Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Taft says surplus should go to schools


Budget plan doesn't please some in GOP

BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

[taft]
Gov. bob taft delivers his first State of the State address Tuesday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        COLUMBUS — Facing a court order to spend more money on public education, Gov. Bob Taft urged state lawmakers Tuesday to choose schools over tax cuts during the next two years.

        By calling for 100 percent of any state budget surplus to be set aside for school construction and repairs, Mr. Taft may have sparked his first dispute with fellow Republicans in the General Assembly.

        While GOP leaders praised the Cincinnati native's focus on education, they vowed to preserve tax cuts funded by the surplus, which have returned nearly $1.4 billion to Ohio taxpayers during the past three years. State taxes on the 1998 return were reduced by 9.3 percent, or $126 for a family of four earning $50,000.

        Mr. Taft floated the politically charged proposal during his first State of the State address, a 34-minute speech that focused heavily on his plans to improve the state's schools and boost other job training efforts.

        “Nothing will provide a greater opportunity in life ... than a good education,” Mr. Taft said. “That's why we have funded schools first in our budget.”

TAFT'S PLANS
  Gov. Bob Taft said he also wants to:
  • Enterprise zones: Renew the tax credit for machinery and equipment and extend the enterprise zone law to attract new business.
  • Urban renewal: Establish $10 million a year in loans to clean up and reuse abandoned industrial sites and other urban areas.
  • Care for the elderly: Increase funding for PASSPORT program, allowing more than 24,000 older Ohioans to receive home care and support services in the next two years.
  • Alzheimer's care: Expand Alzheimer's care program to assist an additional 2,400 caregivers.
  • Homestead Exemption: Expand it by raising the income cap by 10 percent and indexing it to the cost of inflation.
  • Tobacco money: Appoint a bipartisan task force to recommend how the state will spend $9.9 billion from the national tobacco settlement.
        His speech came 11 days after a trial judge ruled the General Assembly failed to comply with an Ohio Supreme Court order that struck down the state's school funding system.

        The new governor did not address the judge's decision, or his plan to appeal it to the justices watching his speech from the front row of the ornate Ohio House chamber.

        Instead, he touted school funding increases required under legislation signed into law last year by his predecessor, former Gov. George Voinovich.

        More than $13 billion — including nearly 50 cents of every new dollar in state spending — would be set aside for school operations during the next two years under Mr. Taft's proposed budget.

        New programs in the budget he will introduce March 15 include $25 million to help schools with academic problems and $20 million to reward those that improve their proficiency test scores, attendance and graduation rates.

        Mr. Taft also proposed expanding the state's community school law to school districts that fail to improve their academic standards. Community schools, also known as charter schools, are allowed to operate free from state mandates that dictate everything from curriculum to the school calendar.

        “Money alone will not improve education,” Mr. Taft said. “New dollars will not produce results until every school is laser-focused on improving the academic achievement of all students.”

        Critics said Mr. Taft failed to make more dramatic steps needed to fix the way public schools are financed in Ohio.

        “I didn't hear anything that addressed the ... structural problems in the system,” said William Phillis, executive director of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

        “Ohio is still relying too much on property taxes to fund the system,” said Mr. Phillis, whose group represents school districts that successfully sued the state over school funding. “We're still waiting for some plan to solve the entire problem.”

        Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, said he was particularly troubled by Mr. Taft's proposal for more community schools.

        “I have a problem with all of these experimental programs because we've failed to fix the basic problems of education,” Mr. Mallory said. “Tearing down the public school system isn't the answer.”

        Dipping into the state's budget surplus would provide at least $400 million next year for school construction, bringing the total spent in the past decade to nearly $2 billion.

        Even though that would be more than the state spent during the previ ous three decades on school construction, the money would barely make a dent in the amount needed statewide: $16.5 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Office.

        A recent study commissioned by the Cincinnati Public Schools estimated that $700 million in repairs are needed in Cincinnati schools alone.

        Judge Linton D. Lewis of Perry County Common Pleas Court condemned the state's efforts when he struck down the General Assembly's school funding reforms Feb. 26. At the current rate, he said, it would take 55 years to make all the school repairs needed statewide.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said the General Assembly isn't getting credit for good things lawmakers have done for schools.

        Echoing Mr. Taft, he said state education spending will increase faster than the rate of inflation under the changes legislators made last year.

        “It's not just smoke and mirrors,” Mr. Finan said.

        At the same time, Mr. Finan and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, suggested Mr. Taft will have a tough time winning approval to use all of the state's budget surplus for school construction.

        Indeed, conservative anti-tax groups accused Mr. Taft of advocating a tax increase for Ohioans, because individual taxpayers would no longer enjoy tax breaks funded by the surplus for the past three years.

        When a similar choice was presented to lawmakers last year, they ended up spending some of the surplus on schools and setting the rest aside for tax cuts.

        Republican legislative leaders were wary of anything that could be defined as an income tax increase in an election year, especially after voters had rejected a sales tax increase by a 4-1 margin in May 1998.

        “I think people realize there are special circumstances here,” said Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester. “We can work something out that makes everybody happy.”

       



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