Democratic state House lawmakers, standing in front of the downtown Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, said yesterday Senate Republicans are holding the House's proposed state budget "hostage."
But they had few words of comfort for area library systems that are facing the loss of 50 percent of their state funds under their plan.
At first, Rep. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) mistakenly said the funding cut for libraries would be offset by Gov. Ted Strickland's proposal to introduce video lottery terminals, which backers say would generate an estimated $933 million annually.
"If the video lottery terminals are approved, the cuts will not take place," she said.
Mrs. Brown is on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, which approved the balanced budget two weeks ago and sent it to the Senate.
After a quick conversation with Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), who is also on the finance committee, she realized her error. The budget proposal with video lottery terminals included the extra 30 percent cut in funding for public libraries on top of a 20 percent cut because of decreases in the state's general fund.
That proposal passed the Democrat-controlled House two weeks ago and has since stalled in the Senate, which has a Republican majority.
Mr. Ujvagi insisted everything is being done to find more money for libraries, which are reporting record-high demands for services across the state. "I have fought for libraries all my life," he said.
But neither representative could provide specifics on how the conference committee would reinstate library funding and sustain a balanced budget.
"You rearrange the chairs," Mrs. Brown said.
Mr. Ujvagi said the steep library cuts were meant to offset losses in other priority areas, particularly early childhood education and food banks. Significant portions of both areas are on the chopping block under the House's current plan.
But Mr. Ujvagi said Senate Republicans are making the situation worse by stalling.
He warned that if they don't approve video lottery terminals, the state will lose $933 million. "Compared to another $1 billion cut, what has been cut already is nothing," he said.
Two years ago, Senate Republicans voted to introduce video racing terminals to Ohio. Video racing terminals, which are basically high-tech versions of slot machines, allow players to bet on horse races without knowing the identity or skill level of the horse or jockey.
"Now what is the different between that, and between a bunch of spinning balls? There isn't any," Mr. Ujvagi said.
He called Senate Republicans' opposition to video lottery terminals a "political ploy."
Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) called Mr. Ujvagi's claim "nonsense." He said a Senate hearing on the slots proposal yesterday raised serious questions about the viability of video lottery terminals at Ohio racetracks.
In particular, he said many racetrack owners testified that county governments and leasing agreements might prevent them from allowing the terminals on their grounds.
"This is not a very well-thought-out plan," he said.
Strickland spokesman Amanda Wurst said the governor proposed his framework June 19. The details were left up to lawmakers.
"The governor continues to think the VLTs at racetracks are a better option than a tax increase," she said. "If the Senate doesn't like the proposal he has put forth, they should tell Ohioans what programs they want to cut or what taxes they plan to increase."
The state's constitutional deadline to pass a balanced budget for the new fiscal year was July 1. This is the first time Ohio hasn't met the deadline in nearly 20 years. The government is running on a week-long continuing resolution, until Tuesday, at 70 percent of last year's budget. The House finance committee will meet Monday to continue negotiations.
The budget has to go through the House-Senate conference committee before passing. That committee canceled its meetings last weekend, and Mr. Wagoner said no meetings are scheduled.
In Columbus, meanwhile, an official for a major racing track said multimillion-dollar down payments on racetrack slots are at risk if Ohio voters approve a competing casino plan in November.
But the official, Robert Griffin, chief executive of MTR Gaming Group Inc., said the provision in Mr. Strickland's plan requiring the state to return the license fees to investors if the casino plan passes will reassure lenders and tracks investing in video lottery terminals.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
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