By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Cincinnati officials said Wednesday they might have to lay off workers, shut down parks, clinics, recreation centers and close most of the area's public libraries.
That's the immediate response to a House GOP proposal that would take away $1.4 billion earmarked for cities, counties, villages, townships and libraries. It's one of the most controversial ideas being discussed as House lawmakers look for ways to erase a $4 billion budget deficit over the next two years without passing a huge tax increase.
House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said no decisions have been made. Local government officials and Democratic legislators said such cuts would be devastating.
A group of about 350 librarians rallying at the statehouse said 176 of the state's 250 libraries would close if they lost all state funding. Included in that number would be most of the 41 branch libraries in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
"I don't see how we could stay open with just 5 percent of our budget," said Kim Fender, director of the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Library System. "We're willing to do our part. What we're opposed to is the complete elimination of funds."
While librarians were being uncharacteristically loud and rowdy on the statehouse lawn, Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, and Gov. Bob Taft were quietly distancing themselves from their Republican colleagues in the House.
"That's such a drastic step," said White. "It's not been a part of any discussion on our side to date."
"I think it's a very poor time to consider cuts to the local government fund, because many local governments depend heavily on them," the governor said.
"All of the governments - cities, counties, townships - are really strapped right now, and the government fund is a significant share of their operating budgets."
At the center of the issue are House Republican lawmakers who are scrambling to cut $3 billion in spending from Taft's proposed $49.2 billion two-year budget. The governor wants lawmakers to raise more than $3 billion in new sales, business and income taxes.
Cutting more than $1.4 billion out of the state's $2.4 billion local government fund would go a long way toward that goal.
Although the proposal has not appeared in a bill, local government groups said House Republican leaders have shared details of the proposal with them.
The loss of that much money startled many area local officials.
The city of Cincinnati gets about $31 million a year and Hamilton County gets about $26 million. State funds account for roughly 10 percent of the each government's general revenue fund.
"We'd have to seriously consider what clinics, rec centers and parks we'd be closing," said Francis Wagner, an assistant city finance director. "We just wouldn't have the money to pay for those services."
Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin said it's too early to consider what the county would cut. He said they might be able to make up any short term loss with funds set aside for emergencies, though he had hoped to use that money to help pay off a loan.
Lockland Mayor Jim Brown thinks he could find enough cuts in his current budget to account for any local government fund losses, but he's not sure about next year.
"We're like a lot of little communities in Ohio: We're fighting to keep our heads above water and stay out of fiscal emergency," he said.
Householder said it's still too early to say just what will be cut. Lawmakers still hope to advance a two-year budget plan for debate and pass it on to the Senate next week.
"This is all in progress," Householder said. "So I think it's premature to say what exactly (the budget bill) is going to look like as a finished product."
Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Tom Raga, R-Mason, have said that any plan cutting local governments' funds would also give those government more power to raise local taxes to replace their missing funds. But neither he nor Householder would offer details on how that would work.
Householder, for example, insisted that libraries would not lose out on all funds, saying, "We're going to make sure our libraries are still the best funded in the country." He would not say if that meant he was no longer interested in cutting state funds to libraries.
That left some Democratic lawmakers wondering if all the talk of cutting funds was merely a scare tactic to convince lawmakers to raise taxes.
"It's hard to say what they really intend to do in the House," said Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati. "I can't imagine that we could actually do this."
Contributing were Cindi Andrews, Leo Shane III and Shelley Davis.
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