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Published: Wednesday, 6/20/2001

Few expect Ohio Supreme Court to throw out state budget

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - One option proposed to the Ohio Supreme Court by a coalition of schools suing the state could have a dramatic impact far beyond the classroom, potentially shutting down Ohio state government.

If the Ohio Supreme Court were to agree to stop the state's $45 billion, two-year operating budget from going into effect on July 1, checks to welfare recipients and nursing homes would stop flowing, state offices and parks could close, state employees might not receive paychecks, and support for health care programs might dry up.

The state will argue before the court today that it has made sufficient gains in addressing last year's 4-3 ruling that Ohio's system of funding public education unconstitutionally places students in poorer districts at a disadvantage. In particular, the state will point to a $1.4 billion increase in planned state spending on schools over the next two years.

“I'd like to think the court is not going to exact punishment on the whole state because four of them disagree with what the legislature has done. You'll start to have real victims out there,” said Scott Borgemenke, formerly Mr. Taft's chief policy adviser and now a public relations consultant.

Bill Phillis, the coalition's director, could not be reached for comment. But in court papers filed this week, coalition attorney Nick Pittner wrote that it might be “particularly appropriate” if the court struck down the budget, because the state “has made clear its opposition to raising additional revenues - something the state is certainly capable of doing should it wish.”

The coalition has suggested that the state could focus solely on the K-12 aspect of the budget, shutting off the spigot of state aid to force the General Assembly back to town over the summer to fix the system.

Absent that, the court might appoint a “special master” to negotiate a plan between the parties, as suggested by the coalition of 515 districts thatincludes Toledo Public Schools.

“I won't support anything that leads to a stand-down or something that freezes everything in place,” said House Minority Leader Jack Ford (D., Toledo). “I don't think we move ahead that way.”

Warren Russell, spokesman for the Ohio School Boards Association, noted that a 1980 state law prohibits a school from closing because it runs out of money.

“It's a catch-22,” he said. “We have a state law that says [schools] have to borrow [from the state] if they run a deficit. ... I guess how it works out is chaos.”

Wealthier districts like Ottawa Hills presumably could survive better on local revenue than poorer districts like Lima Public Schools.

“The poorer districts that get 85, 90 percent of their money from us would simply not open this fall,” said Senate President Richard Finan (R., Evendale). “If they think that is a proper way to operate an educational system, then let that be on their house.”

Many believe that, if the court again rules against the state, it is more likely to pursue the option of appointing a master to oversee the process of developing a solution. That would most likely be done while the current spending plan remains in place, guaranteeing spending per pupil of at least $4,949 by 2003.

Unlike the federal government, state government has not been shut down for financial reasons in modern history. Even in times of budgetary impasse, lawmakers have been able to agree long enough to enact interim spending plans while the battles continued.

In the event of a crisis brought on by the striking down of the general fund budget bill, highway crews would continue to operate, and the Ohio Highway Patrol would be on call. The Ohio Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety largely operate from a separate transportation budget.



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