At the end of each summer, Congress typically adjourns, letting me spend more time in Ohio instead of commuting back and forth to Washington every week. I love it because I get more time to travel the state and meet people in every corner of Ohio. This summer was no exception. I traveled over 4,000 miles in my pickup truck and had 75 meetings with farmers, small business owners, factory workers, police officers, drug counselors, recovering addicts and so many others in 39 different counties throughout the state.
It was a great opportunity to learn more about what’s on Ohioans’ minds and how Washington can help. I was also able to see firsthand how some of the laws I’ve passed are working to address the opioid epidemic and expand workforce training, and how our new legislative efforts could further help.
In 2017, when I began my second term representing Ohio in the Senate, I set a goal to visit all 88 counties in our state during the six-year term. This summer, I met that goal, a few years ahead of schedule.
In a number of counties, I met with small business owners who told me how they’ve benefited from the major tax reform law enacted in 2017. They’ve used their tax savings to grow their businesses and increase wages for their workers. Their biggest issue is not being able to find enough qualified workers to fill the new jobs that have been created. Many of these jobs don’t require a college degree, but do require training after high school. Manufacturers are looking for welders, machinists, mechanics, and more. Hospitals are looking for nurses and medical techs. Trucking companies need qualified truck drivers, and computer programming and coding skills are in demand in all sectors.
I learned from talking to Ohioans at community colleges, high school CTE programs, and in businesses, that one way to close this skills gap is to help get more individuals into short-term training programs. That is exactly what my bipartisan JOBS Act does, by allowing people to access Pell grants to fund short-term training programs with industry-recognized credentials. Right now, these funds are only available for undergraduate education, but with the JOBS Act, short-term technical training for good-paying jobs will become more affordable to low-income students.
On my tour, I also met with a number of groups working to combat the continuing addiction crisis we’re seeing across Ohio. State and local organizations have been able to use federal resources provided by laws like my Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to design innovative approaches to preventing and curing addiction. In fact, after seven straight years of rising rates of drug overdose deaths, to the point that it was the number one cause of death in Ohio, we saw a decrease in overdose deaths last year.
Still, there is much more to do. I was pleased that HHS recently awarded $55.8 million to Ohio in State Opioid Response grants. However, while we’ve made progress in preventing opioid deaths, whether from heroin, OxyContin, or fentanyl, I also heard repeatedly about how communities are seeing a resurgence of both cocaine and crystal meth, which is cheap, powerful, and abundant.
That’s why I introduced the Combating Meth and Cocaine Act this summer, which will give state and local groups the greater flexibility they told me they need to better address the on-the-ground reality of addiction in our state and others.
My travels across Ohio also allowed me to meet with farmers, the backbone of an agricultural industry that contributes over $100 billion to Ohio’s economy every year. I learned how this year has been one of the toughest in decades because of heavy floods, tornadoes, and a shrinking market with China. At my urging, the USDA issued an agricultural disaster declaration this summer, which is offering federal low-interest loans to those affected in these tough times.
I also spoke with farmers about the value of our trade relationship with our closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, who are also our biggest trading partners. With one out of every three acres of Ohio farmland producing crops to be exported, it’s important to have a level playing field so that our farmers can compete. That’s why I heard repeatedly about the value passing the new USMCA to replace the outdated NAFTA that governs our trade relationship with Mexico and Canada. USMCA will give farmers greater access to new markets – that’s why almost 1000 agricultural groups have endorsed the deal. I have urged my Democratic colleagues to pass the new agreement in the House of Representatives so that we can help our farmers compete.
In my five weeks of traveling across Ohio late this summer, I learned a lot from Ohioans about what’s on their minds and what they expect from Washington. This fall, I’ll continue to fight for all Ohioans and make sure we’re passing legislation that makes a positive difference in people’s lives.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.