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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

Ohio House GOP budget plan would give schools new tax tool

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - School districts could ask voters to approve up to 8 mills in local property taxes that would be allowed to increase in value as property values rise under a proposed budget unveiled yesterday by Ohio House Republicans.

The provision was included in a tight, $51.3 billion, two-year spending plan that otherwise holds minor increases for K-12 education.

"If the people in Maumee, Sylvania, or Ottawa Hills want to recognize inflationary growth and avoid some of the levy weariness, we're going to give them that tool," said freshman Rep. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), a member of the House Finance Committee.

The committee plans to vote on the budget as early as tomorrow, with a full House vote expected next week. A new budget must be in place by July 1.

But Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), a committee member, said he expects such language to do Toledo Public Schools little good.

"We keep smashing the cost of services and government down to the local government," he said. "That's a great solution for Ottawa Hills, but for poor rural districts and center cities, particularly where tax abatement is rampant, it doesn't do anything except salve somebody's conscience."

School districts would have the option of asking voters to approve a seven-year levy of up to 8 mills that they would know could cost them additional money over time - up to a cap of 4 percent more a year.

Although the option would be available for every school district, Rep. Tom Raga (R., Mason), said it is not going to be attractive for everyone.

"This is for the very high-achieving school with a good relationship with its community," he said. "If you're doing everything right in the perception of the community, you would be interested in doing this.... If you're a low-property-wealth district that is struggling academically, that's a hard levy to sell."

Not included in Gov. Bob Taft's budget proposal, the maximum of 8 mills would be separate from the more traditional mills. Districts could ask voters to approve the mills on top of their regular millage or substitute the growth mills when a regular levy comes up for renewal.

While funding remains tight for traditional public schools, the budget would allow more charter schools, expand vouchers statewide for up to 18,000 students to attend private and religious schools, and place a moratorium on creation of controversial Internet-based "E-schools."

The House plan comes in just below Gov. Bob Taft's spending totals, in part because it would expand his tax reform plan to include a five-year phase-out of a business tax on furniture and fixtures. Mr. Wagoner said the budget would make up the roughly $117 million difference over two years through anticipated savings in Medicaid, keeping a portion of the increased tax on electricity consumption that would otherwise go to local governments, and other maneuvers.

House Finance Chairman Charles Calvert (R., Medina) said the GOP has not proposed any new taxes that weren't in Mr. Taft's budget to make up the difference.

But he insisted the pact that the House is expected to send to the Senate next week will be balanced.

Among the 1,100 changes made so far by House Republicans in a bill that now numbers 4,000 pages:

w●A 6 percent cap on tuition increases at colleges and universities. Mr. Taft had proposed a 9 percent cap, 3 percent of which would be earmarked exclusively for student financial aid.

w●A cut in local government revenue sharing by 20 percent for cities; 10 percent for counties, townships, and villages; and 5 percent for libraries. As a condition for seeing their cut halved from the 20 percent Mr. Taft proposed, counties must submit a plan for consolidation of services.

w●Take $18 million in tobacco settlement money meant for anti-smoking efforts and use it to subsidize federally mandated vehicle emissions testing in the Cleveland and Akron areas. The cost is currently paid out of pocket by local drivers at $19.50 per test.

w●Restores funding for a Medicaid program that provides treatment and medication for those under age 21 with severe medical handicaps such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and cerebral palsy but whose families earn too much for Medicaid.

w●Fully restores Medicaid vision services for adults - slated to be cut by Mr. Taft - but only partially undoes more expensive dental care cuts.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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