Ohio Supreme Court will decide JobsOhio's fate

By MARC KOVAC Dix Capital Correspondent Published:

The Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether a liberal advocacy group can sue to block the state from shifting its economic development programs to JobsOhio.

The issue focuses specifically on whether Progress Ohio can challenge the constitutionality of the nonprofit, championed by Gov. John Kasich as a means to improve the state's business incentive programing.

"These are major policy issues that citizens face because, essentially, if an unconstitutional issue can be enacted in the law and no one has the right to sue, our constitution has no defense," said Brian Rothenberg, executive director of Progress Ohio.

Laura Jones, JobsOhio spokeswoman, declined comment on the lawsuit but added in a released statement, "We are confident in our legislated mission to help businesses grow and create jobs for Ohioans."

Connie Wehrkamp, spokeswoman for the governor, also declined comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but said in a released statement, "... We remain confident that the Supreme Court will eventually rule the same way that the lower courts have ruled, finding that the plaintiffs have no standing. Additionally, it continues to be beyond our understanding why anyone would fight against job creation when it's so important to Ohio and our continued economic recovery."

JobsOhio was created by lawmakers shortly after Kasich took office in 2011 and was one of the Republican-controlled chambers' top priorities of the last session.

Supporters believe the nonprofit will be better positioned to work with businesses considering expansions or relocations in Ohio, with executives feeling more comfortable discussing such matters behind closed doors.

But opponents, including Progress Ohio, say the setup is unconstitutional, funneling public money and resources to a private organization that is exempted from portions of the state's open meetings and records laws. They also say the state constitution prohibits the state from establishing such private enterprises.

Courts have not yet considered the constitutional claims, however.

Earlier courts ruled Progress Ohio did not have standing to bring suit, so their claims were moot.

The case before the Ohio Supreme Court focuses on whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue.

If justices rule in their favor, the case would go back to the lower courts for proceedings on the constitutionality issues, a process that could take years.

If they rule against the plaintiffs, the case could be dead.

The case could have implications for other challenges against the state, including one brought by the conservative Ohio Roundtable to stop lottery-administered video slots at horse racing tracks. A judge earlier found the group did not have legal standing to sue on the issue.

The decision by the Ohio Supreme Court to take up Progress Ohio's suit leaves JobsOhio in a legal limbo, though administration officials earlier this month touted positive ratings from two bond agencies related to the transfer of the state's liquor operations as a means to fund the nonprofit's activities.

"It's irresponsible for the state to keep pursuing this," Rothenberg said. "It's buyer beware. And, ultimately, if a court decides that JobsOhio is unconstitutional, the state would be on the hook for those bonds, which can't be used for this purpose."

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