COLUMBUS - A joint House-Senate conference committee yesterday restored funding for local governments and libraries and salvaged a prescription-drug program for the poorest of the poor.
But it left the toughest decisions on taxes, schools, colleges, nursing homes, stem-cell research, and Medicaid for today.
The Republican-controlled committee is expected to send a compromise between differing versions of a $51 billion, two-year budget to the House and Senate, where it will face votes next week. Gov. Bob Taft must sign a budget by June 30.
Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, co-chairman of the Campaign to Protect Ohio's Future, applauded the decision to restore $60 million for the Disability Medical Assistance program, half its current budget.
The program serves 15,000 Ohioans who earn less than $115 a month, are dependent on medication, and do not qualify for government health-care.
"It takes so long to get someone onto [federal Supplemental Security Income]," she said. "This was definitely a bridge. . This is a Band-Aid, but I'm totally convinced that it will save lives."
The program would have been killed under the budgets proposed by the governor, House, and Senate, but rosier revenue estimates made its last-minute resurrection possible along with restored funding for local governments and libraries.
While the two versions of the budget differed in 463 areas, the House and Senate largely agreed on major issues such as Mr. Taft's proposal to gradually reduce personal income taxes and replace two business taxes with a tax on gross sales.
Lawmakers continue to talk about exemptions to the proposed Commercial Activity Tax. The petroleum industry has argued that repeatedly taxing the gasoline as it changes hands between the refinery to the gas station will drive up prices.
"There are members who want to do something, but I don't know until we get the amendments whether we will accept them or not," said Rep. Chuck Calvert (R., Medina), the committee's chairman.
In addition to having an additional $810 million over the next year from when they originally passed their budget proposals, lawmakers also decided yesterday how to spend a $500 million surplus for the current fiscal year ending this month.
The conference committee voted to set aside $60 million to repay the federal government for a welfare-overpayment error to counties, $40 million for disaster services, and $50 million for school construction. The rest would go toward replenishing the state's depleted reserves.
The committee threw up a roadblock to an alternative wetland review process sought by developers that environmental groups had coined "the bulldozer amendment."
While giving the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency up to 180 days to make a decision on permits, the committee further raised fees for certificates for builders to fill streams, lakes, and wetlands.
"It is still a net loss of protections for wetlands, but it is not the evil Paul Bunyan twin that the House passed," said Jack Shaner, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Council.
In other action, the committee:
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