Two area Republican state lawmakers unveiled a bill Thursday that would require voter approval of any county sales tax increase, ending the current authority of county commissioners to raise the rate, like those in Montgomery County did in June.
“The bill will be to make all sales tax increases a vote of the people,” said Rep. Niraj Antani, the bill’s primary sponsor. “Townships, schools and cities have to put levies on ballots. This will then require counties to do the same if they want to raise sales taxes.”
But over the last decade, state actions have drained Ohio counties of $351 million in annual revenue, according to the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, which is also critical of Columbus lawmakers who raised the state sales tax rate five years ago without public input.
“This law would further complicate the struggles counties are dealing with due to state policy decisions,” the association wrote in a statement. “Counties need all the tools they currently have in their tool box and more to respond to the opioid crisis, growing pressures on public safety and protecting children and families.”
Rep. J. Todd Smith, R-Jackson Twp., the bill’s only other sponsor, chided Montgomery County county commissioners, including his upcoming 42nd Ohio House District opponent.
“The problem I see here is, the first instinctive, reactive action that some of our politicians take is not to make the hard cuts in spending. It is to simply come back to the taxpayer and say, ‘We want more money,’” said Smith, who faces current Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, a Democrat who voted for the sales tax increase.
Foley said the bill is an election-year ploy and that state legislators are the ones squeezing county budgets. Montgomery County residents send $750 million in sales taxes to Columbus every year and get back about $7.5 million, he said.
“If they want to impose this idea on counties, the legislature should impose it themselves, first. To do anything less really is hypocritical and, frankly, purely political,” Foley said.
Antani and Smith were joined at a morning news conference by Doug Barry, the Republican Montgomery County commission candidate who headed up a failed petition campaign to place a tax increase repeal question on the November ballot.
“When the commissioners passed the tax hike in June, it wasn’t fair to taxpayers,” Barry said. “We want to make sure it never happens again.”
Barry and a group called Citizens for a Voice collected about 4,000 signatures of registered Montgomery County voters but fell thousands short of a needed 14,583 by a July 26 deadline.
The Ohio Revised Code allows counties to enact sales taxes up to 1.5 percent. Montgomery County is currently at 1 percent and on October 1 the 0.25 increase commissioners approved in June will kick in.
“This battle is really over that last quarter of a percent,” Antani said. “This does not just affect Montgomery County, it affects the entire state.”
Antani will defend his 42nd Ohio House District seat against Democrat Zach Dickerson, also from Miamisburg, in the fall.
The proposed bill would further tie the hands of local officials to meet mandated by the state, Dickerson said in a statement.
“The state of Ohio passed the buck. Communities and local taxpayers have been forced to pick up the tab. And after four years of ignoring the problem, Mr. Antani engages in a political stunt to deprive our communities of local control,” Dickerson said. “This is aggressive overreach of state government. And it’s a wildly irresponsible fiscal policy.”
At 8 percent, the overall retail sales tax rate in Cuyahoga County, which includes a 1 percent transit tax, is the highest in the state. A portion of Licking County pays 7.75 percent. The overall rate Montgomery County rate will become 7.5 percent.
Most retail sales taxes collected — 5.75 percent — goes into the state government coffer.
The 1.25 percent to be levied by Montgomery County will continue to be lower than several other area counties at 1.5 percent, but purchasers in Montgomery County pay an additional 0.50 percent that goes to the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority.
State cuts have already pushed more than half of Ohio’s counties to levy the allowable maximum 1.5 percent, said Jon Honeck, senior policy analyst for County Commissioners Association of Ohio.
“Now about 50 counties are maxed out,” he said. “The reason for that is we have simply not had the revenue sharing and the tax base has been cut by the state over time.”
Expected to generate an additional $19.1 million a year, Montgomery County officials said the increase was needed to overcome a $9 million 2019 budget gap and fund programs in the arts, workforce development and public safety initiatives, including improvements to a county jail that has been the source of more than a dozen federal lawsuits in recent years, said Debbie Lieberman, Montgomery County Commission president.
“We don’t like raising taxes, but we have to function,” she said last month. “We want to continue having a high-performing county that continues to be known as a county that is a great place to live, to work and raise a family.”
Barry, also a Miami Twp. trustee, faces current Montgomery County Treasurer Carolyn Rice, a Democrat, on Nov. 6.
Last month, Smith filled the 43rd Ohio House District seat vacated by Republican Jeff Rezabek, who left to become a Montgomery County Juvenile Court judge. He defeated Kenny Henning in the Republican primary for the seat in May.