Sunday, June 29, 2003

Ohio budget: Flawed process

Lawmakers speak out

The $48.8 billion budget Ohio Gov. Bob Taft signed Thursday, after months of contentious negotiation in the General Assembly, didn't make anyone involved with it very happy. Not that it should have. The 2004-05 budget, driven by the need to fix multibillion-dollar-deficits during an economic downturn, doesn't solve the state's long-term fiscal problems - and may make them worse.

Area lawmakers, whether or not they supported the final version, were less than enchanted with the outcome. That's apparent from the comments we asked for and received from state House and Senate members in the southwest Ohio delegation (Page F3). As Reps. Bill Seitz and Michelle Schneider note, the budget is "the ultimate compromise bill between the two legislative chambers and the governor. No one gets everything he/she wants." That's an understatement. In fact, the House resisted the final plan, voting only 53-46 for it in a body dominated 62-37 by Republicans; the Senate passed it 22-10.

The lawmakers' comments are sobering. They reflect an admission that state government hasn't done a very good job of setting priorities, and that the nation's current weak economy is not the root cause.

The market-oriented Buckeye Institute quickly pointed out that the budget includes 151 fee increases, "hidden" taxes that received little scrutiny during the debate on the "temporary" two-year sales-tax that was approved. The fees are levied on professions ranging from pilots to barbers to embalmers to elected officials to the "wild animal collection permit." At least lawmakers included themselves.

Taft accompanied his Thursday signing with a veto message axing 29 provisions from the budget. Many of his cuts fixed simple errors, or got rid of measures that would earmark certain funds or otherwise limit various departments' discretion in how they handle their programs. But most notably, Taft correctly vetoed an item that would have kept Secretary of State Ken Blackwell from requiring counties to install new voting machines and procedures in time for the 2004 election. The item was an unwarranted intrusion into that office's authority, and sent the wrong message about Ohio's commitment to election reform.

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