COLUMBUS - A committee drafting a compromise two-year state budget worked late last night to slice more deeply into state programs to make up for a $145 million hole.
“We're heaping budget cut on top of budget cut,” said Ohio Rep. Peter Lawson Jones (D., Shaker Heights), one of two Democrats on the six-member joint House-Senate conference committee charged with finding middle ground on versions of the $44.9 billion budget passed by both chambers.
The House and the Senate hope to send a final bill to Governor Taft's desk today that would raise spending over the next two years about 10 percent.
Republicans and legislative staff worked most of yesterday, repeatedly pushing back the start of the committee meeting more than 13 hours into the late evening. They were working on a plan that would slice another 1.5 percent or so off the top from many state agencies.
This follows last week's predictions from the Taft administration that Ohio would probably face $145 million more in Medicaid and other entitlement costs than was anticipated when the two houses approved their versions.
The General Assembly's plan to pump $1.4 billion more into K-12 education would be exempted from the cuts as would essential services like prisons. Higher education was again a target for cuts. “There were some selected cuts, and most of them came out of [the Ohio Board of] Regents, because that's the deep pockets after you take everything else off the table,” said state Sen. Doug White (R., Manchester), a conference committee member.
Although the fiscal year ends June 30, the General Assembly is rushing to prepare for a June 15 date with the Ohio Supreme Court. It hopes to demonstrate it has made enough progress in addressing the court's 4-3 decision last year that the current system of funding education is unconstitutional.
House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) said the budget doesn't bank on gains from the just-approved federal tax refunds.
“We're not considering the extra dollars, but I think it will have an economic impact on the state of Ohio,” he said. “I don't know that you can put a dollar figure on what the impact is going to be. When the economy gets tight, sometimes people spend the money and sometimes they don't.”
He conceded that some taxpayers might need the additional money to pay more Ohio income taxes. Unlike the last five years, the proposed biennial budget does not leave room for excess revenue to go into the Income Tax Reduction Fund. Last year's surplus generated this year's temporary cut of 6.9 percent.
There are few areas of real dispute between the House and the Senate. Much of the tinkering yesterday was unrelated to the cuts dealt the state's plan to reduce nursing home costs and the distribution of special education funds.
The latest plan is expected to shift higher education spending back slightly in the direction of two-year community colleges and technical schools, but that was before the additional 1.5 percent skim off the top. The Senate had taken dollars dedicated primarily to controlling tuition at the two-year schools and put them into a much larger pot also benefiting four-year universities like Toledo, Bowling Green, and Ohio State.
But the newest scenario, which still leaves two-year schools below present levels, is not expected to be enough to prevent significant tuition increases at both sets of schools as a result of nearly stagnant state funding.