Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Schools' funding faces pinch

Taft cites Ohio economy, Medicaid costs as signals

By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Gov. Bob Taft said Tuesday he wants to keep his promise to fix Ohio's school-funding system without raising taxes, but said he made that promise with the presumption the state's economy would remain strong.

        He said he saw no reason to change his position so far, but added his com mitment was always “based on a good economy, not a deep recession.”

        Mr. Taft said he hopes the state's economy will continue to grow, or at least Ohio will have a soft “economic landing.”

        However, he noted that Medicaid costs are soaring, and that both public schools and colleges are demanding more money at a time when “sales-tax revenues are stagnant and the economy is clearly slowing down.”

        Next year, he predicted, “It will be a tight budget.”

        Some education advocates view such references as strong signals that state leaders are trying to avoid spending the money needed to meet an Ohio Supreme Court decision to fairly fund public schools.

        “I can see the handwriting on the wall here,” said Bill Phillis, executive director of the school coalition that filed the lawsuit that eventually landed the school issue before the Supreme Court.

        Mr. Phillis said Mr. Taft and other officials failed in their efforts to change the makeup of the Supreme Court in the November election, so they are now trying new approaches to get around the court ruling.

        “They'll get people (in other state agencies) scrapping over dollars to give people the impression we're in the throes of a recession, hoping folks will believe they can't solve the problem because the economy slowed down,” Mr. Phillis said.

        “Ever since this case has been filed, they have come up with one excuse after another.”

        The Supreme Court ruled in May that Ohio's system of funding public education remains unconstitutional, in part because it relies too heavily on local property taxes, which creates huge disparities among school districts.

        Lawmakers and budget officials say the school-funding issue is made more complicated because of an unexpected 18 percent increase in Medicaid costs this fiscal year, which began in July.

        Lawmakers before year's end are expected to allocate $248.6 million to cover the state's share of the Medicaid budget shortfall.

        Under a bill being considered this week, Mr. Taft also will have to make $125 million in spending cuts in other areas of the budget.


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