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Published: 6/20/2007

$52B Ohio budget awaits fine-tuning

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - There are no major points of disagreement, but the House and Senate versions of a $52 billion, two-year budget is headed for a conference committee to hammer out a compromise.

The biggest question mark is whether lower-than-expected revenue estimates expected from Gov. Ted Strickland's budget director may dampen what has been a bipartisan effort. Internal legislative estimates have suggested revenue estimates could be $200 million to $300 million lower than expected when the governor first rolled out his $52.9 billion plan in March.

In a strictly party-line vote of 53-46, the House rejected changes made by the Senate, forcing creation of a joint House-Senate conference committee.

Minority Democrats, however, wanted to immediately lock in the Senate's $52.3 billion plan, which was more generous than the $52 billion House version, particularly in the area of higher education.

"This budget has been a bipartisan budget throughout this process that has been focused on issues that matter most," Rep. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood) said. "The budget as constituted now is balanced ... [and] keeps our strong bond rating."

House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) said there are no major points of contention but rather a number of smaller issues, including how the state would make newly proposed scholarships available to students focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

"I am very happy because we were able to accomplish the vision that I set out ... at the beginning of the session, to make higher education a driver of the economy," he said. "School choice is intact and even stronger than before," he said. "All of our major priorities have been accomplished in both versions of the bill. It's just a matter of working through the finer points."

Mr. Husted, however, would like to revisit Mr. Strickland's proposed investment revision of the state's next 40 years of tobacco settlement payments to directly pay for school construction and indirectly, through debt service savings, underwrite a massive across-the-board property tax cut for all senior citizens and disabled homeowners, regardless of wealth.

Mr. Husted said he would prefer tying the benefit to lower-income homeowners, regardless of age.

So far, that argument has not resonated, despite questions as to whether the tobacco settlement funds could fully cover the record tax break in later years.

"It's very popular to give tax cuts to everybody," he said.

The yet-to-be-appointed conference committee will begin hearings tomorrow. A budget must pass both chambers and be signed by Mr. Strickland by June 30.

The fact that the budget is headed for a conference committee means environmental groups will get an opportunity to testify against an amendment added late in the process in the Senate to benefit a proposed $800 million coking plant in East Toledo and Oregon.

The amendment, requested by Mr. Strickland, would allow the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director to modify restrictions included in a previously issued permit already under appeal.

The anonymous investors behind the U.S. Coking Group have argued that the current permit is too restrictive.

"The amendment will affect much more than the proposed Toledo coke plant permit," reads a letter sent to legislative leaders yesterday by the Ohio Environmental Council. "[The] amendment could ... jeopardize an unknown number of permits, rules, orders, or other actions, and jeopardize the rights of an ... unknown number of persons, communities, or companies that had not anticipated being aggrieved by a modification made after appeal to the [Environmental Review Appeals Commission]."

The letter asks the General Assembly to break the amendment out into its own bill for separate debate or tailor it so narrowly that it could apply only to the northwest Ohio coking plant.

Mr. Husted, however, said the issue doesn't appear to be a point of contention between the two chambers.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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