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Published: Saturday, 5/30/2009

$650M chopped from Ohio budget

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Senate Republicans propose slashing $650 million from the state's budget over the next two years as they hit the reset button on Statehouse budget talks.

The plan would gut Gov. Ted Strickland's 10-year rollout of school reforms and would instead guarantee that all schools would immediately see modest funding increases.

The GOP plan would kill a new college scholarship program, but would maintain the governor's plan to freeze tuition for the next two years at public two-year colleges and for one year at four-year universities.

The Senate Finance Committee amended its plan into the House-passed $55 billion budget for 2010 and 2011 and is expected to report the bill to the full Senate for a vote next week.

But Senate Republican leaders said some of the state's budget problems may be punted to a joint House-Senate conference committee.

"The current budget that we are introducing is balanced, but for sure I am concerned that when we get to conference committee we're going to get revenue estimates that will not be very favorable at all,'' Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said.

The GOP plan relies on the same revenue estimates used by the House when it passed its budget last month. Those numbers were more optimistic than those from the Strickland administration and they preceded worse-than-expected income tax collections during the month of April.

Despite proposed cuts, the worst fears of many human service programs were not realized. The Senate would maintain funding for food banks and the Help Me Grow program that aids young children and expectant mothers.

"They made a very conscious decision to look at the programs that really impacted the most vulnerable populations,'' said Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, an advocate for children's services. "I think there will be a lot of work to do in conference committee, but what they have done is allow the conversation to continue."

Schools would be guaranteed an increase of 0.25 percent, or $128 million total, in 2010 and 0.5 percent, or $156 million more, the second year of the state's two-year budget cycle. Republicans argued that Mr. Strickland's 10-year school reform plan was not fully funded and focused too much on staffing levels than students.

Senate Republicans also fulfilled their promise to restore funding for students attending charter schools.

Strickland spokesman Amanda Wurst said the governor was concerned about the near-elimination of his education reforms as well as his proposed expansions of private health-care insurance to cover 110,000 more Ohioans.

"The governor has been very clear about his priorities for transforming education to better prepare children for the future based on research as to what matters most to students and to reduce reliance on property taxes ," she said. "The governor is concerned the Senate proposal does not appear to meet those goals.

"Holding onto an outdated, unconstitutional education system is just holding back Ohio's economy and children," she said.

The $650 million in Senate cuts includes a $200 million reduction in government contract and other services initiated by Mr. Strickland through an executive order.

It also cuts $150 million from the budget by eliminating 139 earmarks inserted by lawmakers for specific projects back home.

Sen. Mark Wagoner (R. Ottawa Hills), finance committee chairman, pointed to $500,000 added in the House for Kids Unlimited as an example of a particularly painful cut. The nonpublic after-school program in Toledo concentrates on tutoring and character development.

"With the level of revenues that we have, we are simply not able to fund all the programs that are out there," he said.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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