COLUMBUS - In a party-line vote, the Ohio House of Representatives in the early morning hours yesterday approved a two-year, $44.9 billion operating budget that boosts spending on public schools without raising state taxes.
But some legislators and education leaders argue that it will not be enough to satisfy the Ohio Supreme Court, which has ordered the General Assembly to come up with a method to fund the state's schools that does not rely so heavily on property taxes.
The 59-40 vote - the margin by which the GOP controls the House - was taken at 3:30 a.m. after House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) halted efforts to pick up some Democratic votes.
Although the 1,589-page budget would boost state aid on the K-12 system by $1.4 billion over two years, Democrats panned it as failing to comply with the May, 2000, Supreme Court decision that struck down the school-funding system as unconstitutional.
The legislature has a June 15 deadline to respond to the high court.
State Rep. Bryan Flannery (D., Lakewood) said the GOP plan does not reduce the reliance of school districts on local property taxes, which the court said causes inequities among property-rich and property-poor districts.
“If you do your homework, the Supreme Court never said ... more money,” Mr. Flannery said. He failed to win GOP support for his proposal to reduce the amount of local property-tax dollars for school expenses and to boost the state's share.
“We've made education our No. 1 priority,” he said.
Bill Phillis, executive director of the coalition of public schools that sued the state in 1991 over the funding system, said the GOP plan “will never pass court muster.”
“At a time when the rhetoric is `leave no child behind,' this budget leaves all classes of children in Ohio behind - the gifted, those with disabilities, the disadvantaged, vocational, and regular students,” Mr. Phillis said.
To pay for the increase in state aid for public schools, House Republicans agreed to let Governor Taft dip into the state's “rainy-day” fund, used federal welfare funds to replace state dollars for social programs such as Head Start, and trimmed $150 million from what the governor wanted to spend on higher education.
House Minority Leader Jack Ford (D., Toledo) said the budget bill “falls short for college students and their parents.”
The bill would increase state spending on higher education by only 1 percent - or $100 million - over the next two years.
Republican legislators agreed to let state-supported colleges and universities raise tuition beyond the 6 percent cap, starting in 2002-2003. An exception is Ohio State University, which would be allowed to raise tuition by 9 percent this year.
“Many [college students and parents] are incensed ... because they'll have to further mortgage their future to pay for high costs in higher education,” Mr. Ford said.
But state Rep. David Goodman (R., Bexley) called tuition caps a “miserable failure,” providing “cover” for universities to raise undergraduate tuition up to 6 percent per year even if they did not need the money immediately.
Although state Rep. James Trakas (R., Independence) said the proposed budget is tight, he noted that the state would spend nearly $45 billion over the next two years - an increase from the $40 billion in the current budget.
“We did not raise taxes on the hard-working citizens of Ohio. We did not raise taxes by changing [business tax] loopholes that put people out of jobs,” he said.
Mr. Trakas referred to reductions in spending made to Governor Taft's version of the state budget as “necessary pruning.”
State Rep. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta) charged that Democrats did not support the budget bill because there's “not enough spending.” He said Democratic members of the Finance Committee on Wednesday offered amendments - all of them tabled by GOP members - with a nearly $4 billion price tag.
But Democrats rejected the “tax-and-spend” label, saying they do not consider closing some business tax “loopholes” tantamount to a tax increase, as the Republicans argued.
“This is not about big government versus small government,” said state Rep. Ed Jerse (D., Euclid). “It is not about high taxes versus low taxes. It's about taking care of the basic responsibilities we have as a government.”
Usually some Democrats cross over and support major bills that the Republicans push, but the budget debate united the 40 Democrats in the House, said Mr. Ford, the top-ranking House Democrat.