JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — A wide-ranging midterm budget bill cleared the Ohio Senate on Wednesday after lawmakers removed a contentious pilot program that would have tied welfare benefits to clean drug tests.
Democratic state Sen. Shirley Smith of Cleveland said the last-minute decision by the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the day helped decide her vote in favor of the budget bill. She said it showed her majority Republicans were willing to compromise.
In a 25-8 vote, the Senate passed the measure with many of Gov. John Kasich’s government-shrinking proposals intact, including shared service options for local governments and altered or eliminated roles for various government boards and commissions.
Kasich took the rare step of proposing the measure outside of Ohio’s traditional two-year budget cycle.
Democratic state Sen. Mike Skindell was among its critics, blasting such initiatives as undermining public sector unions and consolidating power to the governor’s Cabinet.
“This represents an incredible consolidation of unbridled power into these agency heads, and it should be a concern for the citizens of the state of Ohio,” he said.
Several of Skindell’s fellow Democrats, including Smith, spoke favorably of the bill, which delivered an additional $42 million to the Clean Ohio fund that preserves farmland and green spaces and another $350,000 to a Lake Erie protection program.
Kasich applauded the bill in a statement for having “a significant, positive impact in improving how Ohio manages the taxpayers’ resources and the initiatives to that serve them.”
Following the Senate vote, the Ohio House voted to send the bill to a conference committee to iron out differences between the chambers, including whether the Legislature should have a say over transfers of money to the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That panel is expected to convene next week.
Kasich said there were still issues he’d like to see changed in the legislation, “but I’m hopeful we will find common ground soon.”
Senate spokeswoman Angela Meleca said the welfare drug-testing provision would be taken up in a separate bill later. The timing was not yet determined.
The proposal had been added to the bill only a day earlier — and was criticized on several fronts. Opponents said it was discriminatory to the poor, ineffective in other states, and potentially unconstitutional.
Republican State Sen. Tim Schaffer, who proposed the two-year pilot program, said it is intended as a test run at taking welfare drug tests statewide. His plan calls for instituting the drug tests in three counties that volunteer, with those who test positive losing access to their benefits for at least six months.
Schaffer said his proposal would allow family members not addicted to drugs to receive the benefits while the drug user is being treated.