COLUMBUS - With a single negative vote, Ohio lawmakers yesterday sent Gov. Ted Strickland a $52.3 billion, two-year budget enacting a property tax cut for one in four Ohio homeowners and promising no tuition hikes for public college students for two years.
After unanimous votes every step of the way to this point, Rep. Diana Fessler (R., New Carlisle) was the sole lawmaker standing in the way of the first perfect budget vote in 83 years.
She opposed the budget's plan to drive so much money toward students in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines, including the creation of five STEM specialty public high schools.
"This is a 'world-is-flat issue,'•" House Speaker Jon Husted said (R., Kettering) after the vote. "It's those who actually believe the world is flat versus those who understand it's metaphorically flat due to technology. We are trying to make Ohio a place where we're embracing the global economy."
It seemed nearly everyone found something to celebrate, including expansion of health coverage to about 20,000 uninsured children whose families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That's about $62,000 a year for a family of four.
"We have created a budget that we can all be proud of and that will begin to turn Ohio around," Mr. Strickland said. His cross-state victory lap will bring him to the Mayores Senior Center at 2 Aurora Gonzales Drive, Toledo, at 12:30 p.m. today.
Even Republicans gave the Democratic governor credit for starting the budget conversation off on the right note with his first budget proposal.
"For the first time in my memory, we had a governor make choices," said Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Vandalia), who served under two prior governors of his own party, Bob Taft and George Voinovich.
Although it avoids new taxes, the budget relies heavily on selling off the next 40 years of payments from Ohio's tobacco settlement for an up-front $5 billion to fund school construction projects and, through debt savings, indirectly underwrite the expanded homestead property tax exemption.
The homestead expansion would forgive the first $25,000 of property value when calculating tax bills for senior citizens and disabled homeowners, regardless of whether they live in three-bedroom houses or lakefront mansions.
The exemption is expected to cut the tax bill of a typical Toledo homeowner with property worth $68,000 by nearly 39 percent, or $392. By comparison, a typical homeowner in Ottawa Hills with property valued at $239,000 would save $569 a year, a 10.5 percent reduction.
The average savings statewide are expected to be about $406.
After several years of flat funding or outright cuts for higher education, lawmakers and the governor launched a bidding war over who could pump more into colleges and scholarships and who could freeze tuition rates the longest.
A new $100 million Choose Ohio First scholarship will provide $1,500 to $4,600 a year per student pursuing the STEM disciplines through university-private sector partnerships.
"I think this budget can change the way people think of Ohio and Ohio's colleges and universities," Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said. "A tuition freeze two years in a row - I believe the first time in Ohio history that's ever happened - tells the people of the state that their leaders believe it's very important."
The GOP-controlled legislature rebuffed Mr. Strickland's attempt to kill the state's statewide voucher program that sent 3,000 students in academically failing public schools to private and religious schools this year.
They then rubbed salt in the wound by creating a new pilot voucher program exclusively targeting children with autism, Down Syndrome, and learning disabilities. They are now watching to see if the governor will exercise his line-item veto power to strike the new program before signing the budget into law before the current fiscal year ends Saturday.
Senate Democratic leader Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) criticized the fact that the final budget also lacks the governor's proposed restrictions on charter schools.
"As students continue to leave public schools for Ohio's incomparable charter schools, districts are forced into deficits," she said. "They have [property tax] levies, and they're going to have more levies."
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