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Ohio House spends while others save

All around the state capital, penny pinching is in.

Gov. Ted Strickland wants state agencies to evaluate all travel and outside contracts and to cut back on supplies. Attorney General Richard Cordray wants to move the administration of charitable gaming, contracted to the Ohio Lottery Commission, in house to save money. The state wants to use prisoners to replace Statehouse maintenance workers who were laid off because of budget cuts.

And yet the Ohio House of Representatives — controlled by the party of Strickland and Cordray — seems to be operating in an economic oasis.

While other government entities are tightening their belts, House Democrats’ state budget proposal ups the ante, increasing Strickland’s proposed budget by $531 million in terms of the state’s general revenue spending, and by about $1.5 billion when all federal funds are considered.

The state budget is usually measured in terms of general revenue spending instead of all funds.

But with so much federal economic stimulus money flowing into the state in this most unusual of budget times, the all funds figure provides a more accurate picture.

In justifying the spending increases, House Democrats chose to use a more optimistic revenue forecast than the one used by Strickland — even though actual revenue is making even the less optimistic forecasts look too optimistic. The House budget also adds earmarks, or special projects, that Strickland banned across the board, spending millions on items that include Appalachian Country Magazine and the outdoor drama ‘‘Tecumseh!’’

House Democrats have called their spending plan a ‘‘balanced and responsible budget during a time of economic crisis.’’

Strickland’s budget had already been criticized by Republicans for spending too much, especially federal stimulus money that won’t be around two years from now when the next budget has to be crafted.

Strickland and House Democrats subscribe to the school of thought that an economic downturn is precisely when higher spending is needed the most. The downturn places a strain on social services as out-of-work Ohioans need a helping hand from government. For a combination of moral and economic reasons, Democrats believe government spending should be increased to supplant the private dollars that have stopped circulating throughout the economy.

Republicans say Democrats have crossed over the line to irresponsibility, spending more now when it’s easier and pushing pain into future years.

‘‘The House version of the budget does not solve the sustainability problems arising from the use of one-time funds inherent in the governor’s proposal,’’ said House Minority Leader Bill Batchelder in a statement last week. ‘‘In fact it makes it worse by growing government.’’

But Republicans also have their hands in the expanded budget pie.

Even while they were criticizing Democrats’ spending, Republicans were requesting $1.8 billion worth of earmarks, according to public records obtained by the liberal group Progress Ohio and released last week.

To be clear, many of the requests asked for the elimination of fees proposed by Strickland, or for certain items to be exempted from taxation. But coupled with spending requests, efforts to reduce revenue at a time when revenue is plummeting doesn’t solve the problem of producing a balanced and responsible budget.

Because they control the governor’s office and the House, Democrats have the responsibility of setting the agenda for revenue and spending. Republicans seem to be tightening the screws as much as they can, as state Auditor Mary Taylor released a projection showing that the governor’s budget would leave the state in an $8 billion hole two years from now.

Both sides keep mentioning the ‘‘t’’ word to describe the other’s motives. Strickland said that Republicans and Taylor seemed to be advocating for tax increases or deep service cuts, while Republicans have repeatedly said that the governor’s budget will leave the state no choice but to raise taxes in two years to maintain services.

But it’s clear that neither side is raising taxes — at least not this year. Increasing spending is a different matter.

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.