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Published: Wednesday, 6/29/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

GOP muscles budget past state Senate

House is $56B measure's last test as deadline looms

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Solely with Republican support, the Ohio Senate Tuesday approved a nearly $56 billion, two-year budget that slashes funds for local governments, schools, nursing homes, and social services while setting the stage for more tax cuts.

The budget, fat with major policy changes, passed by a vote of 22-11 with one senator joining all 10 of the chamber's Democrats in opposition.

The bill is to come to a final vote in the House Wednesday on its way to Gov. John Kasich's desk, leaving the governor breathing room of one day before the current fiscal year ends at midnight Thursday.

The spending plan would privatize some government functions -- exploring a potential long-term lease of the Ohio Turnpike, turning over Ohio's lucrative liquor sale profit stream to its new private JobsOhio corporation, and selling off six adult and youth prisons.

Lawmakers, however, drew the line at privatization of the Ohio Lottery -- at least for now.

The budget loosens restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, expands vouchers for parents to send their children to the private, parochial, or religious schools of their choice, and starts the march toward substituting a teacher merit-pay system for automatic raises tied to longevity and level of education.

And it anticipates putting $187 million into the state's budgetary reserves, an account that once held $1 billion but now stands at $1.79.

"At whatever point in time you can, you've got to stop the one-time spending, you've got to begin to put a little bit back for the next rainy day around the corner," Sen. Chris Widener (R., Springfield) said.

But Sen. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood) said the Senate made the "choice to balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable and working-class families while continuing to provide excessive tax breaks to corporate special interests."

Mr. Skindell pointed to a Senate-passed provision that would have subjected Ohio's numerous tax exemptions to review on their effectiveness by a special commission.

That was removed before the budget reached a final vote.

"Although we are asking our seniors, our firefighters, our police officers, our local schools, our local communities to take a cut, the $7 billion in special-interest tax expenditures will not be touched and will not be reviewed," Mr. Skindell said.

Opponents of Senate Bill 5, Ohio's new law restricting the collective-bargaining power of government employees, plan to file petitions Wednesday to subject the law to a voter referendum on Nov. 8.

But the expected challenge didn't stop the Republican-controlled legislature from inserting into the budget provisions sought by Mr. Kasich on teacher performance pay that are similar to some provisions of that new law.

The budget would require the State Board of Education to develop by the end of the year a system of evaluating teachers.

Fifty percent of the system must be based on student academic growth.

The system would apply first to those districts that participate in the federal Race to the Top program, but it would apply to all school districts as of July 1, 2013, or when teacher contracts in effect at that time expire.

"The state budget is for allocation of state funds for the operation of state services," said Sue Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

"Teacher evaluations carry absolutely no financial implications for the state budget. This is an end run around [Senate Bill] 5 and just simply not appropriate," she said.

Among its last actions shortly before midnight Monday, a joint House-Senate conference committee stripped from the bill a provision sought by counties, particularly Lucas, that would have allowed them to sell government buildings, lease the space back while the new private owner renovates the structure, and possibly buy the finished building back at the end of the lease.

The idea was to allow a county to indirectly have capital improvements made to a building without having to go into long-term debt to do so.

"They are removing a tool from county commissioners that would have given them the ability to respond to a tight financial situation, particularly when it comes to capital projects," Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi said.

A last-minute addition to the budget shortly before midnight Monday was a provision that allowed the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to borrow money against future revenue generated by parking meters.

The port authority sought the approval to borrow $16 million to buy the Vistula, Port Lawrence, and Superior parking garages in downtown Toledo from the city and to make improvements to the garages and to metered parking.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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