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Akron airport renovation may soar, but Ohio GOP infighting may cause turbulence

by Staff

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A much-needed renovation to the Akron-Canton airport could take flight under the proposed Ohio House spending bill. However, the infighting between House and Senate Republicans may cause enough turbulence to down the project.

“[Ohio’s] the birthplace of aviation,” said Lisa Dalpiaz, Vice President of Air Service & Business Development at Akron-Canton Airport.

Airplanes have a rich history in Ohio, but Dalpiaz is looking to fly into the future.

“The airport is in such an exciting position right now with the opportunity for growth — what we need to be the catalyst of that is the ramp space,” she said.

The airport is in desperate need of more space, she said, which is not just where the airplanes park, but also houses corporate and commercial operations.

“It’s great for the economy; It’s great for the local business,” she added. “A couple of our tenants, they have apprenticeship programs as well, so there’s an educational aspect to it.”

Funding from the state could send the project airborne. The Ohio House passed a part of a spending bill, one that gives $2.5 million to the airport’s west side development for aeronautic activity.

“I was proud to be able to support $2.5 million in funding for the Akron Canton Airport for additional ramp construction,” state Rep. Bill Roemer (R-Richfield) said. “This will allow for growth in both corporate and general aviation leading to significant job growth, benefiting the entire region.”

Dalpiaz was incredibly gracious to Roemer, saying he “stepped-up” when their district’s former representative, Bob Young, resigned from the House following his multiple arrests for domestic violence offenses.

Without Roemer, and the rest of the Summit and Stark County delegation members like Speaker Pro Tempore Scott Oelslager (R-North Canton) and state Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson), the airport had no one in their area to help advocate for them.

“These are transformative, once in a generation investments that we can make and bring back to our communities,” Weinstein said.

The Northeast Ohio lawmaker fought for this funding, but also for projects like the $2 million investment into the Akron Art Museum. He also helped get $500,000 for the Hudson Inclusive Playground and $1.75 million for the Akron Zoo Veterinary Hospital.

“All of the animals we care for — all of them — there is not one whose life will not be touched by the veterinary team that will work out of this new hospital,” said Doug Piekarz, president and CEO at the Akron Zoo.

More on the proposed zoo renovation coming up at 11 p.m. on News 5.

But Weinstein has some concerns.

“We in the house have a saying, ‘nothing good comes back from the Senate,'” he laughed.

The Republican leaders across the chambers are fighting, and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) has already said he didn’t approve of any of these proposals.

“We have to put Ohioans first and set infighting aside,” the Democrat added.

The airport originally asked for $3.2 million from the state, as the first phase of the development will take $28 million, she added. The other funding is coming from the FAA, the airport and local communities.

“This truly is a one-time fund that we need,” Dalpiaz said.

She’s hoping for a smooth landing as the Senate reviews the bill.

Chamber drama

It would be an understatement to say that House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) and Senate President Matt Huffman have a contentious relationship.

The pair make polite jabs at each other during press gaggles, but behind the scenes seem content with not working with each other.

For example, the Senate passed a proposal dealing with marijuana policy — restricting marijuana possession, lowering THC levels and making it more expensive. The House refuses to take it up because they believe the Senate is “going against the will of the people.”

The Senate passed S.B. 83, a controversial bill overhauling the higher education system. House leadership has continued to let it stall, saying there are problems with it — angering Senate Republicans.

The House passed the previous operating budget in a bipartisan manner like they did with the portion of H.B. 2. However, the Senate basically decimated the House’s proposal last year — causing them to go into conference committee for an extended amount of time to bargain for their needs.

Huffman is expected to challenge Stephens for House speakership next January. He has a faction of supporters within the House currently, and candidates have told News 5 that Huffman has helped support their bid to knock out the Stephens’ team incumbents.

Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, the chambers are behaving well with their colleagues of the other political party.

The House members have worked across the aisle on major policy proposals, such as each budget this General Assembly and marijuana regulations.

The Senate Republicans and Democrats have also been getting along with each other, supporting the same marijuana policy and even having joint press gaggles.

Moving back to the budget:

That one-time funding amount is $700 million total. According to House Finance Chair Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), the House and the Senate agreed that each chamber would get to decide on half of it — or $350 million.

That was repeatedly echoed throughout the budget process by the representatives. Then, Huffman released a statement Wednesday, potentially killing all of the project proposals.

“To be clear, there is no such agreement,” Huffman wrote in a memo to the Senate members. “The bill passed by the House did not include negotiations or discussions with members of the Senate or with the Senate President.”

Huffman never agreed not to touch the House’s half, he seemed to say.

“Approving a large spending bill without additional debate would be irresponsible and an abdication of the duties of the Senate,” he added. “Normally, both chambers work together to create an agreed upon bill. For unknown reasons, the House chose to break from that process.”

Stephens seemed annoyed at the president’s claims — and addressed the memo to reporters after the session.

“It was widely published that the House was going to deal with $350 million, the Senate was going to deal with $350 million — which is exactly what we did,” Stephens said.

Edwards said the reason why the House moved ahead of the Senate was because the other chamber wasn’t “ready with their projects.” The Senate finance leadership asked the House to put their projects and money up now, he said.

News 5 reached out with questions to Senate Finance Chair Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), but he did not respond.

“It was also agreed upon at that time that our $350 wouldn’t be touched by them,” Edwards continued. “Their $350 wouldn’t be touched by us — they get to spend their $350 however they want.”

Huffman doesn’t seem interested.

“The Senate will continue to follow its timeline announced in December for this year’s Capital Budget process which includes the additional $700 million for the One Time Strategic Community Investment Fund, with the goal of both chambers passing a single agreed upon bill later in May or early June,” he said.

House on House drama

Stephens is not just fighting with Huffman but also has to deal with constant squabbling with his “burned” peers.

The House Republicans have not gotten along since Jan. 2023.

News 5 has continuously covered the infighting.

The House GOP is completely divided due to the speakership “coup” that happened in Jan. The Republican caucus had previously chosen state Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova) as their speaker months before the full House vote. Twenty-two Republicans (known “affectionately” by the other faction as the “Blue 22”) and the Democrats voted for Stephens for speaker during the actual vote, while the majority of Republicans voted for Merrin. Stephens, still a conservative, is significantly more moderate than Merrin.

The anti-Stephens faction has been relentless in fighting Stephens at every opportunity. This has seemingly driven Stephens and Minority Leader Allison Russo closer than partisan leadership has been in previous General Assemblies. That being said, Huffman is also close with Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) as well.

Currently, Merrin Squad leaders are suing Stephens and allies due to his control of the money inside the House GOP campaign fund.

RELATED: Ohio Republican infighting drama continues as lawsuit filed against House speaker

Not only is Stephens being forced to go to court, but some Merrin faction members stand up in every single House session to try to speak. Stephens has steamrolled over them each time.

The most recent example was when Merrin yelled “what a coward” during a session because Stephens wouldn’t hear amendments or thoughts on H.B. 2.

More than a dozen red districts got no money or under $500,000 total. Stephens’ rivals say this was a plot to hurt them because they didn’t vote for him and have rejected him as speaker since.

“It rewards Democrats & 22 Republicans with tens of millions of dollars, but leaves table scraps for the Republican majority,” tweeted Stephens rival state Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville). “It appropriates $0 to 16 [sic] Republican-voting counties while every Democrat-voting county swims in cash.”

Stephens said he wouldn’t let the rivals speak because they were being “ornery,” meaning combative, and actively working against sitting incumbents getting reelected.

“Every county is affected in this bill,” he said, citing that the public works section gives money to paving roads. “To say that ‘no, some of those counties didn’t have anything in this bill’ is just not accurate.”

The bill passed the House 75-19, with some members who spoke out against it voting in favor — such as Merrin.

Morgan Trau/WEWS

Voting roll for H.B. 2 in the Ohio House

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.

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