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Published: Wednesday, 6/17/2009

Governor suggests $2 billion in cuts; targets would include Medicaid, Passport

BY CATHERINE CANDISKY AND JIM SIEGEL
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Gov. Ted Strickland has floated roughly $2 billion in cuts to help close a $3.2 billion shortfall in the two-year state budget, a plan that would slash health care and other safety-net services for Ohio's poor, The Dispatch has learned.

The administration reportedly gave details of the plan over the weekend to Democratic leaders in the Ohio House. Majority Republicans in the Senate say they have not been briefed on the cost-savings ideas.

Sources say the areas where Strickland has suggested cutting include: dental, vision and other Medicaid services for low-income adults; the Passport program that enables the elderly to receive care at their home instead of in a nursing home; and services to protect children and adults from abuse.

The administration also proposed eliminating preschool for low-income children, a planned expansion of tax-funded health coverage to uninsured children, and planned increases in payments to nursing homes caring for disabled.

Cuts in state aid to Ohio colleges and universities are back on the table, education advocates say, and flat-funding for the next two years may be the best that primary and secondary schools can hope for.

Administration officials refused to discuss details.

"No decisions have been made," said Amanda Wurst, spokeswoman for Strickland. "The governor does not intend to have those discussions or provide information outside of budget deliberations."

The administration also isn't talking about results of its order for state agencies to prepare plans identifying cuts of up to 30 percent of their spending for 2010-11. The proposals were completed last week, but agencies refused to provide them under orders from the governor's office.

Wurst refused a Dispatch public records request yesterday to make the agency plans public.

Strickland and legislative leaders in both parties insist that they will not raise taxes. Asked yesterday whether the budget can be balanced without a tax increase or expanded gambling, Senate President Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland, said, "Yes. In my opinion, we have to."

But some rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans have expressed strong support for expanded gambling, such as slot machines at Ohio's racetracks or perhaps in bars and restaurants.

And some are not taking such a hard-line opposition to new taxes.

"We have to stop pretending that we aren't going to raise taxes, because we're going to have to raise taxes," said Rep. Robert F. Hagan, D-Youngstown.

"We're going to have to stop some of the give-backs that the (Gov. Bob) Taft administration gave and rescue some of these agencies that need help. You can't get there by just cutting."

Rep. Dan Stewart, D-Columbus, also says lawmakers should look at part of the 21 percent state income tax cut that has been phased in since Republicans approved it in 2005. People don't even realize they got a tax cut, he said, because most of it went to wealthy Ohioans.

"I'm just not sure why we went along with implementing the rest of that tax cut, which is a significant chunk of change," he said. "I think we've got to find some additional revenues."

The governor, House and Senate have until the end of the month to agree on a new two-year state budget. Hundreds of differences in versions approved by the two chambers must be resolved.

Meshing versions passed by each became significantly more difficult last week when the administration released new projections showing a $3.2 billion shortfall in anticipated revenue for the upcoming biennium.

ccandisky@dispatch.com

jsiegel@dispatch.com



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