COLUMBUS - Voters would choose between allowing slot machines at Ohio's seven racetracks and paying higher sales taxes under a $48.5 billion budget bill passed 53-46 by the Ohio House late last night.
The plan anticipates up to 2,500 machines at each racetrack with the state's proceeds, estimated at $500 million a year when fully operational, to be earmarked for K-12 education.
The two-year budget plan, which now shifts to the Senate, is about $700 million smaller than the $49.2 billion plan proposed by Gov. Bob Taft but $3 billion bigger than the one enacted two years ago. A budget must be enacted by July 1.
The House found much of its reductions from Mr. Taft's proposal in education - $363 million from the Department of Education and $311 million from the Ohio Board of Regents over the biennium.
Despite the cuts in higher education, the bill caps how much colleges and universities may raise tuition at 6 percent a year, 9 percent for Ohio State University.
“You have to balance the budget,” said Rep. Jim Hoops (R., Napoleon). “I'm not happy with this, but what are the alternatives?''
All northwest Ohio Republicans supported the bill with the exception of Rep. Mike Gilb (R., Findlay), Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore), and John Willamowski (R., Lima). All area Democrats opposed it.
The budget would impose a temporary penny surcharge on the current 5-cent state sales tax that would last two years, raising $1.2 billion a year. If slot machines are approved, estimated to generate $800 million over the biennium, the surcharge would come off a year early.
“I've never seen a temporary tax not become a permanent tax,” said Mr. Gilb, a tax and gambling opponent.
Although Democratic leadership tried yesterday to keep its 37 members unified in opposition, Republicans convinced five African-American members to buck the caucus, largely because of some restored Medicaid funding.
The slot machine referendum in November on amending the state constitution would actually pose the question to voters in the form of prohibiting electronic gaming devices rather than authorizing them.
Mr. Taft, opposed to casino gambling, has vowed to veto the language.
About 3,500 advocates of Head Start, Medicaid, food bank, housing, legal aid, and other state-funded human services rallied at the Statehouse against budget cuts threatened at some point during the budget process.
House Republicans, however, found it difficult to follow through with some of those cuts as they sought to please senior citizens and university presidents while also trying to gather a few Democratic votes for higher taxes and gambling to balance the books.
Democrats released an analysis of how school districts would fare under the House GOP plan to distribute funding based on monthly average student attendance instead of a single count in October that holds for the course of a year.
Toledo Public Schools, which has one of the poorest attendance rates in the state at 90.9 percent, would receive 1.3 percent and 12.5 percent fewer dollars respectively in 2004 and 2005 under the plan. By comparison, Napoleon City Schools, with a 95.6 percent attendance rate, would receive increases of 5.4 and 2.2 percent.
Among the budget's highlights:
w Flat funding of the income tax-fueled funds subsidizing local governments and libraries at 2003 levels, a reduction of $56 million over the biennium compared with Mr. Taft's proposal.
w The addition of $75,000 a year for the Toledo Technology Academy, about half of what it was seeking.
w Mandatory closing of an unspecified law school, with early conjecture focusing on either Cleveland State or the University of Akron.
w Inclusion of the governor's plan to close Lima Correctional Institution, two mental retardation/development disability centers, and a youth center.