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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2011

Columbus’ priorities

Ohio lawmakers are working out the small differences in the budget bills passed by the state House and Senate. But the key themes of the two-year budget that the General Assembly will approve and Gov. John Kasich will sign by the end of the month are already distressingly clear.

It’s a budget whose idea of “shared sacrifice” is slashing support of essential public services on which middle and working-class and low-income Ohio families rely, while giving preferential tax treatment to the state’s wealthiest individuals and to corporations.

It’s a budget that defines “fiscal discipline” as eliminating the state’s revenue shortfall largely by shifting the burden to local communities and public schools — and probably requiring local tax hikes.

It’s a “jobs budget” that likely will cost many public-sector workers their jobs, and at one point would have denied thousands of private-sector workers their legal right to earn even the minimum wage. It will trim support of public education while waving through an unwarranted expansion of private-school vouchers and charters.

It seeks to transfer to private control many of the state’s most valuable public assets — the turnpike, the lottery, the liquor distribution system — as well as critical institutions such as prisons, in exchange for small amounts of up-front money and with scant state oversight. It’s a “reform-minded” budget that does too little to reform the $7 billion the state doles out each year in tax breaks, many of them wasteful sops to special interests.

Lawmakers also have used the budget process as an excuse to seek big policy changes in such unrelated areas as restricting abortion rights, without public hearings or adequate debate.

Leaders of the Kasich administration and the Republican majorities in the legislature argue that Ohio voters knew what they were signing up for when they handed the GOP control of state government at last November’s election. But how many could have anticipated such a radical transformation so quickly?

The originally projected $8 billion revenue gap in the next budget of nearly $56 billion has narrowed a bit as the state’s economy has picked up. The Senate budget includes slight improvements from the House version in funding for children’s services, at-home elder care, schools, and local government.

Even now, though, GOP officials demand that any new money go to replenishing the state’s “rainy day” fund, instead of starting to restore some of the programs the budget would gut. Do they expect the state’s fiscal emergency to get even worse in the next few years? If so, they might share the reasons for such forebodings with their constituents.

There are things lawmakers could do to make the budget somewhat less bad. They could drop their plan to repeal Ohio’s estate tax — a proposal that penalizes local governments that rely on the tax, while needlessly rewarding a handful of the state’s richest taxpayers.

They could postpone the final phase of the state’s income tax cut until revenues improve. They could not just set up a committee to review tax expenditures, but actually save more than $300 million a year right now by ending unnecessary breaks identified by Ohio think tanks across the ideological spectrum (see the op-ed column on the next page).

On the spending side, they could reduce the $1.4 billion annual hit Ohio’s Medicaid program takes in smoking-related costs by investing $1 million to enforce the state’s voter-approved indoor smoking ban and providing minimally adequate funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs. That could help save a lot of lives, too.

Will lawmakers do any of these things? Probably not. Will voters remember what their elected officials in Columbus are doing to them? Let’s hope so.



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