COLUMBUS - The first major chamber vote of the budget season went strictly along party lines last night as House Democrats pushed a plan they said protects the most vulnerable Ohioans during the worst economy of recent history, while Republicans predicted fiscal doom in two years.
The total price tag - thanks in part to some funding for libraries, food banks, and child welfare and adult protection services - continued to climb yesterday, setting up a showdown with the Republican-controlled Senate.
"We're in a very serious situation," said Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo). "There are some structural problems that we need to address. I think this budget is a much better budget than came from the governor, but I also have to tell you that I think the budget that came from the governor made a very good effort."
The House plan spends about $55 billion over two years, counting $922 million in one-time federal education aid that Democrats backed out of the general revenue fund calculations. The total is about $600 million bigger than the budget the House received from Gov. Ted Strickland.
The plan does not raise taxes, but includes numerous increases in fees for garbage dumping, birth certificates, divorce court filings, and other specific services.
Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) took particular aim at Mr. Strickland's and his fellow Democrats' proposed restructuring of how the state funds K-12 education based on estimates of what it costs to produce a quality education. Mr. Gardner estimated the state or schools would have to find $845 million in two years to offset one-time federal school aid just to maintain K-12 funding.
"In two years, unless we sell the turnpike, or sell the lottery, or vote for a multibillion-dollar tax increase, or get billions more of free money from the federal government assuming the Chinese will continue to buy our debt, we won't have the money," he said.
Democrats, however, argued that the plan, to be phased in over 10 years, finally addresses multiple Ohio Supreme Court rulings declaring the state's system of funding schools unconstitutional.
"Today, the House passed a school funding plan that meets our constitutional obligations, reduces the reliance on property taxes, and helps ensure a quality education for every child in our state," said Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon).
The governor's proposal, as well as the House version that passed yesterday, would rely on billions in one-time federal aid, empty the state's savings account, and refinance debt to get through the next two years.
The budget passed 53-45 thanks solely to the votes of Democrats, who regained control of the chamber in November's election for the first time in 14 years. The budget goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, which is expected to make major changes, particularly with the school-funding plan.
The real fight likely would follow in a joint House-Senate conference committee that would have to hammer out a compromise between differing plans passing the two chambers. A final budget must reach Mr. Strickland's desk no later than June 30.
Despite the larger price tag, Mr. Strickland is largely on board with changes made by fellow Democrats in the House. He did not question their decision to rely on rosier estimates on future revenue growth calculated by legislative staff rather than more conservative numbers offered by his budget director.
"Because they are estimates, it's legitimate to use either," Mr. Strickland said. "I don't think there's any way to know for sure which is more accurate because we are living in a fluid, dynamic, economic set of circumstances."
Mr. Strickland has defended the use of every federal dollar possible in this budget plan.
"You have a choice," he said. "You could say to the federal government, 'We don't want it. Keep it,' and not build bridges, not pay for Medicaid, allow college tuition to explode, and under-fund education. I've chosen to take the resources.
"Does that mean all of our problems have been solved? Absolutely not ," he said. "What will we do in two years? I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
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