Bad for Ohio

The new state budget aims to reward special interests and appease extremists at the expense of Ohio taxpayers


State lawmakers are wrapping up work on the new two-year budget that takes effect July 1; negotiators for the Republican-controlled House and Senate start meeting today to resolve differences in the two chambers’ budget bills. But it already seems clear that the final budget that will emerge from the General Assembly will be mostly bad for Ohio.

Lawmakers continue to spurn Republican Gov. John Kasich’s plea to include in the new budget an expansion of Ohio’s Medicaid program, which would be funded almost entirely by Washington under the federal Affordable Care Act. Expansion would provide health insurance promptly to 275,000 working-poor Ohioans, more than 18,000 of them in Lucas County.

Instead, GOP legislative leaders in both houses, fearful of hard-right opposition in Ohio to Obamacare, say they want to “study” the issue and propose Medicaid “reforms.” That dodge was bad enough when it was merely an excuse for doing nothing. Now, some proposals threaten to restrict Medicaid eligibility further rather than expand it, in the phony guise of “bending the cost curve.”

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Legislators also are ignoring the governor’s proposal for a modest, overdue increase in Ohio’s severance tax on shale oil and natural-gas extraction. Mr. Kasich’s offer to sweeten his proposal by earmarking more tax revenue from fracking to help impoverished counties in Appalachian Ohio appears to have attracted scant legislative support to overcome strong industry opposition.

The General Assembly’s defiance on these two issues alone would give Mr. Kasich ample justification to veto the budget bill. But it is likely to include plenty of other objectionable features that also would merit line-item vetoes.

Lawmakers are rejecting the governor’s proposal to swap a cut in Ohio’s personal income tax for a broadening of the state’s sales tax base to include a wide array of services. That’s just as well. But legislators still appear determined to provide unnecessary tax cuts for small businesses, with no evidence that they will lead to the vast job creation advocates promise.

Leaders of both houses are congratulating themselves on increasing state aid to public schools and local governments in the new budget. They don’t mention that the boost they propose still would not restore the Draconian cuts in such aid in the current budget.

Scrapping the tax cut would permit such a restoration. Instead, lawmakers seek to expand eligibility for tax-funded vouchers for private schools.

The Senate budget bill includes special, unwarranted favors for nursing homes and natural-gas utilities. At the same time, it leaves unexamined the $7.7 billion a year in tax exemptions, credits, and deductions that the state provides.

The liberal advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio notes that the Senate budget creates or expands a dozen tax breaks, while eliminating just two. A sales-tax exemption for the Toledo Mud Hens appears justified, but larger breaks have gotten little or no scrutiny.

The Senate bill includes provisions that are only marginally related to fiscal issues. For example, it permits local governments to conduct more “economic development” activity in private, away from taxpayer scrutiny. Toledoans have seen in recent years the negative effects of excessive secrecy in city development projects.

The Senate budget also includes assaults on Ohio women’s rights and health. The measure could make it virtually impossible for clinics that perform abortions to continue to operate. It also effectively defunds Planned Parenthood programs in Ohio — often the only sources of health care and family planning for poor women in the state — to punish the organization for its abortion rights advocacy.

Budgets at all levels of government reflect official priorities, and provide a sense of whom the people who approve the budgets think they are primarily serving. In Columbus, it’s clear that the favored constituencies are special-interest groups with the most politically powerful lobbies and most generous campaign contributions, and right-wing extremists who are threatening GOP lawmakers with primary-election challenges next year.

The grotesquely partisan map of legislative districts that Republicans rammed through last year places most lawmakers beyond the reach of voter accountability in general elections. Still, Ohioans may ask themselves: Did I really sign up for this?