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State Senate tackles LGF dilemma anew

WARREN — The Ohio Senate attempted to amend legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly last year, hoping to ensure state local government funds would be subtracted from only the communities using traffic cameras — not their neighbors.

But state Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, said the amendment was removed in the House.

“We knew there was a problem, so we drafted an amendment in Senate Bill 310 last year. People didn’t realize eight months ago what was happening yet, that the wording in the bill was wrong, and the House took the amendment out,” said O’Brien, D-Bazetta.

Now the Senate will introduce a legislative fix.

The original clause in the transportation budget bill passed by the General Assembly in April included new tax code that specified any community using traffic cameras would lose local government fund (LGF) money each year from the state, equal to the amount of money the municipality collected in the traffic camera fines.

But, because of the wording in the bill, attorneys with the Ohio Department of Taxation interpreted the bill to mean that if the amount collected in fines exceeded the amount the municipality received in LGF money, the penalty was to be taken out of the entire pool of local government funds distributed to all of the communities in the county, said state Rep. Michael J. O’Brien, D-Warren.

If the law is left as is, eight Ohio counties with communities that have or had traffic cameras — including Trumbull and Columbiana counties –would see their LGF allocation cut by the state. As a result, Columbiana County’s 2021 LGF allocation would be cut from $2.29 million to $944,972.

Sen. O’Brien said the Senate is close to introducing a fix, so that only the communities with the cameras lose funding.

“We drafted an amendment and are trying to get it in a bill to pass next week with an emergency clause,” Sen. O’Brien said. “I think we will see movement because the House and Senate are in session, so I think we are all on board and it should pass quickly.”

Sen. O’Brien voted against the transportation budget bill because of the wording in the traffic camera clause and because he disagreed with how the bill handled fuel taxes, he said Friday. Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, also voted against the bill. He didn’t return a message seeking comment about why.

State Reps. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, and Michele Lepore Hagan, D-Youngstown, voted for the transportation bill, as did former Reps. Don Manning and Glenn Holmes.

Michael O’Brien explained the attorneys for the House at the Legislative Service Commission didn’t interpret the wording of the bill in the same way the Ohio Department of Taxation did. And so, the commission didn’t describe in their bill analysis materials — used by the commission and the house to educate the lawmakers about the bills they consider — how the local government funds of communities without traffic cameras would be affected if the bill passed.

“The LSC didn’t put it in their materials because they didn’t interpret the law that way. The intention of the bill was to deduct the local government fund money from the municipalities that have income from traffic cameras, and that was clear when LSC wrote the law. However, the Department of Taxation interpreted it differently,” Rep. O’Brien said. “This happens now and again when lawyers interpret the law in different ways.”

The Department of Taxation, the lawmakers, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Legislative Service Commission are working together now on the fix, Rep. O’Brien said.

“We will make sure this is retroactive and that counties are not penalized at all in the 2021 distributions. Once we do this, the Department of Taxation will reissue the letters (sent to counties to outline the amount they are receiving in 2021) and everyone will receive what they are supposed to, as if this problem with interpretation never took place,” Rep. O’Brien said.

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Renee Fox is a reporter for the Warren Tribune and Youngstown Vindicator.

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