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Ohio Senate poised to boost sales tax

COLUMBUS - The Senate Republican version of the two-year operating budget calls for a 20 percent sales-tax increase and the same level of spending that Gov. Bob Taft proposed nearly four months ago.

On Feb. 3, Mr. Taft submitted a record $49.2 billion biennial budget proposal. Two months later, the House of Representatives pared the spending plan to $48.5 billion. The House plan calls for voters to choose between allowing video gambling machines at Ohio's seven horseracing tracks or continuing an increase in the state sales-tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Yesterday, Republican Senators released a budget bill that calls for spending $49.2 billion over the next two years and the sales-tax hike.

In addition to voting on the budget next week, the 33-member Senate may consider a separate resolution to enable voters to decide whether to amend the Ohio Constitution to place video gambling machines on the ballot.

The sales-tax rate increase would expire on July 1, 2005, Mr. Harris said.

The Senate GOP plans provides $245.7 million more in state funding for the K-12 system and $226 million more for higher education than the House of Representatives approved on April 9.

“We cannot afford to stop investing in public education in this state,” said state Sen. Bill Harris, the Ashland Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But Senate Democrats lashed out, saying the Senate GOP plan falls short of Mr. Taft's anemic budget. The governor called for increasing K-12 spending by 1.7 percent in 2004 and 4.1 percent in 2005, and the state's share of instruction for universities by 2 percent and 2.9 percent respectively.

Also, an estimated 50,000 lower-income Ohioans would lose their health insurance and tens of thousands more no longer would receive subsidized day care, state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D., Cleveland) said.

Mr. White said the Senate Republican plan calls for higher spending than Mr. Taft's proposal, in part because GOP legislators did not agree with his plan to reduce property-tax relief from the state for commercial and industrial property owners from the current 10 percent to 5 percent, starting in tax year 2003.

State law grants “tax relief” of 10 percent to commercial and industrial property owners, with the state reimbursing local governments for the losses.

The Senate GOP plans also includes enough funding so the state would not have to start charging admission to state parks or closing historic sites, Mr. Harris said.

A House-Senate committee will hash out differences in the two chambers' budget bills. The compromise will receive an up-or-down vote in both chambers by the July 1 deadline.

Sate Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) was instrumental in at least four provisions in the Senate GOP bill that affect the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, and Medical College of Ohio.

The Senate plans set aside $350,000 for UT's Urban Affairs Center and $600,000 for BGSU's center that does research for rural local governments, and added funding that MCO sought for the family practice and clinical teaching programs.

Also, the Senate plan did not include a House provision that would require a consolidation of medical colleges. Instead, Mr. Taft's higher education commission would study the issue, with Mr. Gardner on the panel.

Senate President Doug White (R., Manchester) said he did not know yet if he would need any Democratic votes to adopt the budget bill.

The GOP controls the chamber by a 22-11 margin, but Mr. White must deal with conservatives such as state Sens. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) and Jim Jordan (R., Urbana).

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