• 37°

Senate develops responsible budget

The Senate presented its version of House Bill 1—the state’s two-year operating budget—to the Finance and Financial Institutions Committee on May 29.

My colleagues and I had only three weeks to address a $1 billion shortfall in the bill and sort through more than 1,500 amendments to the 3,300-page document.

We successfully balanced the budget by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in general revenue fund spending, codifying other agency cost savings that were identified by Gov. Ted Strickland and mandating cost-containment strategies for Medicaid.

In addition, 139 project-specific earmarks were eliminated, which saved more than $150 million.

Many of these were good programs, but with the current budget crisis and uncertainty about state revenues moving forward, the state could simply not afford it. There is a chance that many of these earmarks could be funded using federal stimulus dollars.

The Senate also removed language from the bill that expanded the power of state agencies to do things on their own without legislative approval.

The Senate’s education plan focuses on funding students and empowering parents. While the governor’s budget reduced funding for many rural, low-wealth school districts by two percent, and the House followed suit by cutting overall state funding for schools over the next two years in their version of HB 1, the Senate budget proposal provides a small funding increase for all districts in Ohio.

Furthermore, the Senate bill ensures this funding is “student-centered,” as opposed to the governor’s education plan, which appears to focus on staffing school buildings as a way to boost student achievement.

A reduction in calamity days, the addition of 20 days to the school year, testing changes and other contentious parts of the governor’s school reform plan have been removed.

Instead, the bill requires the State Board of Education and the State Superintendant to review and make recommendations about these changes.

The Senate budget does, however, maintain the governor’s proposals to strengthen training requirements for Ohio teachers and toughen teacher dismissal standards, and we will continue to work with the Administration and House to explore innovations in education that will better prepare our students for success.

The Senate version of HB 1 also affirms our commitment to higher education from past budgets by continuing the tuition freeze at community colleges for the next two years and increasing their state subsidy by $19 million to account for growing enrollment.

In addition, tuition at Ohio’s four year public universities will be frozen in the upcoming academic year and tuition increases will be capped at 3.5 percent in the second year of the biennium.

Among several important amendments included in the Senate budget proposal is a provision that would protect millions of dollars a year for Ohio’s school districts and local governments that they could lose after the phase out of Ohio’s tangible personal property tax.

This will hopefully help reduce the strain on their budgets, maintain vital services and protect jobs in our local communities.

My colleagues and I also amended the budget to include Senate Bill 3, which seeks to improve Ohio’s regulatory climate to help grow our economy and create jobs. SB 3 passed the Senate unanimously in March but has been pending in the Ohio House.

There will be much discussion in the coming days about the spending cuts that were made in this bill.

The Senate was forced to make many tough choices to fix a budget proposal that was severely out of balance when it came over from the House.

In the end, we accomplished this without a tax increase, while maintaining support for many of our state’s top priorities.

The introduction of the Senate’s version of HB 1 is only another step in what has already been a very difficult budget process.

After my colleagues and I approve our budget plan, a conference committee will be formed — which includes three members from the House and Senate — to iron-out the differences between the House and Senate versions of HB 1.

Then, the full General Assembly must approve a conference committee report before the bill is sent to the Governor for his signature. He must sign the bill by June 30th.

It is going to be a busy month.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District.He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.