Ohio has ceded one of its congressional seats in the coming decade thanks to growth rates that haven’t kept pace with other states around the country. Rep. Jon Cross, R-Kenton, is making a stab at reversing that trend with legislation he’s calling the GROW Ohio Act which aims to attract and then retain college students.
Cross introduced the plan Monday flanked by numerous university presidents. Former Congressman Steve Stivers, who now heads up the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, was on hand to lend his support as well. The idea, encapsulated in the bill’s acronym, is simple: graduating and retaining Ohio’s workforce. But Cross acknowledged the state faces an uphill climb.
“We used to have about 24, maybe, plus or minus, members of Congress,” Cross said. “Today we have 15. That’s all you need to know.”
Cross’ legislation pairs tax breaks with financial aid to ease the path from an Ohio college to an Ohio job. The first tax break goes to businesses offering paid internships or apprenticeships. Cross says they’d be able to write off about a third of those salaries at tax time.
“Those companies are investing in those future employees,” Cross said. “And we want to have this tax credit, this 30% tax credit on those paid wages, not only just as a thank you, but hopefully to offer more internships and more opportunities at the place of business.”
The other tax incentive goes to the workers — zero state income tax for the first three years after graduation. Legislative text hasn’t been released, but Cross described the benefit as one that would show up in an employee’s tax return.
“We will offer you a 100% refundable state income tax year, after year, after year, for the first three years,” Cross said, “as a thank you for living here, learning here and working.”
In terms of financial aid, Cross’ legislation would devote more money to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant specifically to help students who received a two-year degree enroll in a four-year degree program.
He also envisions a merit “scholarship” program open to out of state students. To qualify for one of the 100 $25,000 packages, students would have to be in the top 5% of their graduating class and be pursuing a degree in a STEM field. That aid, however, is a forgivable loan instead of a grant. Grads would get a third forgiven if they stay in Ohio for one year, half if they stay for two, and the funding would be fully forgiven after year three.
Stivers applauded Cross’ proposal.
“We need more people in Ohio. We’ve got to get him to move here,” Stivers said. “And he’s going to start by getting college students here from other states. And it’s not just any college students the best and brightest.”
Ohio State President Kristina Johnson was one of seven school leaders to speak in favor of the measure, and like many of her colleagues she emphasized the importance of creating attractive job prospects for students once they graduate.
“We attract 11,300 more students here than we give to other states, and that’s awesome,” Johnson said. “What this act will do is make sure they stay and thrive in this particular state.”
She noted although Ohio schools out-recruit others, the state as a whole ranks in the bottom third when it comes to residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.
But while Cross’ workforce and higher education effort is built for broad appeal, it’s hard not to notice the partisan edge to many pieces of legislation dominating the agenda in Columbus. Proposals on abortion, trans rights, firearms, COVID-19, and redistricting are all tailored toward partisans, and that might discourage people who fall outside that political camp from moving to Ohio.
Cross downplayed those concerns. He focused on the message his measure sends rather than the General Assembly’s recent track record. Bringing up the legislatures in California and Texas, he argued partisan fights are common around the country, and that it’s more important for Ohio to “get creative” in its pitch to students.
“Alabama is offering four-year free ride scholarships to Alabama, and who the hell wants to go to Alabama?” Cross asked. “I don’t. But there’s a pipeline of students in Ohio that go to Alabama. And so we have to get competitive, we have to step up our game.”
As for how many twenty-somethings are deciding on where to live based on their taxes, Cross admitted he couldn’t speak for every student, but he’d heard positive reactions from those he’d spoken with. He suggested the tax break might be a final nudge toward choosing Ohio, instead of a recent grad’s primary reason.
Cross doesn’t have a dollar figure for his plan, but he acknowledged the price tag legislative researchers put on the bill will likely be big. On the other hand, he argued the money Ohio is losing as students leave the state might outweigh the investment he’s proposing.
Cross suggested the measure will be bipartisan, and he plans to get the ball rolling in the coming year. He hopes to pass the measure as a standalone bill, but noted if there are snags it could eventually be folded into the next two-year budget.