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House holds line on spending, hints of new revenue

House lawmakers were still finishing work on their version of the bare-bones state budget when they hinted that things soon could change for the better.

The $51 billion spending plan over two years is the tightest budget in 40 years, with only minimal growth above current levels. By contrast, the present budget grew above inflation each year.

House Finance Chairman Charles Calvert said he expects that estimates for state revenue over the next two years, numbers due in May, should be better than figures lawmakers have worked with up until now.

In anticipation, House Republicans are compiling ideas on how to spend that money when the time comes. The finance committee approved the budget bill early Monday and a full House vote was expected Tuesday.

''We have all of the amendments that we can't afford to do,'' said Calvert, a Medina Republican. If money becomes available, ''we'll go through those amendments and say, 'Hey, do we want to do any of the things that are in the amendments that we didn't accept?'''

Shifting revenue figures are typical during budget deliberations, which can stretch for months. Gov. Bob Taft introduced his proposal in February, following months of planning and research, and lawmakers have until June 30 to approve the plan.

Typically, new numbers arrive just in time for House and Senate lawmakers to sit down and hash out their disagreements over their versions of the budget.

In recent years the news was usually bad. Two budget cycles ago, Taft and lawmakers had to close three different gaps totaling about $4.1 billion.

Last year, less than a month after a national economic survey listed Ohio's budget as stable, Taft announced the state was in the red.

And last month, Taft signed a bill that helped fix a $295 million deficit in the current education budget, the second such fix needed in two years.

Officials blamed shifting enrollment numbers including unanticipated growth in charter schools.

By contrast, state revenue figures are $338 million ahead of estimates this year and expected to continue ahead.

Updating the financial numbers for the next round of budget talks is the responsible thing to do, said tax consultant Tom Zaino, a former state tax commissioner.

''People would understand that a half year later you would have a half year's more data to know how the economy's going, whether it's good or bad,'' Zaino said.

''The Legislature, before they finalize this thing, is going to look at where the economy stands in June, not where the economy stood in January.''

After revenue estimates four years ago and again two years ago fell below expectations, it's no wonder that Taft and House Republicans kept their numbers as conservative as possible, said Rick Yocum, president of the Ohio Public Expenditure Council.

''So, if there's any news, it will be good news,'' Yocum said.

Taft's budget office has consistently said it hasn't changed the way it makes estimates, instead doing the best it can to forecast how much money the state will have available.

''The economic events we projected two years ago and four years ago did not materialize, hence there was a dramatic impact on revenues,'' said assistant state budget director Tim Keen.

As far as the future of this budget, Keen said he understands how lawmakers could look at the positive numbers to date and assume there's good news coming.

''But we're not ready to say one way or the other,'' he added.

Democrats, critical of Republican cuts to human service programs and local governments, say extra money could help both parties.

''Some of those things might be high on their list as well,'' said Rep. Dale Miller of Cleveland, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee. ''If the new estimates are rosier I think we might be able to work together to make this budget a little better.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.