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Published: Wednesday, 6/3/2009

Bill could allow oil drilling in Ohio parks

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Cash-strapped Ohio may look below the surface of its parks and other state-owned lands for the black gold needed to fund future park improvements if the Senate-proposed version of the state budget becomes law.

The chamber is expected to vote today on a revised two-year budget that would open the parks and other state land to oil and gas drilling.

The language does not apply to the waters of Lake Erie, which are protected by the federal government. But it might apply to park land within the lake such as Ohio's new park on North Bass Island.

"We can't drill our way out of a budget crisis," said Jack Shaner, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Council. "This is a promise broken. It breaks the promise that the state will protect parks from development."

The Senate Finance Committee yesterday added the language before sending its revised two-year budget to the full Senate along a party line vote with majority Republicans supporting it and Democrats against it.

"These are different times," said Sen. Keith Faber (R., Celina), who proposed the drilling language. "We are facing a dramatic drawback on the ability to fund capital projects in our state parks and state facilities. This is a very viable revenue stream that can be done in an environmentally sound manner.

"The time of hyperbole on this issue has probably passed," he said. "The technology will allow environmentally sensitive drilling. This bill clearly gives the discretion to the director of [the Ohio Department of Natural Resources] to make those decisions in a clear, transparent process."

Whatever emerges from the Senate today is likely to be rejected by the House and sent to a joint conference committee charged with hammering out a compromise between the different versions of the budget passed by both chambers.

A final spending plan must be sent to Gov. Ted Strickland's desk by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

"It'll be a donnybrook," said Mr. Shaner. "People are looking for money. It's like junk food. It's a quick fix that leaves you wanting more."

The committee yesterday rejected Democrats' attempts to restore most of Mr. Strickland's proposed "evidence-based model" reforms for K-12 schools after Senate Republicans had stripped them from the bill. The governor and fellow Democrats presented the plan as Ohio's long-awaited answer to a funding system repeatedly declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Instead, Senate Republicans have tinkered with the existing funding formula, guaranteeing that all school districts would get increases of 0.25 percent in 2010 and 0.5 percent on top of that in 2011.

Toledo Public Schools, which has experienced declining enrollment, would get the bare minimums under that plan, not counting one-time emergency aid from the federal government.

By comparison, the suburban Anthony Wayne Local would benefit from another provision of the formula targeting fast-growing districts. Anthony Wayne would receive increases of 2 percent both years, not counting federal stimulus dollars.

"We're far apart," said Sen. Dale Miller (D., Cleveland), ranking Democrat on the committee, just before all his members voted against the bill.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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