Ohio budget negotiations complicated

Published 10:17 am Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The next three weeks of negotiations over the two-year, $54 billion budget have all the makings of an epic political showdown.

The newly empowered Democrats control the House and have the leadership and backing of Gov. Ted Strickland. The Republicans who control the Senate have the feistiness that comes with limited influence and the knowledge that they have just enough power to obstruct Democrats’ most vital goals.

That combination has been absent during budget negotiations since 1995, when Republicans took control of both chambers, and it plants fertile ground for the swapping of legislative goals.

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Add to that the expectation that new revenue estimates will give lawmakers up to a couple billion dollars less to work with as the downtrodden economy continues to influence the political scene. And don’t forget that a new gubernatorial campaign is just starting to heat up.

All of these dynamics have Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck believing lawmakers may miss their budget deadline of July 1, the date the new fiscal year begins.

‘‘It would be hard enough anyway with two chambers controlled by opposing parties,’’ Beck said. ‘‘It’s even harder this year because we’re not increasing the budget — we have to dramatically decrease the budget. And it’s harder yet because these revenue estimates keep going down.’’

Compromise talks are also complicated because the budget bill includes complex public policy proposals that contain the two parties’ primary political objectives. Gov. Ted Strickland and House Democrats desperately want to change the way schools are funded, and have proposed an ‘‘evidence-based’’ model that funds schools buildings and other organizational units at the level recommended by research findings.

During his campaign for governor, Strickland said he would be a failure as governor if he didn’t come up with a constitutional school-funding proposal. Ohio’s school-funding system has been declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court four times.

Republicans prefer the current ‘‘per-pupil’’ funding model in which the money follows each individual student. This is another way of saying they want each parent to be able to decide how to use the public money spent on their children, whether on a traditional public school or a charter school.

While Strickland and House Democrats cut more than $200 million from charter schools in their proposals and called for more oversight and accountability, Republicans put that funding back in and stripped out many of the oversight changes. Combining the restored charter school funding with some of the Democratic ideas for school funding could be a potential point of compromise — however difficult.

Sen. John Carey, a Wellston Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, said there were ‘‘huge differences’’ between the chambers on education policy.

‘‘We will have to buckle down and do what’s best,’’ Carey said.

House Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, said he would rule out no options during negotiations. But he said he already views House Democrats’ school-funding plan — which combines Strickland’s new funding formula with money for academically successful charter schools — as a compromise.

‘‘I think this is going to be the most difficult process that we’ve seen in many, many years,’’ Budish said. ‘‘As long as parties involved put the interests of the state above interests of partisan politics, I believe we can reach a bipartisan budget.’’

Other big-ticket policy items that could become bargaining chips or stumbling blocks include: a requirement that insurance companies cover treatment for autism, new initiatives that would provide health insurance to an estimated 110,000 adults without coverage, and fee increases proposed by Strickland.

All of these items were taken out of the budget by Senate Republicans and could be used as leverage with Democrats who supported them in the House.

‘‘In some ways Republicans are in a better position than Democrats,’’ Beck said. ‘‘It’s easier to deny than to act.’’

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.