MARTINS FERRY – Ohio Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, paid a visit to The Times Leader office last week to discuss progress that occurred in the Ohio Valley over the past year, with topics ranging from workforce development and education to severance taxes, veterans’ affairs and the state budget.
Gentile represents the 30th Senatorial District, which is one of the largest in the state and includes Carroll, Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont, Noble, Monroe, Washington and Meigs counties, as well as portions of Athens and Vinton counties.
Throughout 2015, the gas and oil industry continued to play a huge role in shaping the landscape of our local counties, which prompted continued discussion of a proposed increase of the severance tax, or a tax imposed on the removal of nonrenewable resources including crude oil and natural gas. Severance taxes are charged to producers or anyone with working/royalty interest in gas and oil operations. Currently, Ohio’s severance tax is less than 1 percent, while neighboring West Virginia’s tax is 5 percent.
While Gov. John Kasich has proposed using a higher severance tax to underwrite income tax cuts across the state, local leaders including Gentile and state Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, have balked at that proposal, arguing that the majority of the revenue from severance taxes should go back to the communities that house the oil and gas industry to fund infrastructure improvements.
“To redistribute a majority of that new revenue out of here is bad public policy, especially to help fund and subsidize a tax break for people that don’t live in this region,” said Gentile.
In late October, a legislative tax policy study commission that included Cera recommended further study of Ohio’s severance tax before enacting any rate increases. The commission also said any rate increase should include measures to account for dropping commodity prices, such as the slump the industry is currently experiencing.
Despite low prices on natural gas and oil, Gentile is upbeat about how the industry will continue to influence the valley, especially where it concerns workforce development and job creation. He pointed to the announcement in early September that PTT Global Chemical, Thailand’s largest integrated petrochemical and refining company, would invest $100 million to conduct detailed engineering design for a world-scale ethane cracker in the Dilles Bottom area of Belmont County. While this does not guarantee PTT will build the $5.7 billion plant at the Ohio 7 site, it does look promising. Officials are expected to decide if the plant is feasible for Dilles Bottom by the end of 2016.
Gentile said working to bring that cracker, which could provide hundreds of local jobs, is a priority, and promoting job training to ensure the region is ready for such an operation is something legislators can offer.
“I was able to secure some funding during the budget process that will invest in scholarships for new energy jobs – students that want to pursue higher education and degrees are going to see some additional scholarship dollars towards that,” said Gentile, who is serving on the Senate Finance Committee. “Also, I was successful at getting some additional resources for the OMEGA (Ohio Mid-Eastern Government Association) district, which helps facilitate economic development. They’re going to be working on building infrastructure.”
Gentile said the question now is how to capitalize on the low cost of natural gas and oil.
“I’m starting to think of that as an attractive selling point to manufacturers who want to come here,” he said, citing a tour he received in November of the Hannibal Industrial Park. “The glut of ethane is a positive thing, because they’re going to need to refine it.”
Gentile also counted advancements for veterans’ affairs among successes seen in Ohio over the past year, including a bill to help veterans transition from military service by connecting them to higher education.
“I’ve worked with some of the veterans service commissions on how we can help draw that connection,” said Gentile.
At a town hall meeting in Marietta, Gentile was approached by employers who told him they had seen great success in hiring veterans.
“They have a strong commitment and dedication. They’re accountable, so there’s a lot of assets that they bring to the table,” he said.
Gentile hopes to pass a bill in 2016 that would offer a tax credit to small businesses that employ veterans.
“It’s an incentive for those businesses to seek out and hire more veterans,” said Gentile.
Among the disappointments in 2015 was education reform, which Gentile said is always up for debate by lawmakers.
Gentile said he and other Democratic lawmakers would rather have seen funding invested in kindergarten through 12 education, instead of funding an income tax break, which was passed in the 2015 budget.
“We ought to prioritize K-12,” he said. “We ought to fund it as well as we can before we look at reducing the tax burden for people who are in that top bracket … what’s occurred, it’s been more of a shifting of that tax burden from one part of the state’s population to another.”
Legislators did cut PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing, though the state is still subject to Common Core standards and will have to find a new testing provider.
Gentile acknowledged that Kasich’s campaign for the presidency has affected the legislative agenda by determining which issues come up for a vote and which ones don’t.
“Sometimes I think that has worked to the benefit of Ohioans, and sometimes I think it’s to the detriment. It depends on the issue. I think some of the more socially divisive issues that the legislature’s pushing are being tempered because the governor does not want to engage in that stuff in the middle of a campaign,” said Gentile.
However, Gentile stressed that 2015 was productive, and he is optimistic about the future of his district in 2016 and beyond.
“My charge as a legislative leader is to push and advocate for workforce development and training dollars to come back to the region,” Gentile said. “I’m going to continue to champion those issues.”