Senate compromise deserves consideration

Published 9:00 am Thursday, November 26, 2009

This has been a tough month in Columbus as the Legislature struggles to fix an $851 million shortfall in the state budget after Gov. Ted Strickland’s plan to place video lottery terminals at Ohio’s horse tracks was delayed indefinitely by legal challenges.

You may recall that after consistently voicing opposition to expanded gambling in Ohio, the governor announced this past summer his intention to bring thousands of slot machines to the state.

Then, he put pressure on the General Assembly to accept the proposal immediately.

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The Senate warned the governor that his VLT plan could get tied up in court and argued that any decision to expand gambling in the state should be made by Ohio voters.

Senate President Bill Harris even told the governor that he would work to put his slots proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot, but the governor refused, insisting that the Legislature give him approval to implement VLTs on his own.

The Senate eventually agreed to go along with the governor’s plan because the budget impasse was doing harm to the state.

As expected, the Strickland Administration’s slots proposal was met with a number of legal challenges.

This reality has left the governor and legislators scrambling to find hundreds of millions of dollars to make up for the loss of projected VLT revenues.

To plug the budget hole, the governor declared his support for a plan on September 30 that would postpone phasing-in the final year of a 21-percent, five-year income tax cut that the General Assembly enacted in 2005. Like gambling, this was a move that the governor resisted previously.

The governor’s budget fix reached the Senate Finance & Financial Institutions Committee three weeks ago. My colleagues and I listened to hours of testimony from Office of Budget and Management Director, Pari Sabety, and Ohio Tax Commissioner, Rich Levin.

After several lengthy discussions, Senate Republicans developed an alternative plan that I believe meets the governor more than half way on the issue.

Our proposal suspends only a portion of the income tax reduction, allowing Ohioans to still keep $280 million of the tax cut they were promised, and includes a number of other measures to not only help fix the short-term budget gap but work to address some of the long-term budget problems facing our state.

Unfortunately, the governor dismissed the Senate compromise without really making an effort to work through the differences.

I understand that the governor wants to have it 100 percent his way, but it is our job as legislators to work with him to come up with the best policy we can for our state. We cannot do that unless he engages in the discussion. Instead, he has chosen to do political posturing through the media.

The governor should work with the Senate to say what specifically he could support and could not.

For example, our compromise plan makes available $7 million for mental health services that previously could not be released due to a drafting error. Is the administration really against that?

There has also been much discussion about the feasibility of reorganizing state government to promote greater efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. The Senate compromise would establish a study to gather information about the idea.

In addition, the governor previously voiced support for several reforms to reduce Ohio’s overcrowded prison population. The Senate inserted many of these ideas into our budget fix, including a provision to direct low-risk inmates into less costly community control settings, which the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections estimates could save millions of dollars over the biennium and more in the coming years. Is he against this?

Furthermore, the Senate compromise would use $200 million in license fees from the casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo that Ohio voters approved this month.

The governor has said through media reports that he is against a provision in the Senate plan that would use excess monies from the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, which works to provide housing opportunities for low-income Ohioans.

My colleagues and I were under the impression that the fund had $79 million on balance, and our compromise would take $30 million of that over the next two years to balance the budget.

The governor certainly has a right to disagree, but what is his counter proposal?

If it doesn’t, let us know, and we can work from there. If this very small provision is the main problem, let’s talk. My way or the highway is an attitude that we cannot afford in Columbus.

The governor has said that we need to pass his budget fix quickly. President Obama said the same thing about the federal stimulus package and health care reform. These are all complex issues with huge consequences. Our constituents want us to read these bills closely and deliberate before voting.

The Senate has developed a reasonable compromise to fix the budget shortfall. We have given the bill to the governor and made it available to the public.

The governor and his cabinet have the ability to make useful suggestions and work to make this a better bill. I personally ask him to work toward a resolution. We can move past this budget impasse if we are willing to work together.

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.