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Published: Thursday, 7/9/2009

Kids used as lobbyists in Ohio's budget cuts


COLUMBUS - The sound of toy wagon wheels echoed through the Ohio Capitol yesterday as a group of children toting candy knocked on doors.

"Remember us when you vote," they chorused like trick-or-treaters, handing plastic buckets filled with M&Ms to perplexed legislative staffers.

Most lawmakers - still locked in a bitter stalemate over the state's $3.2 billion budget deficit - weren't around.

Gov. Ted Strickland and Senate Republicans are still negotiating over the governor's plan to put slot machines at racetracks, which would raise an estimated $933 million.

That isn't stopping advocates for state programs from mental health to child care from staging last-ditch efforts to spare their agencies from an estimated $2.4 billion in cuts.

The cheerful candy carriers, aged 5 to 12, are enrolled in a suburban Columbus KinderCare program, and most of their parents work full-time.

They started the day with 30,000 M&Ms, one for each child who could lose state subsidized care under Mr. Strickland's proposed budget, explained Linda Day-Mackessy, president of the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers. Her group estimates state-subsidized child care programs such as KinderCare could face up to $343 million in cuts.

Strickland spokesman Amanda Wurst said children still will have access to subsidized child care under the governor's proposal. But advocates say about half of those enrolled would become ineligible because of new income, employment, and other restrictions.

Down the street, there was a flurry of activity at the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, which stands to lose $85 million for community treatment centers.

A video on YouTube and Facebook yesterday features victims of drug abuse and their family members telling legislators why the programs are needed.

Since the budget deadline passed on June 30, lawmakers have passed two weeklong temporary budgets to buy them some time to reach a deal.

Nobody knows how steep the cuts will be, but everyone knows they will be very painful regardless of the outcome, said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors' Association.

"Some counties are literally out of cash," he said. "They're worried about how they're gonna make payroll next week."

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