Bearing bad news, administration has budget briefing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bad budget news came early this year to hospitals, nursing homes and other groups affected by state spending, part of a strategy by Gov. Bob Taft to sell his next two-year financial plan.

Taft, a Republican, has briefed groups weeks earlier than in the past, sometimes in person. Normally, agency directors get that job.

Taft will introduce his budget, expected to be close to $50 billion over two years, shortly after his State of the State speech Feb. 8.

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Taft's attendance at these meetings is ''unprecedented,'' said Andy Carter, executive director of the Ohio Children's Hospital Association, who met with Taft on Jan. 11.

''That old Holiday Inn slogan of 'no surprises' - they have been committed to that,'' Carter said. ''It could not have been easy for him to go through the process of delivering bad news to people, and I admire his willingness to go through difficult meetings.''

Taft took this approach because of the challenges in balancing this budget, expected to be the tightest to date, said spokesman Orest Holubec.

''The governor wants to communicate as many of the details beforehand as he can,'' Holubec said.

Four years ago, nursing home lobbyist Pete Van Runkle said he was in the dark until the last minute.

''We didn't know what specifically was being proposed for us until we were sitting in a hearing room in the House,'' said Van Runkle, president of the Ohio Health Care Association.

This year, Van Runkle has already attended meetings with Taft about proposed reductions in Medicaid reimbursement to nursing homes.

Businesses that rely on state funding need time to make adjustments based on the budget, said Barbara Edwards, who directs Ohio's Medicaid program for the Department of Job and Family Services.

But normally, talking to them wouldn't happen until the governor introduced the budget, she said. ''This is very, very unusual,'' Edwards said.

The strategy makes perfect sense, especially since no one should be surprised by the news Taft is delivering, said Rick Yocum, president of the nonpartisan Ohio Public Expenditure Council.

''You might as well be out there in the front and say, 'Cuts are coming,''' Yocum said.

Taft took a similar approach with a proposal to charge a first-ever state park fee - a $5 parking pass - to offset decreased funding for the Department of Natural Resources. The administration announced the plan, already criticized by some lawmakers, early this month, weeks before the budget was to be introduced.

The governor is also starting earlier with his plans to change the state's tax system, working more collaboratively with legislative leaders and the business community than he did in 2003.

His sweeping 2003 tax plan would have raised $2.3 billion in taxes over two years.

But Republican lawmakers, left out of the loop until the last minute, largely ignored Taft's proposal and replaced it with a temporary 1 penny sales tax increase. They later failed to pass their own tax plan.

This year, Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted and Senate President Bill Harris - all Republicans - agreed to make tax changes their top shared priority.

The strategy of early disclosure has its shortfalls. Van Runkle issued a news release about Taft's proposed $90 million cut in nursing home funding almost as soon as he learned of it.

Carter and other medical officials held a news conference shortly after Taft told them of a proposed freeze in Medicaid payments to children's hospitals, something they strongly oppose.

Holubec said early notice is crucial but won't change the nature of the debate once the budget's introduced.

''It doesn't make it any easier, obviously,'' Holubec said.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the statehouse correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press's Columbus office.