Thursday, May 29, 2003

Budget plan outspends Taft

Senate GOP would further enlarge government

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - In the midst of a fiscal crisis, Senate Republicans on Wednesday unveiled a budget plan that would spend more on state government than the 10 percent increase pushed by Gov. Bob Taft.

Majority GOP lawmakers criticized Taft four months ago for proposing a $49.2 billion, two-year budget that would need more than $3 billion in new taxes. Now the new Senate plan would cost taxpayers $68 million more, thanks in large part to a temporary penny increase in the state's sales tax.

The Ohio Senate is expected to vote on a two-year budget plan Wednesday.

The House and Senate will then begin negotiating on a compromise plan.

The state's new fiscal year begins July 1.

It's a proposal that has conservative lawmakers and even House Speaker Larry Householder questioning just how much the state should collect and spend during a tough economy.

"It's a lot of spending," Householder said.

Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, said he had to restore money that would have been cut from schools, universities and a property tax relief to win enough support to pass the plan out of the 33-member chamber next week.

"We have to get 18 votes on the bill," White said.

The budget's bottom line could grow even further as Senate Democrats, whose help may be needed, push to ease proposed cuts to programs for poor and working class families.

"Fifty thousand Ohioans would lose health care under this bill. There are 100,000 kids losing day care," said Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland. "In many respects, we are no closer to the budget the citizens of Ohio deserve."

Those comments, combined with Householder's, show the General Assembly has a long way to go to reach a consensus on a spending plan that's needed by July 1.

Lawmakers are scrambling to fill a $4 billion shortfall over the next two years. The Senate plan would raise the state sales tax by a penny on the dollar to collect $2.5 billion over the next two years.

But that plan is vastly different from a House-passed proposal that would give voters an option to replace the sales tax hike after one year with video slot machines at state race tracks.

Video slots are nowhere to be found in the Senate budget plan. White said the Senate will instead pass a separate measure that would ask voters to approve slots at a later date by amending the state Constitution.

The amendment is expected to appear in a resolution next week. It could pass the Senate on the same day, or shortly after, senators pass the budget plan.

The Senate plan also restores education funds the House wanted to cut, including $246 million for public schools and $226 million for state colleges and universities.

White said a decision to restore more than $200 million that the governor wanted to cut from the state's local property tax relief fund over the two years was the main reason why the Senate surpasses Taft's proposal.

Another $3.5 million would be spent on state parks to halt a Department of Natural Resource plan to make visitors pay to park and senior citizens pay to hunt and fish.

There's so much spending that several conservative GOP senators are vowing to vote against the plan.

"It is a huge spending bill and, more importantly, the largest tax increase in the state of Ohio," said Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. "They're getting this money on the backs of poor people and every single family in this state."

White is expected to rely on Democrats to supply three to six votes to pass the bill. Several changes to the plan, such as increased funding for teacher training and for programs that recruit minority teachers, were designed to entice Democratic votes.

Fingerhut said he and other Democrats will take a few days to outline their concerns over proposed cuts to state health-care and day-care programs. They also argue that corporations aren't paying their fair share in taxes.

Reporters Debra Jasper and Jim Siegel contribute. E-mail

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