COLUMBUS - Democrats argued yesterday that time is of the essence in patching an $851 million hole in Ohio's education budget as they press a plan to delay the final phase of an income-tax cut already under way.
Republicans, however, called threats of midyear budget cuts to schools "a smokescreen.''
"Sometimes it can be disturbingly easy to talk about cutting government and reducing programs, but every time we take actions on those words, somebody feels it, somebody suffers,'' said Rep. Vernon Sykes (D., Akron), chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that Gov. Ted Strickland's plan to partially fund schools with revenue from slot machines at racetracks must be subjected to a voter referendum no sooner than November, 2010.
That prompted the governor to propose a delay in the final 4.9 percent increment of a five-year, across-the-board personal income tax cut totaling 21 percent.
House Democrats have gotten behind that plan, preparing for a floor vote tomorrow on House Bill 318. They have attached to it a
5 percent cut in lawmakers' pay to demonstrate that they're willing to share in the misery.
The governor's slots plan, for which lawmakers cleared the way, was projected to produce a net gain of $851 million for schools over the two-year budget. Delaying the fifth year of the tax cut, the effects of which are already seen in Ohioans' paychecks because of reduced withholding rates, would be a net gain of $844 million.
The Strickland administration has suggested that without a budget fix, the $851 million would have to be cut from school budgets. Budget Director J. Pari Sabety suggested the cuts to school districts could amount to 10 percent this year and 15 percent next year.
"I don't think there's any chance in this state, regardless of whether House Bill 318 passes, that that would occur,'' Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said. "I just think that's totally unlikely. I'm a little bit concerned that that's been expressed across the state to local schools."
Rep. Ross McGregor (R., Springfield) said the state must seriously look at reducing government spending as it looks ahead at future budgets that won't be able to depend on the billions in federal stimulus and other dollars propping up this two-year spending plan.
"If we don't start actively working towards finding a way of reducing the costs of state government, I am just deathly afraid of what the next budget activity will look like," he said.
Republicans have been pushing a proposal that would dramatically consolidate the number of state departments in hopes of reducing state payroll by another 10,000 through attrition and retirement. The Strickland administration has countered that the cost savings would be far from assured, would significantly undercut state services, and could not be enacted quickly enough to deal with the immediate crisis.
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