• 28°

Despite perceptions, legislators not just writing checks

No matter how many times I hear the comments myself, I am still astounded at radio talk show hosts in Cincinnati who like to expound on a subject like the state budget when they know so little about what they are talking.

My most recent experience came on a Saturday drive back to Columbus to continue work on the budget. A not-so-dynamic duo of radio hosts were making derisive comments about how the state had just "found" more than a billion dollars just after the Senate passed its version of the annual biennial budget. And, they laughingly added, legislators were working hard to spend the extra money.

They couldn't have been more off base.

These individuals apparently did not do much preparation for their show and this subject, because the explanation for the so-called "found" money and how it would be used was readily available from newspapers around the state.

During testimony before the joint Senate and House conference committee the week of June 5, representatives of two different agencies presented estimates of an anticipated budget surplus for 2005 and additional surpluses for 2006 and 2007. The budget surplus for fiscal year 2005 is expected to be in the range of $500 million, and could total another $700 million for fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

Most of that money will be returned to taxpayers or saved in the Budget Stabilization Fund, more commonly known as the "rainy day" fund. Both the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House have spoken publicly of their plans. They have been even more emphatic on this point with those of us involved in the conference committee discussions.

So where did the 2005 projected surplus come from? State revenues have been coming in better than expected for several months, and spending was under budget. It takes awhile to process the tax returns that were due April 15, so it is usually late May or early June before the full impact of this major revenue source is known. There had been speculation for weeks about a surplus, but no one was confident enough to predict how large it would be.

Far from being "found," this money has been tracked by the Office of Budget and Management for months. Nor is there a mystery about the projected surplus for the next two years either.

The proposed budget that legislators will vote on within the next two weeks includes reductions in spending for 2006 and 2007. The combination of spending cuts and a rosier revenue estimate result in a surplus for 2006 and 2007.

These surpluses will allow legislators to consider restoring funding for local governments and libraries. But even if these adjustments are made, more than 50 percent of a surplus will be returned to taxpayers or placed in the rainy day fund.

These budget deliberations are in stark contrast to the previous two budgets when the revenue projections kept coming in worse than expected. It is now up to legislators to resist the temptation to go on a spending spree. That is one of the things that got us into trouble in the first place.

Contrary to what the ill-informed radio hosts said, there is no rush by legislators to spend the money. For sure there are special interest groups clamoring for more money, but I work with my colleagues to keep the spending restraints in place.

Tom Niehaus is state senator representing the 14th District, which includes part of Lawrence County. To reach Tom, call (614) 466-8082, e-mail him at tniehaus@mailr.sen.state.oh.us or write to Ohio Senate, Room 38, Statehouse, Columbus OH 43215.