Ohio high court takes up lawsuit affecting liquor bonds

Wed Jan 23, 2013 6:40pm EST

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Jan 23 (Reuters) - The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday resuscitated a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law behind the scheduled sale of about $1.5 billion of revenue bonds this week.

The high court agreed to take up the question of whether a liberal advocacy group has standing to sue over the 2011 law that spun Ohio's job and economic development programs off to a private entity called JobsOhio, according to Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, which filed the lawsuit.

Under the law, Ohio's liquor enterprise and its revenue were transferred to JobsOhio, which in turn was authorized to sell long-term bonds backed by future liquor revenue.

Rothenberg said the bonds should not be sold until the constitutional question of Ohio Governor John Kasich's plan funneling public money to a private entity to oversee job creation and economic development efforts is resolved.

"It's reckless and irresponsible for the Kasich Administration and Wall Street to even entertain selling the bonds while the constitutional question is out there," he said.

JobsOhio Beverage System was slated to sell on Wednesday about $1.1 billion of taxable senior lien liquor profits revenue bonds through J.P. Morgan Securities and another $423 million of tax-exempt bonds through Citi.

The status of the bond sale was not clear, although JobsOhio issued a supplement on Wednesday to the deal's preliminary official statement that noted the court's decision to take up the standing issue without adding new details. An attorney representing JobsOhio could not be immediately reached for comment.

Laura Jones, a JobsOhio spokeswoman, said in a statement that the bond sale involved a number of steps and that JobsOhio was continuing to work on those steps.

"While we don't comment on pending litigation I can tell you that we are confident in our legislated mission to help businesses grow and create jobs for Ohioans," the statement said.

Proceeds from the bond sale were earmarked to pay off outstanding state debt backed by liquor revenue, provide $500 million for Ohio's general fund and raise about $225 million for JobsOhio's operations, according to Moody's Investors Service, which rated the bonds A2 with a developing outlook due to the litigation.

Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for Kasich, said the governor's office remained confident the supreme court will uphold lower court rulings that found ProgressOhio and others that filed the lawsuit have no standing to sue.

"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," she added in a statement.

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