Thursday, June 19, 2003

Ohio lawmakers closer to budget deal

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Lawmakers moved closer Wednesday to agreeing on the state's $49.3 billion spending plan, with both Republicans and Democrats saying there were only a few major parts of the budget left to resolve.

"It's mainly the level of spending on higher ed and primary-secondary ed," said House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican.

Sen. Greg DiDonato, the No. 1 Democrat in the Senate, said that was Democrats' main concern with the latest version of the two-year state budget that begins July 1.

A six-member bipartisan committee trying to reach a compromise between the House and Senate budgets planned to meet later Wednesday. Legislative leaders want final votes today in the House and Senate.

State law requires Gov. Bob Taft to sign the budget. The committee hopes to send a bill to Taft by the end of this week because the plan includes a temporary penny-per-dollar increase in the 5-cent statewide sales tax.

The lawmakers and the administration want retailers to have enough time to prepare for the change so they can begin collecting the 6 percent tax on July 1, the first day of fiscal year 2004.

Over the past week, the committee has been working to fill a $1.1 billion hole in the current two-year plan, which has been blamed on the failure of the economy to rebound in Ohio as first predicted.

To plug that deficit, lawmakers say the latest bill will include part of the $770 million in one-time money the state is to receive from the federal tax cut, some changes in the corporate tax structure, and spending reductions from the plan the Senate passed.

Democrats and Republicans say spending for primary-secondary education and higher education will be lower than what the Senate approved. They declined to put an amount to the reductions.

The Senate version would give schools $225 million more and colleges $226 million more than the House version.

Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a Democrat from Cleveland, said the latest compromise version would "significantly" cut those increases.

"I can't vote for it if it stays this way," he said. "Frankly, I think it's falling apart as a bipartisan bill."

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