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Lawmakers eye potential surplus in budget bill

But Kasich opposes increased spending

COLUMBUS -- A midbudget review bill pushed through the Ohio House Wednesday was more about policy than numbers, but already lawmakers are hungrily eyeing a potential big year-end surplus.

With tax collections running ahead of schedule, a House committee the day before slipped a provision into Gov. John Kasich's policy-laden bill to require a legislative vote to prevent any year-end surplus from automatically being transferred into the state's rainy-day-fund reserves.

That sets the stage for possibly steering some of the anticipated excess to school districts and local governments that suffered major cuts in the current two-year budget.

Rep. Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster), chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday he believes lawmakers should take a more balanced approach that could include helping struggling schools, cities, and other local governments.

"There'll be a debate, I hope not a feeding frenzy …," Mr. Amstutz said. "We're in an unusual situation. It's not all about just controlling our spending right now, because we're in recovery mode. We have a lot of hurting partners out there that are trying to reinvent or recalibrate their services."

The budget bill passed the House 61-33, getting help from just a handful of Democrats. It now goes to the Senate.

Mr. Amstutz noted the mid-budget changes would mean the state would spend $69 million less overall than originally planned in the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

The budget passed last year estimated a year-end balance of $152.7 million, but, as of the end of March, Ohio tax collections were running $265.4 million ahead of projections.

Mr. Amstutz estimated that the balance as of the end of this fiscal year could be anywhere between $500 million to $800 million. The size of the surplus would depend, in part, on whether a Democratic lawsuit would hinder plans for JobsOhio, the new private economic development corporation, to buy Ohio's lucrative liquor profits revenue stream for $1.4 billion. Of that, $500 million was to be transferred to the state's general fund.

But Democrats argue that the state shouldn't wait to funnel more money to schools, cities, and other local governments.

"We need to act now and not, as some of you have said, kick the can down the road," said Rep. Debbie Phillips (D., Athens). "Our communities are suffering now. We're losing teachers out of the classroom and professionals in our community that help protect the public safety on a daily basis in Ohio."

Majority Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment to funnel money to schools and local governments by raising the tax on a burgeoning shale oil and natural gas exploration industry in eastern Ohio.

Plans to spend any surplus, however, might run headlong into Gov. John Kasich, who told members of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce he won't embrace increased spending.

"We had 89 cents in our rainy-day fund,'' he said. "Now we have $240 million. Now there's going to be a debate over [whether] we should spend the surplus, and I want to let you all know, they can pass whatever they want to in the legislature, we're not spending the surplus.''

House Bill 487 would also:

Drop immediate plans backed by Ohio Right to Life to reduce, if not altogether eliminate, Planned Parenthood's share of Ohio's federal family planning funds. Planned Parenthood, including two clinics in Toledo, most recently received about $1.7 million out of a $9.7 million pot.

Make it easier for Sylvania Township to ask local voters whether they want to secede from the Toledo Area Regional Transportation Authority. The language would allow it to pose that question only to voters in the township and not simultaneously in the city of Sylvania. The same would be true for a possible follow-up question about a local property tax levy to pay for local transit service.

Drop a proposed change in state law to deny anyone wrongfully convicted and imprisoned from making a civil claim against the state if the person had been convicted of another violent felony within 10 years. It would still make it tougher to collect, however, by requiring the plaintiff to prove his claim by clear and convincing evidence.

Staff writer Tyrel Linkhorn contributed to this article.

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

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