COLUMBUS - A House-Senate committee working to reach a compromise on a $52 billion, two-year state budget last night voted to create a cabinet-level Medicaid post.
But the Republican-dominated conference committee has yet to touch on the issues most crucial to reaching agreement in time for a budget to reach Gov. Ted Strickland's desk before the fiscal year ends Saturday.
The Democratic administration continues to negotiate for his priority expansion of government-subsidized health insurance coverage for children with pre-existing conditions and for working-poor parents.
Meanwhile, Republicans are seeking to preserve at least some of the $80 million they've added to the budget for nursing homes, money that now appears vulnerable in light of an estimated $167 million hole that recently opened in the budget because of lowered tax revenue projections.
The GOP also wants to protect its expansion of school vouchers for up to 8,000 special education students to attend private schools or alternative programs, a program Democrats say could cost public schools $142 million.
"Negotiations are going really well," said Rep. Matt Dolan (R., Novelty), the committee's chairman. "We are working with the administration on ways to fill the [shortfall] hole. There will be some cuts for some agencies [from the current budget proposals]."
Despite several party-line votes last night on individual issues in conference committee, the budget process has so far proven unusually amicable. Both sides say this could be the first time in 83 years that a budget could win unanimous legislative support from beginning to end.
Also still unresolved as of last night were Mr. Strickland's proposal to apply a family-income test to scholarships for students attending private colleges; how to distribute $100 million in new college scholarships targeting students in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines, and how to create STEM-specialty high schools.
"On the Democratic side, we don't want to see the STEM schools be another school system," said Senate Democratic leader Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). "We want the STEM schools to be in the public schools."
The committee last night voted to create a new agency under the governor focused solely on federal and state Medicaid dollars spent by various state agencies on nursing homes, prescription drugs, and health coverage.
The idea was offered as a scaled-back alternative to language in the current state budget calling for a separate Department of Medicaid.
The budget already includes Mr. Strickland's proposal to expand Medicaid health insurance to about 20,000 children in families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $62,000 a year for family of four.
He is now holding out for a plan to allow families earning more than that to buy into Medicaid coverage for children considered uninsurable because of pre-existing conditions or prohibitive cost.
The talks on expanding coverage to working poor parents earning between 90 and 100 percent of the federal poverty level are centered on giving the governor the authority to enact the program only if enough dollars become available within the existing Medicaid budget. The program carries a $50 million price tag.
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