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Published: Monday, 7/6/2009

Slots vs. cuts: What will fix Ohio budget?

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Slot machines or more painful budget cuts?

The impasse over the state's next two-year budget has largely boiled down to that choice.

The proposed cuts are deep. Rallies have protested the 50 percent proposed reduction in aid to public libraries and an 18 percent cut in the PASSPORT in-home care program for the elderly.

Child and adult protective services, aid to adoptive families, cash assistance to the mentally and physically disabled, preschools, day care, mental health and addiction treatment, food banks, historical sites, and hundreds of other line items are all on the chopping block as part of an effort to slash $2.4 billion from what is currently a $54 billion, two-year state budget.

"My wife has said to me, 'Ted, if you weren't governor, you'd probably be out in the yard with a protest sign,'•" Gov. Ted Strickland said. "I do believe that when this final budget is approved, which will happen eventually, many of their fears will not be realized and that we will continue to provide those essential services to the most vulnerable among us."

But that's before factoring in the loss of an estimated $933 million that Mr. Strickland has projected Ohio would not realize if Senate Republicans refuse to play along with his proposal to authorize as many as 12,200 slot machines at Toledo's Raceway Park and six other horse-racing tracks.

"That's way above my pay grade," said Dean Sparks, director of Lucas County Children Services, when asked which choice - more gambling or more spending cuts - is the right one. He's bracing for a potential cut from $300 to $215 in the monthly per- child payments made by the state to the adoptive families of 1,800 children in the county. That's a total of $770,000 that the county would have to make up from its own funds.

The cut was proposed by Mr. Strickland early this month as part of the latest round of reductions to help address the latest $3.2 billion shortfall resulting from increasingly pessimistic revenue projections for fiscal 2010, which began Wednesday, and fiscal 2011.

"In my personal opinion, let's get back to the tax cuts," Mr. Sparks said. "Did I even notice that I got a [personal-income] tax cut?"

The state is in the last year of a five-year rollout of a tax-reform package that is cutting personal income taxes in Ohio 12 percent across the board and replacing two unpopular business taxes with a new one targeting gross receipts.

This year's increment tax cut amounts to a reduction of 4.2 percent. For the typical family of four with two wage-earners grossing $60,000 a year and filing jointly, the reduced withholding represents $1.63 more in weekly take-home pay, or about $85 a year.

"Take my $100," Mr. Sparks said. "As a matter of fact, take two. This is the time when, as a state, we have to decide what level of services we want state government to provide for vulnerable families and services. People are outraged when a child is not served well or is hurt, but we have to understand that if we want these kinds of services, we've got to pay for them."

But for all the protests and rallies on the Statehouse lawn and in communities across the state by those most affected by the cuts, tax hikes have yet to factor into the behind-closed-door negotiations among Mr. Strickland, legislative leaders, and their respective staffs.

So, slots or more cuts?

If the choice is ultimately the latter, state agencies, at Mr. Strickland's request, have painted worst-case scenarios of what could happen next.

Four large, unidentified state prisons would close along with two smaller institutions, stressing a system that is already operating 32 percent over its designed capacity. State mental health facilities in Toledo, Massillon, and Cleveland - together representing 344 beds - could close.

There would be deeper cuts to water-protection programs targeting Lake Erie. Courts might have to stop supervising juvenile offenders at home as an alternative to detention centers because basic treatment and intervention services might end.

The state adoption subsidies that Mr. Sparks worries are slated for cuts could be eliminated. The number of juveniles sent to community residential service facilities instead of detention centers could be decreased by a third.

It was the scenario that included the prison closings that Mr. Strickland said prompted him to propose something he has vigorously opposed: funding state government through money inserted into slot machines at horse tracks.

Radio ads airing over the holiday weekend attempted to increase public pressure on Mr. Strickland, Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland), and House Speaker Armond Budish (D., Beachwood) to increase revenues as an alternative to cuts, including many they've already agreed to in closed-door negotiations.

"The state budget plan threatens the survival of children, home care for seniors, and families working hard just to make ends meet," the ad states.

"We can get back on track if we all share the sacrifice."

The Campaign to Protect Ohio's Future, a coalition of health, social service, and education organizations, doesn't use the word "tax" in its ad, but it hasn't been afraid to use it in rallies at the Statehouse.

"We cannot afford to shred the safety net," said Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, the group's co-chairman.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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