Last updated: September 06. 2013 8:25PM - 81 Views

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JULIE CARR SMYTH

AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS — State senators voted Tuesday to approve Ohio’s nearly $56 billion, two-year state budget bill, a far-reaching collection of policy changes that would privatize state operations, overhaul Medicaid, limit unions, ban most abortions at public hospitals and provide tax breaks on investments, income and estates.

The sweeping spending blueprint, strongly influenced by new Republican Gov. John Kasich, emerged from compromise talks between the GOP-controlled House and Senate shortly before midnight Monday. In last-minute changes, lawmakers voted to allow private oversight of the Ohio Turnpike but not the Ohio Lottery and added provisions tying pay for teachers to a new evaluation system to be developed by the state Education Department.

The Senate voted 22-11 in favor of the final bill. A House vote is scheduled for Wednesday, and Kasich is expected to sign by the Thursday deadline.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Republican state senator and budget committee member Shannon Jones said she was moved to speak about the voluminous policy document.

“I was really overcome with the pure volume of work that this budget entails,” she said.

State Sen. Mike Skindell of Lakewood, the budget committee’s ranking Democrat, said, “Sen. Jones said she was overcome. I will say that many Ohioans will be overcome by the devastating impact that this budget will have on their lives.”

Kasich has dubbed the legislation his “jobs budget” and touts the fact that it cuts taxes while closing a budget gap estimated at $8 billion when he took office in January. Improved state revenues have put the gap closer to $6 billion.

“Many doubted that this could ever be done, but together we’re doing it,” Kasich has said.

Senate Finance Chairman Chris Widener, a Springfield Republican, said the bill eliminates a structural deficit caused by years of spending more than the state had available, ending years of using one-time fixes to balance the budget.

“The families in Ohio, the small businesses in Ohio understand this,” he told fellow senators. “You’ve got to stop the one-time spending and put a little bit back for the next rainy day around the corner.”

Fellow Republican Shannon Jones, a senator who sat on the budget-writing committee, made unplanned remarks on the measure.

“I was really overcome with the pure volume of work that this budget entails,” she said.

State Sen. Mike Skindell of Lakewood, the budget committee’s ranking Democrat, said, “Sen. Jones said she was overcome. I will say that many Ohioans will be overcome by the devastating impact that this budget will have on their lives.”

Labor unions hit hard by many of its provisions — including those that impose a merit pay system on teachers, suspend prevailing wage requirements at public construction jobs, and allow privatization of five state-run prisons and the Turnpike — have blasted the bill as anti-jobs.

“The final agreement on Gov. Kasich’s jobs-killing budget, worked out by conference committee last night, is the icing on the cake of Kasich’s destructive and unpopular partisan agenda,” Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga said in a statement Tuesday. “The pain from this budget will be felt by working families and the middle class in every corner of the state.”

A six-member bipartisan panel approved the bill Monday in a 4-2 vote along party lines. Hundreds of changes were made in a hearing that lasted for more than six hours, including about $100 million more for nursing homes, in-home care for the elderly, mental health and drug addiction services and expanded rights for privately run charter schools.

Republicans who lead both the state House and Senate worked behind closed doors through the weekend to settle more than 200 sticking points, delivering changes to Democrats only about half an hour before Monday’s committee meeting.

Under the turnpike compromise, the 241-mile toll road stretching from Pennsylvania to Indiana could be leased to a private operator — but state lawmakers would write the contract terms. That could allow the state to require the lessee to limit toll hikes, maintain the road and pay for improvement projects. Kasich has said a 30-year lease could yield the state at least $2.4 billion. Communities along the turnpike are concerned about the impact of privatization on employment and travel.

Kasich’s efforts to shrink the government’s reach won’t end there. The budget bill also calls for the state’s higher education chief, Chancellor Jim Petro, to come up with a system for public colleges and universities to be chartered, or converted to semi-private status, and it also orders a study on the consolidation of state agencies.

The bill bases teachers’ future pay on a new state-developed evaluation system tied closely to students’ academic performance under another compromise. The provision instructs the state Education Department to develop the new standards by year’s end. Evaluations would be based on student test scores, academic improvement and classroom observations, among other things. Use of the new standard was tied to a district’s participation in the federal education grant program Race to the Top.

The House had inserted teacher merit pay language in the budget bill that it approved in May which was almost identical to sections of a collective bargaining overhaul, Senate Bill 5, which opponents are seeking to repeal. Critics — including a Democrat on the conference committee — complained the move thwarted the ability of Ohioans to cast their votes on the new union-limiting law.

The abortion language prevents facilities that receive public money from performing abortions unless it is a health emergency.

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