CHICAGO — Ohio Gov. John Kasich defended his push to privatize the Ohio Turnpike and called for the proposal’s critics to “chill out” during his annual state of the state address Tuesday afternoon.
Kasich said he would continue to consider ways to wring cash out of the toll road for Ohio, but emphasized the state would never give up final control of the asset.
“We will never give up underlying control of the Turnpike, but if we can bond against that revenue, or lease it and make sure that the people who live near there get responsive agreements from those who might take this over, and generate billions of dollars — we don’t want to do that, are you kidding me?” he said.
“Everybody should slow down and chill out and let’s complete this study and see where we’re at,” he added.
The state last November hired KPMG to act as consultant to consider a long-term lease or other type of privatization of the 241-mile Turnpike, Ohio’s only toll road. The firm has until June to complete the study.
Kasich has said in the past he thinks a long-term lease could generate up to $2.4 billion.
Critics of the plan include some Democratic lawmakers as well as local officials from northeast Ohio, who last week held the first in a series of press conferences protesting it, saying they are launching their own study of the effects of privatization.
Ohio faces a shortfall of up to $2 billion on infrastructure projects, Kasich said.
He said he has not made any decisions on the Turnpike or other revenue-raising proposals.
However, he is eyeing additional public-private partnerships, such as leasing or selling off the state’s rest stops.
Marking a first for the state, Kasich held the state of the state address outside the statehouse, in the small southern Ohio town of Steubenville.
The governor talked for nearly an hour and a half, touting his achievements during his first year of office and highlighting industries such as manufacturing and medicine in which Ohio needs to invest money.
He did not unveil any new programs.
Kasich said when he came into office, the state faced an $8 billion deficit, had a rainy-day fund balance of 89 cents, and was 48th in the country for job creation.
“We thought there was a very good chance we were going to get downgraded — we were nervous about it,” Kasich said, referring to the state’s double-A-plus rating.
In the last year, Ohio has risen to ninth in the country for creating new jobs, has a current two-year budget that eliminated the deficit, and has a rainy-day fund balance of $247 million, he said.
“Standard & Poor’s, they downgraded the United States, Spain, France, Italy, and at the same time they improved our credit rating,” Kasich said.
“We’ve gone from negative watch to stable as a result of the hard work we’ve done, and that sends a signal across this country that Ohio is open for business,” he said.