COLUMBUS — Gov. Mike DeWine used his first State of the State speech Tuesday to push lawmakers to raise the Ohio gas tax by 18 cents to fix crumbling roads and dangerous bridges and to announce plans to focus on the state's deadly addictions epidemic and other health issues like infant mortality.
The Republican governor also said Ohio must address its water quality problems, and in particular, the algae blooms that have threatened portions of the western Lake Erie basin for years. He announced an "H2 Ohio Fund" that would focus on water quality around the state.
DeWine called his gas tax proposal a "minimalist approach" that's needed to fix the most serious problems as soon as possible.
He said 2,600 local bridges alone are rated in poor condition, while the Transportation Department has identified 150 dangerous roads and intersections that require immediate repair. He urged passage of the tax increase to fill an annual $1.2 billion deficit in road repairs.
"If you think and your constituents think the roads are bad now, you haven't seen anything yet if we don't take action," DeWine said.
DeWine announced the creation of a new public health fund that will use public and private dollars to boost public health awareness and prevention programs. The state will also send money directly into communities to increase efforts to prevent and treat mental health and substance use disorders and to support recovery and wellness programs, DeWine said.
The governor listed a litany of health problems affecting Ohio children, from exposure to lead paint and a high infant mortality rate, to trauma and abuse linked to parents' drug abuse.
DeWine said he's directing his cabinet directors overseeing mental health, children, substance abuse, Medicaid, aging, human services and health issues to focus on these problems.
The governor also announced plans to dramatically increase the number of specialty courts where defendants struggling with addiction can get help, "to get people into treatment and out of jail."
Ohio's Republican legislative leaders praised the priorities DeWine outlined but expressed a wait-and-see approach on how — and how much — the state might fund some of the top items.
"We do know that there needs to be an investment in Ohio's highways, bridges and roads," House Speaker Larry Householder said. "We're certainly going to make sure that public safety is maintained in the state of Ohio."
Senate President Larry Obhof, who has been more skeptical of the tax proposal, said lawmakers must collaborate to figure out the needs.
Democrats praised the speech as an invitation to bipartisanship in the closely divided state. House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, of Akron, characterized Tuesday's speech as evidence "a course correction" is needed to address unfinished business left by former Republican Gov. John Kasich, whom DeWine didn't name.
Senate Democratic Leader Kenny Yuko, of suburban Cleveland, said Democrats share many of DeWine's priorities.
The speech was short by State of the State addresses, clocking in at just under 50 minutes. It was the first such governor's address in Columbus since 2011, following former Gov. John Kasich's decision to take the State of the State on the road. Kasich delivered speeches in Lima, Steubenville, and Westerville in suburban Columbus, among other cities.
Householder made note of the change when he announced the speech as "Here, back in the people's house."
DeWine started the speech with a reference to fellow Republican Gov. James Rhodes, who died 18 years ago Monday, noting Rhodes' "concern for all people."
He concluded it with a tribute to fellow GOP Gov. George Voinovich, whom DeWine served as lieutenant governor, noting Voinovich's optimism.
Overall, the theme of the speech was that the state has "unfinished business" in several arenas, including infrastructure, water quality, drug addiction and children's health.
"Simply put, it's time for us to invest in our future," DeWine said.
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