Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Funding plans for schools debated

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The state government's top three Republican leaders pledged Monday to work together on a new funding fix for Ohio schools.

        After a summit meeting, Gov. Bob Taft, House Speaker Larry Householder and Senate President Richard Finan said they will search for a compromise among their three competing plans.

        The leaders promised they would not raise taxes — or install slot machines at racetracks — to raise dollars for schools.

        Lawmakers considered putting 10,000 slot machines at Ohio's seven racetracks to help meet a state Supreme Court order to narrow the gap between rich and poor school districts. The governor, however, promised to veto any such proposal.

        “I am opposed to video lottery terminals without a prior vote of the people,” Mr. Taft said. “I feel they really amount to a casino at a racetrack.”

        That was a blow to Mr. Householder, R-Glenford. Slot machines were linked to a $3.2 billion school funding plan he unveiled last week.

        “The governor has spoken pretty clearly on this,” Mr. Householder said. “The governor has an eraser at the end of his pencil and we realize that.”

        Mr. Taft called for the meeting to end a feud that's been brewing over the best way to solve the school funding dilemma. All three leaders described the tone of the discussions as “very frank.”

        The governor supported a two-year plan that would spend an extra $808 million to increase schools' per-pupil spending, all-day kindergartens and special education funding.

        Senate Republicans favored a $1.3 billion spending plan that would increase schools' per-pupil spending while offering poor school districts extra cash for programs or staffing that rich districts offer.

        House Republicans' $3.2 billion proposal was the only one endorsed by a group of schools that has twice successfully sued the state over its funding system.

        Bill Phillis, leader of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said anything less than the House plan means another lawsuit.

        “What they're saying to us is, "See you in court,'” Mr. Phillis said. “We were trying to avoid that.”

        Staff members from each leader's office will meet daily to craft a compromise plan. Mr. Taft, Mr. Finan and Mr. Householder also will try to meet as often as they can until there is a resolution.

        “I think there's a sense of urgency,” said Mr. Finan, R-Evendale. “We all know about the time frame under which we function.”

        The Ohio Supreme Court created a June 15 deadline for the General Assembly to find a way to eliminate the property tax as schools' main source of funding.

        Mr. Finan called the video gambling proposal “a dead issue.” Some estimates showed track-based slot machines producing between $400 million to $900 million for schools over the next two years.

        Mr. Taft still supports a plan that would let Ohio join a multistate lottery like Powerball. The Rev. John Edgar, leader of a United Methodist Church anti-gambling task force, said his group will oppose that proposal.

        “We continue to believe that Powerball is the wrong way to go,” Rev. Edgar said. “We shouldn't fund our kids off the gambling losses of our neighbors.”


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