County lightning fires ignite discussion
COLUMBUS — Budget negotiators in the Ohio Legislature were expected to hear Wednesday how much money the state will have to spend in its next two-year budget, as the scramble begins over whether more money should be stashed away or shifted to other priorities.
A group of six lawmakers — three from the House and three from the Senate — planned to hold an afternoon hearing to begin working out the differences between their two chambers’ spending proposals.
The so-called conference committee will hear testimony from legislative analysts and the state Office of Budget and Management. The witnesses were to brief legislators on new revenue projections and Medicaid caseload estimates for the state. The figures will help the committee finalize how many dollars should go to health care programs, schools and local governments.
The House and Senate, both led by Republicans, have each passed different versions of the state budget on party-line votes.
The $55.7 billion spending blueprint largely retain policy initiatives Gov. John Kasich proposed, including an overhaul of Medicaid programs, privatizing several state prisons and transferring the state’s liquor profits to a new semi-private economic development entity called JobsOhio.
The Senate plan would spend more money on high-performing schools and in-home care for the elderly than the House version. It also adds a plan to privatize the day-to-day operations of the Ohio Lottery and proposes such sweeping policy changes such as banning abortions in publicly funded hospitals.
Senators set aside $115 million more for schools, $100 million more for local governments, and $15 million more for home-based nursing care than their House counterparts. That was the result of more optimistic state revenue estimates when they put their spending plan together. Senators also left a provision in place that applies the state commercial activities tax to casinos, but stripped out House-added language tying teacher pay more closely to performance than seniority and training.
Sticking points before the conference committee are likely to include whether legislators’ salaries should be cut by 5 percent, what the threshold should be for paying a union-scale wage at certain construction sites, and whether a merit-based pay system for teachers should be included in the budget.
The deadline for lawmakers to pass the budget bill is June 30. A new fiscal year begins July 1.
House Speaker William Batchelder told reporters Tuesday that his House Republican colleagues on the conference committee would be pushing to see merit-based pay for teachers put back into the state budget. He said he hoped a compromise budget bill could be voted on by June 27 or 28.
Members of the conference committee include: Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster; Rep. John Carey, R-Wellston; Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron; Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield; Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro; and Sen. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood.
Lawmakers have said the state faces an estimated $8 billion budget shortfall, which has forced them to make deep spending cuts. The liberal think tank Innovation Ohio has put the deficit at closer to $5 billion.
Kasich, a first-term Republican, has said he would like put any additional revenue at the end of the current biennium toward a tax cut or into the state’s rainy day fund.
Senate Democrats have pushed to restore money to social programs and devote more dollars to urban schools. Several House Democrats have suggested that any surplus money in the current budget year be used to launch a temporary public works program. Their $400 million plan would pay 5,000 Ohioans to demolish or renovate vacant homes, plant trees and clean up streets among other duties.
Outside groups have also weighed in on where any extra cash should go.
Advocates for children, seniors and the poor have called on leaders to spend the money on food assistance, mental health and addiction treatment services, early childhood programs and home-based care for the elderly and disabled.
Members of Ohio’s Campaign for Jobs have urged lawmakers to think creatively about what to do with any additional money.
Linda Woggon, executive vice president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, has said the coalition of business groups wants the money to be spent in “innovative” ways. One example, she said, might be an incentive program aimed at giving grants to local governments who share services.
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