy government spending.

"I think the Third Frontier is such a great program that we can pass it whenever. That election (November 2010) will have a heck of a lot more Ohioans voting than in a primary or off-year election."

House Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, said joblessness would act as a catalyst for voter interest in Third Frontier as opposed to an impediment. He said that nearly all interested parties agree that November 2010 is not the right time for a ballot issue, and declined to speculate what was driving the Republican opposition to the May ballot.

"I can't speculate on what goes through other people's minds," Budish said. "I can only say that I am hopeful that we can work together. This is job creation. It's not Republican. It's not Democrat. It's not partisan."

Budish said the House is prepared to move forward with a proposal _ potentially an expansion up to $1 billion instead of the previous $500 million authorization _ even if Senate Republicans don't change their position on the May timing.