TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) – Backers of spending $1 billion on improving water quality in Ohio think the state’s voters would be willing to sign off on the idea.
Convincing the governor might be a harder sell.
Gov. John Kasich questioned the need for more money this past week, saying Ohio already has passed legislation and spent a lot tackling the algae blooms that have fouled the state’s lakes and rivers.
Lawmakers from the Lake Erie region along with an agriculture-led coalition that includes environmental and business leaders are exploring the idea of placing a statewide bond issue on the ballot next November. It would allow Ohio to borrow a total of $1 billion over ten years for projects aimed at protecting the state’s lakes and rivers.
“I don’t see any reason to really do any more at this point,” Kasich said when asked about a potential bond issue, adding he thinks the state is making progress on what’s a complex problem.
Supporters say the timing is right for such a vote following a summer that saw the largest algae outbreak ever recorded on Lake Erie and another bloom that spread across much of the Ohio River. Algae blooms and high levels of E. coli bacteria have been a problem in smaller lakes too, causing closings and beach warnings.
“It really is showing itself being a statewide issue,” said Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio. “Everybody’s seeing it in some form or fashion.”
Putting the proposal on the ballot first would need support from the Legislature or backers could try to gather enough signatures.
How the money from a potential bond issue would be spent hasn’t been decided.
Some of the ideas being talked about include creating natural areas and rain gardens that filer pollutants, upgrading sewer systems in smaller cities and helping farmers build storage sites for livestock manure.
State Sen. Randy Gardner, a Republican from northwestern Ohio who has become a leading water quality advocate, said the next steps include coming up with the right priorities and dollar amounts along with bringing policy leaders together.
“If we believe clean water is one of Ohio’s top priorities, there’s no question we have the capacity to do more on addressing the water quality challenges we face,” Gardner said.
The Healthy Water Ohio coalition, which suggested borrowing $100 million a year as part of a bigger trust fund to address water-related issues, said its research shows Ohioans would pay a little more each year to protect drinking water.
Adam Sharp, a lobbyist with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, which helped create the coalition, said a broad range of funding is needed because the state’s resources are limited.
The bond issue is being looked at, he said, because it could bring in a large amount.
A number of cities around the state want to upgrade their water infrastructure but don’t have the money needed to get those projects off the ground, said Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from the Youngstown area.
Overflowing sewers in Youngstown this past summer closed a popular lake after tests showed high levels of E.coli in the water. “They’ve been talking about fixing it forever, but never had the money to do it,” Schiavoni said.
Senate President Keith Faber told reporters in early December that he didn’t know whether a bond issue will make it to the ballot and that he has concerns, in general, about adding debt.
“I’m always leery to add more debt on Ohioans,” he said. “But look, we have historically paid for capital issues with bond debt. As long as we keep our bond limits within limits we can manage, then I have less concerns.”
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth and Ann Sanner in Columbus contributed to this report.
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