September 25, 2012
JULIE CARR SMYTH
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS — An Ohio budget committee on Monday cleared the Ohio Turnpike for lease and made a host of other changes, as it sought to meet a Thursday deadline for approving the nearly $56 billion, two-year spending blueprint.
A six-member legislative committee convened Monday evening to hammer out the final budget bill, which was expected to face a Senate vote as early as Tuesday and a House vote Wednesday or Thursday. Action was necessary by midnight to meet the timeline that would get the two-year spending blueprint to Gov. John Kasich’s desk before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Republicans who lead both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate worked behind closed doors through the weekend to settle more than 200 sticking points between the chambers.
The GOP-dominated committee approved other changes as the evening wore on, including: permitting municipalities, school districts and other government entities to use state-developed health insurance pools to save money; eliminating the use of multiple prime contractors on public construction jobs; ordering a state government reorganization plan by June 2013; and bolstering the state’s unemployment compensation fund with dollars originally set aside for anti-smoking programs.
The panel also agreed to shut down a call center for utility customers operated by the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, allowing the advocate to continue listing contact information on utility bills.
Two education-related sections of the bill had apparently tied the biggest knot in the progress of Monday’s negotiations.
Lawmakers struggled with final language on a section of the bill linking pay, classroom assignments and raises for teachers more closely to evaluations of their performance in the classroom. Early language inserted in the bill nearly matched similar passages contained in a divisive collective bargaining overhaul that’s likely to face referendum in the fall. Critics said lawmakers were trying to keep voters from expressing their wishes on the issue.
Some version of the idea was likely to be included in the final bill — though state Rep. Ron Amstutz, the Republican chairing the committee, declined to say ahead of the committee meeting what it would include.
Likewise, Amstutz wouldn’t give specifics on how a series of earlier proposals affecting privately run charter schools might reappear in the final version of the budget. House members proposed expanding the rights and protections of charter schools as well as a moratorium on any new e-schools in the state. Senators stripped the provisions out of the bill.
Democrats offered a series of amendments, all of which were rejected.
One compromise announced earlier was scheduled to send more money to nursing homes, tying state stipends more closely over the two-year budget to the quality of care a facility is deemed to provide.
Almost certainly out of the bill was a proposal to apply the state’s commercial activity tax to all wagers at newly developing casinos in four Ohio cities. That tax provisions was negotiated away by Kasich, in one-on-one talks with casino operators who said it would cost them tens of millions of extra dollars. Instead, they would be taxed on what they make after payouts are subtracted.
A Senate proposal to privatize the state lottery was among those also likely to be on the chopping block. Signals from both the House and Senate were that leaders thought the language, which drew wide criticism from both the right and left, needed more work before becoming law.
Under the turnpike proposal, the 241-mile toll road could be leased to a private operator —but state lawmakers would play a role in the process.
A compromise between the House and Senate would allow lawmakers to write terms of the contract a private operator would need to meet for operating the road, which runs across northern Ohio from the Pennsylvania to the Indiana border. Gov. John Kasich and his transportation director support the idea, saying it could yield at least $2.4 billion for the state.
The private operator could be required by the state to limit toll increases, maintain the road and pay for improvement projects.
Turnpike communities are concerned about the privatization’s impact on employment and travel.