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Published: Wednesday, 6/18/2014

FitzGerald proposes college savings accounts for Ohio kindergartners

DARREL ROWLAND
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Every Ohio kindergartener would get $100 for a college savings account and current college students would get about $160 million more in state financial aid under a higher education plan rolled out this afternoon by Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic candidate for governor.

“There is a crisis in higher education and anybody that’s trying to get a higher education knows it,” he said during a press conference on the corner of Mt. Vernon Avenue and Spring Street on the campus of Columbus State Community College.

“This isn’t a mystery of why we are suffering from these problems in our state, because we are one of the worse states in the country now in terms of actually making investments in higher education, and the result is predictable.”

FitzGerald cited a recent report by Policy Matters Ohio – a nonprofit think tank based in Cleveland – noting that in 1991, the state dedicated $7.03 out of every $1,000 in personal income to higher education, ranking 38th among the states. Even as the national average decreased, 20 years later Ohio’s total had dropped to $4.57, ranking 41st.

In 2012, Ohio had more than 742,000 graduates leaving with debt – 6th in the country – who owed $3.75 billion in federal student loans, averaging $29,000 – 9th in the U.S., the study found.

Ohio’s public colleges and universities are charging 6.2 percent higher than the national average for tuition, and for community colleges it’s 21 percent higher, FitzGerald said.

While Gov. John Kasich isn’t to blame for the entire problem, he “took a bad situation and made it worse,’’ FitzGerald said, by failing to restore cuts when Ohio’s budget returned to fiscal health and by reducing college funding below 2010 levels.

The universal college savings accounts, which would start with kindergarteners attending public or private schools in 2015-16, would be a first for any state. Parents or guardians could add to the fund, and Ohio taxpayers could voluntarily contribute some or all of their state income tax refund. The money could be used only for an approved educational expense, but would include public or private institutions. Earlier, the Cuyahoga County executive launched a similar plan in his home county, the first in the nation, without a tax increase.

He said he would get behind federal legislation allowing college students to refinance college loans at lower interest rates. He would push for more widespread opportunities for high school students to earn college credit. And he would restore need-based Ohio College Opportunity Grant funding levels from before cuts made by fellow Democrat Ted Strickland, increasing them to as much as 135 percent of what they are now. Aid for community college students was hit the most.

FitzGerald, who will have two of his four children in college this fall, said he would pay for his $180 million plan from money made above state budget projections.

“We have to resolve as a state, as a community, when we have extra money, instead of pouring into tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest people in the state, we’ve got to make an investment when it counts,” he said.

A handout said the Democrat also would take a “critical eye to the dramatic increase in administrators’ salaries,” which could pay off by “minimizing or eliminating annual tuition hikes.”

FitzGerald would not say what he would do with the series of tax cuts – combined with smaller increases – approved by Kasich and the GOP-controlled legislature, other than to say he opposes “ tax shifts.”

“I do not say that these programs can only be funded by a tax increase. I am not running on a platform to increase taxes,” he said. “It’s your budgetary priorities. Every time there is an extra penny in the state budget, instead of giving the money back that John Kasich subtracted from local communities including fire departments and police departments and EMS departments, or students for that matter for money he took out of the student aid program, he never gives the money back.

“All I’m saying is my budgetary priority is going to be to return and restore some of that money” by the time his fourth year in office is up.

But would he leave intact the tax “shifts” Kasich and the legislature enacted?

“I am not proposing raising any taxes. Boom!” said FitzGerald as he walked down the sidewalk away from the press conference before reporters were finished asking questions.

The sweltering event was plagued by noisy passing traffic, a loud car alarm and the shouts of a few hecklers – plus four GOP demonstrators.

Republican protestors attended the event with oversized ID card replicas in tow.

“We’re here to find out what Ed Fitzgerald has to hide, if we can,” said one volunteer. “He doesn’t seem to be interested in telling anybody.”

Fitzgerald has declined to release records containing his key card data, showing when he arrived at and departed from work. Members of the campaign have said it’s because the release would pose a security risk, and that the candidate has received death threats.

Dispatch reporter Kristen Mitchell contributed to this story.

drowland@dispatch.com

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©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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