Sunday, May 27, 2001

Ohio budget makers anxious

Schools ruling pending

By Debra Jasper
Cincinnati Enquirer Bureau

        COLUMBUS — As the Ohio General Assembly prepares to approve the state's $45 billion biennial budget next week, lawmakers are already looking ahead and playing a game of “what if?”

        What if the Ohio Supreme Court decides in June that legislators didn't spend enough on public schools?

        What if legislators are forced to make more budget cuts?

        What if they have to spend the entire summer at the Statehouse?

  • What: As the General Assembly prepares this week to pass the $45 billion biannual budget - which sets aside an extra $1.4 billion for public schools - lawmakers are worried about a coming Ohio Supreme Court case.
  • Why: The high court has twice found Ohio's system for funding schools to be unfair because poor schools are not up to par with wealthier ones. Justices have given the legislature until June 15 to submit its latest school funding plan.
  • What's next: The court is set to hear oral arguments on the plan on June 20. If justices decide the new plan still fails to pass muster, it may order lawmakers to create yet another funding plan. Lawmakers say that could require them to forgo their usual summer recess and try to make further budget cuts.
        “If the Supreme Court comes back and feels more money for schools is needed, we'll have to put the patient (budget) back on the table and open it back up,” said state Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester. “Then we'll have to make even more unpopular decisions than we already have.”

        Either way the high court rules, Mr. Cates and other key Republicans say additional budget cuts will eventually be necessary. In a slowing economy, they say, the free-spending 1990s are over and it's time to rein in.

        “The mentality in Columbus the last few years is you take the last budget and add 5 percent or so,” Mr. Cates said. “That's not budgeting. That's just bringing spending to new levels.”

        Scott Pullins, executive director of the Ohio Taxpayer's Association, a group that works to limit state taxes, said the legislature had it too easy when times were booming.

        “They could put more money in schools and still give everybody else healthy increases,” Mr. Pullins said. “But all of a sudden, everything is coming home to roost.”

        The high court has twice ruled Ohio's system for funding schools is unfair and unconstitutional. It gave lawmakers until June 15 to present a new plan for bringing Ohio's poor schools up to par with its wealthier ones.

        No one knows how long it will take for the Supreme Court to rule on the latest funding plan, but Mr. Cates said the legislature understands it might have to hold a summer session to craft yet another plan if this one fails to pass muster.

        “If that happens, you're going to see some grumpy people,” Mr. Cates said, adding, “I feel like I feel like we're in a car with a bad tire and we're just hoping to get to the next exit.”

        Not everyone is convinced, however, that lawmakers will return for a summer session — even if justices pan lawmakers' work.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said he's not returning to the Statehouse this summer regardless of what the court decides. He said the state has already “decimated” the higher education budget, cutting $150 million from what the governor wanted to spend.

        There is not much else the legislature can do to get a quick infusion of cash, he said.

        “There is no more money,” Mr. Finan said. “I don't know where we go for the kind of money (public schools) want.”

        Mr. Finan compared waiting for the Supreme Court decision to playing poker in Jackson County. There, he said, the dealer declares which cards are wild only after he picks up his hand.

        “We don't know what's wild. We don't know what sells,” Mr. Finan said. “They write the opinion and we have to fumble around and put together a plan that can beat their three aces.”


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