State Sen. Chris Widener abstained from voting on the capital budget bill last week after his office revised a $275,000 request from Clark State Community College that lead to a $1 million grant to eventually house a new precision agriculture program at the former South High School.
Widener, R-Springfield, has championed a multimillion dollar renovation of the historic building, which also has been pitched as the future home of the Global Impact STEM Academy.
Documents obtained by the Springfield News-Sun show that Widener’s office edited Clark State’s capital funding proposal, changing the request from $275,000 to $2 million and inserting classroom renovation at South High as the proposed use of the money. Previous proposals by the college listed Shull Hall on the college’s Leffel Lane campus as the location of the new program.
The project received $1 million in state funding in the bill signed into law by Gov. John Kasich on April 2.
Although behind the scenes Widener worked to reshape the state capital budget bill, he skipped voting on it. He asked his colleagues to excuse him from voting – a request they granted without an explanation.
Widener hasn’t responded to multiple questions about his request to be excused from the vote.
Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said occasionally lawmakers abstain when they believe there is an appearance of a conflict of interest or if they haven’t had time to review an entire bill and they’re concerned it may contain a conflict.
According to state law and legislative rules, if a lawmaker stands to gain a definite and direct benefit, he or she must abstain from voting on or influencing the bill. The Joint Legislative Ethics Commission advised all lawmakers in a 1999 opinion that absent a direct conflict, legislators may abstain from voting on matters where they feel they can’t vote in good conscience.
Widener has faced ethics questions in recent years, often involving possible conflicts of interest between his elected office and his Springfield-based architectural firm, WDC Group.
•In March 2008, while still in the Ohio House, Widener backed Senate changes to House Bill 160, which benefited the Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association, a nonprofit that he co-founded and financially backed. That bill allowed the organization to get out from under $413,877 in taxes and penalties levied against its Champions Center Expo and granted the property tax-exempt status.
•A year later he resigned from the Ohio Equine board just before inserting an amendment into the state budget bill allowing Clark County to levy a bed tax. Ohio Equine eventually received $412,890 in revenue from that tax.
•In 2009, Widener appeared before the state Board of Building Appeals to argue in favor of a zoning variance for a Medway fire station his firm designed. Ohio ethics law prohibits state legislators from being paid to appear before state boards, commissions or agencies. Widener argued his appearance was legal because he wasn’t paid to appear.
For now, both Clark State’s precision agriculture program and the Global Impact STEM Academy will be housed at Shull Hall for the 2014-15 school year.
Clark State spokeswoman Jennifer Dietsch said the school is still developing plans for the future of the program and didn’t answer whether the college intends to eventually house the program at the former South High.
The STEM program will lease space from Clark State again this year, but as the program continues to grow that will no longer be an option, according to GISA Board President Ed Leventhal.
“They need that space for their programming,” he said. “We expect to grow each year, and Clark State is boxed out as far as space.”
The plan has always been to eventually move the STEM school to South High, he said, but the board is being realistic and looking at other options as well.
“It’s imperative to have a couple options in case the renovation at South doesn’t happen. Even if we can get money to renovate South, it’s going to be a number of years,” Leventhal said.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has covered efforts to renovate and reuse the former South High School since its closure in 2008. Columbus bureau reporter Laura Bischoff has investigated ethics issues involving state Sen. Chris Widener in the past. Katie Wedell has been following the local money in the capital budget bill since its introduction last month.