Thursday, January 25, 2001

State of the State

Taft proposes $800 million in new spending for schools

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio should spend more than $800 million to increase funding for schools, including more for special education, kindergarten classes, transportation and teacher training, Gov. Bob Taft said Wednesday.

        Mr. Taft's plan was introduced during his third annual State of the State address, which comes at a critical turning point for the mid-term governor and for state government in general.

        A robust Ohio business climate that reliably produced billions in excess taxes has faltered. Despite the sluggish economy, an Ohio Supreme Court-imposed June deadline that orders the state to reduce schools' reliance on property taxes demands millions in new spending.

        Speaking before members of the House and Senate, the governor outlined a plan that walks a tightrope between the two problems. Mr. Taft said many state agencies would have to suffer budget cuts to help balance the increased education spending.

        He would not say specifically where the budget axe would fall, saving those details for Monday, when he unveils his two-year budget proposal.

        The education plan he outlined, however, would spend $808 million over the next two years to:

        • Increase the schools' minimum spending levels from their current $4,294 per student to $4,670 by the 2002-2003 school year. The number would increase to $5,484 per student within five years.

        • Expand funding for special-education programs and increase the state's share of schools' transportation costs.

        • Offer funds to create all-day kindergartens in 50 of Ohio' 612 school districts, and provide up to $80 million for teacher training.

        Mr. Taft also wants to revamp the state's system of testing students to measure how much they've learned. It would eliminate a provision that threatened to hold back fourth-graders who fail the reading portion of the state's proficiency test.

        “There are no quick fixes or magic cures. The battle for student success must be fought on many fronts,” he said.

        Though Republicans indicated his student testing proposals would pass, they called his education funding plan a “starting point,” for the version that must pass the General Assembly. Neither Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, nor House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, openly endorsed Mr. Taft's plan.

        Mr. Finan said he still plans to introduce a different proposal crafted by fellow lawmakers. It is projected to spend up to $800 million in its first year.

        “But that doesn't mean that someone will not introduce the governor's proposal,” Mr. Finan said.

        Mr. Householder said little about either plan or the bill his members would offer.

        “Any time you have more state money going into education, that lowers reliance on the property tax,” Mr. Householder said.

        When asked if either plan would satisfy the Ohio Supreme Court, Mr. Finan and Mr. Householder shrugged.

        Democrats and school officials said the governor's plan definitely would not.

        “We've got to stop tinkering around the edges of education reform,” said House Minority Leader Jack Ford, D-Toledo.

        Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Taft's plan would not reduce schools' dependence on property taxes as their chief source of funds.

        “You're only slowly increasing school districts' portions of state aid,” Mr. Mooney said. “From local schools' standpoint, nothing's changed.”

        Bill Phillis, leader of the coalition of schools that has successfully sued the state twice over school funding, predicted the state will lose a third time.

        Mr. Taft's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, defended the proposal. “There are some individuals, some Democrats in particular, who were criticizing elements of this plan before they read it,” Mr. Kellems said.

        While school funding was the major focus of the State of the State address, Mr. Taft touched on a wide variety of issues considered critical for the state economy and Ohioans.

        Mr. Taft proposed spending more than $52 million in efforts to help attract attract and create new high-tech businesses in Ohio.

        He also proposed a variety of tax credits. One is intended to help business reinvest $200 million worth of taxes in their operations and retain 1,000 jobs. Another would let fledgling Internet companies save on taxes based on their net worth.

        For seniors, Mr. Taft outlined a plan that would offer discounts on prescription drugs available through Ohio's Golden Buckeye Card. Further details on how that plan would work were unavailable.

        The governor's, and the General Assembly's, ability to accomplish all of these goals hinge on the state's economy. Budget officials warned of an impending cash crunch three months ago, when state sales tax revenues fell $100 million below projections.

        During his speech, Mr. Taft acknowledged things could get worse before they get better.

        “If we dip into a true recession,” warned the governor, “more drastic measures will be required.”

- State of the State
Excerpts of the State of the State address delivered Wednesday by Gov. Bob Taft.
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Plan skips funding fix for schools, some say
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