COLUMBUS - The union representing half of Ohio's state employees pushed back yesterday against a Republican plan to dramatically scale back the size of government, eventually shedding about a fifth of the state's workforce in the process.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, appeared open to replacing a plan to consolidate 24 state departments and agencies into 11 with a study panel that would have a firm deadline to return to lawmakers with a workable restructuring plan.
"Ohio needs to address it,'' former Ohio attorney general and auditor Jim Petro told the Senate State and Local Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. He championed a similar plan during his unsuccessful bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2006.
"It is hard to imagine restructuring state government that's this big, but if we're ever going to truly succeed, it has to be done,'' he said.
Some Republicans have embraced the proposal as an alternative to Gov. Ted Strickland's plan to delay the final installment of a five-year cut in the personal income tax, saying the restructuring plan could save the state $1 billion a year.
The Strickland administration estimates that a delay in the last 4.2 percent component of a total 21 percent cut in the income tax would generate $844 million over two years.
The House last week defeated a GOP attempt to amend the consolidation plan into the budget-fix bill that Democrats pushed through with the help of two Republicans.
Mr. Petro said downsizing would take years to implement and would do nothing to close an immediate $851 million hole in the budget created by an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that derailed the state's attempt to install and tax slot machines at racetracks.
But he said discussions should start now, noting that Ohio competes with states like Virginia and North Carolina that have tackled consolidation of government.
The Ohio Civil Services Employees Union, the largest state worker bargaining unit with roughly 30,000 members, said 5,000 state jobs have been eliminated since 2000, along with two prisons, two juvenile detention facilities, two developmental centers, and two - soon to be three - mental-health facilities.
Members said cuts of the size envisioned by the bill would endanger public safety, cut social services, and destroy state employee morale.
"State employees have taken massive cuts in pay and benefits to assist Ohio in its dire need for revenue,'' said Chris Mabe, a Lorain Correctional Institution guard and union vice president.
The union said lawmakers need look no further than the merger nearly a decade ago that created the "monster mega-agency'' called the Department of Jobs and Family Services. The agency was created by merging the welfare functions of the former Bureau of Employment Services with the Medicaid functions of the then Department of Human Services.
The resulting agency was initially plagued with scandal, computer problems, and a revolving door of directors.
Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), a committee member, said the study panel would be a more reasonable approach.
"When you take a hammer to squash a gnat, you're going to cause major problems,'' she said.
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