Saturday, July 17, 2004

Keep Ohio pledge for stadiums


Hamilton County's plea that it is still owed $14 million from Ohio for Cincinnati's two new stadiums should not fall victim to lawmakers' petty personality clashes and political payback.

Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich and Ohio state Rep. Bill Seitz, among others, have butted heads over whether Ohio needs to keep funding promises made by the 121st General Assembly in 1998. Ohio's commitment to help pay for the stadiums shouldn't be about Heimlich, Seitz or anyone else. Southwest Ohio's entire delegation should recognize the stadiums are huge regional assets, no matter how bitter the politics entangling them, and local and state leaders ought to do all in their powers to secure the promised state dollars.

Republican Heimlich sent a July 13 letter recounting for Cincinnati-area legislators some of the history behind Ohio's pledge of 15 percent of the original estimated construction costs or up to $81 million. So far, Ohio has paid $67 million. Heimlich appealed to Ohio lawmakers for the remaining $14 million, after hearing that the capital budget for all Southwest Ohio projects may end up totaling only $15 million to $20 million, and that federal law prohibits states from issuing capital bonds for projects 18 months after construction ends. So the promised $14 million is not something that Ohio could pay off in later years.

Seitz, a Green Township Republican and chronic objector to Cincinnati projects, fired back a three-page "Dear Phil" letter dripping with sarcasm. He and other Republican lawmakers from the area deny a full $81 million was promised and make no attempt to hide their displeasure with Heimlich and fellow County Commissioner Todd Portune for opposing Ohio's "temporary" one-cent sales tax imposed last year. Seitz even argues that because last year's House Bill 748 permanently broadened the number of taxable items and services, any "moral obligations" to make additional stadium payments will be more than offset by the extra sales tax revenues going to Hamilton County in future years. Stadium tax revenue has been slack for four years.

The bill did include the obligatory caution that no legislature can bind future legislatures to fund projects. Hamilton County can't sue and win in court to obtain its final $14 million. But current lawmakers' studied "amnesia" over Ohio's past promises is laughable. Everyone, from then-Gov. George Voinovich on down, endorsed the state funding. Heimlich may have offended legislators' etiquette, but he asks good questions. The promise of state funding was part of the pitch to Hamilton County voters to pass the half-cent stadium sales tax. If Ohio reneges on this deal, why would voters trust state politicians the next time they promise project funds in exchange for taxes? Or why should Wall Street invest in Ohio if it doesn't make good on a multi-year pledge?

There's plenty of wiggle room to renege. But lawmakers in Columbus would be sticking it to taxpayers, not Heimlich. County and city leaders need to go to Columbus with one voice and appeal for the full $14 million.

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