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Published: Wednesday, 6/3/2009

Ohio Senate approves $54 billion budget


COLUMBUS The Ohio Senate Wednesday voted along party lines to approve a $54 billion, two-year state budget that senators knew was far from the final word on the subject.

"I believe we have a very difficult road ahead," said Sen. Dale Miller (D., Cleveland), referring to a likely contentious conference committee process that will ultimately produce a budget.

The job will be made that much harder when Gov. Ted Strickland s administration provides that committee with even more pessimistic predictions of what the state can expect to collect in taxes over the next two years.

"For the first time in anybody s memory, the state (general revenue fund) appropriated in this budget is less than the state GRF we unanimously approved in the last budget, " said Sen. Keith Faber (R., Celina). "Can anybody remember when that s happened before?

Total spending, however, continues to climb under the budget, thanks to an unprecedented amount of one-time emergency federal stimulus dollars.

The Republican-controlled chamber stripped the budget of much of Mr. Strickland s proposed reforms of K-12 education, including plans to gradually expand the school year by 20 days and require the state to pick up a greater share of the local cost to educate a child.

Republicans had complained that the plan, portions of which would have been phased in over 10 years, amounted to a series of unfunded mandates on school districts because there was no guarantee the state would ultimately live up to its share of the bargain.

The Senate plan instead builds on the state s existence school funding formula, guaranteeing that all school districts would receive modest 0.25 percent increases in 2010 and 0.5 percent more on top of that in 2011. Fast-growing districts, however, would see increases of 2 percent in both years.

The plan contains no tax increases, but the chamber removed a number of fee increases that the governor was counting on to help raise revenue.

The plan retains House-passed language that would freeze tuition for two years at two-year public colleges and hold the line on tuition for one year at four-year universities. Four-year schools could hike tuition by up to 3.5 percent in the second year.

After more than three hours of debate, the chamber voted 20-11 to send the revised budget back to the House. All Republicans supported it while Democrats opposed it, a dramatic turnaround from two years ago when a budget initially proposed by the Democratic governor unanimously passed the GOP-controlled Senate.

A late change in the budget would redirect $1.9 million that had been earmarked in last year s state capital budget for the canceled expansion of the Wood County Health Department for environmental health training and research.

The money will be divided as follows: $1.5 million for upgrades to Bowling Green State University s ice arena; $200,000 for water quality lab equipment; and $200,000 for its solar power research program.

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