Lawmakers' reactions mixed
Two local lawmakers suggested video poker might be needed to pay for the cost of the court order.
By JEFF ORTEGA
COLUMBUS -- The Ohio Supreme Court's latest school-funding ruling is drawing mixed reactions from some Mahoning Valley lawmakers in the Statehouse.
But one thing they seem to agree on is that meeting what the high court wants done will cost the state a lot more than the $1.4 billion in additional primary and secondary education dollars in the current, two-year, $45 billion state budget.
"The decision is going to cost the state more money," state Rep. Daniel J. Sferra, a Warren Democrat, said Thursday just hours after the high court ordered the state to spend more on public education. "The only thing is, how much?"
Court orders: The high court, in a 4-3 decision, ordered the state to change how it determines the amount of money a school district receives to pay for the basic education of a student. The court also ordered the state to speed up funding meant to close the gap between so-called rich and poor school systems.
The state had wanted to fully pay for the $500 million so-called "parity aid" program by 2006, but the high court ordered the full funding of the program by July 2003, according to the majority opinion by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer. Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Andy Douglas and Paul Pfeifer were also in the majority.
Justices Alice Robie Resnick, Francis Sweeney and Deborah Cook were in the minority.
If the state makes the changes, the high court's majority opinion said, the state's method of funding public schools would be constitutional.
They are changes that both the state and the coalition of schools that had successfully challenged the school-funding system said would be expensive.
Problems foreseen: Sferra said he doesn't think the Legislature would support any tax increases to boost funding for public schools. Sferra said he also doesn't think it would be wise to cut any deeper into state programs in a budget deemed by many to be tight already.
"It seems like video poker might be back on the table," said Sferra.
Sferra was referring to plans floated in the past to allow the placement of video lottery terminals at the seven horse race tracks in Ohio.
State Rep. John A. Boccieri, D-New Middletown, said he also believed the plan for video lottery terminals might resurface.
"I just think in a tight budget environment, they're going to be hard-pressed to find the finances to fund this dilemma," said Boccieri.
Boccieri said he believed the so-called "parity aid" provisions were unconstitutional because they were phased in and because they were earmarked for new expenses for school systems.
State Rep. Sylvester Patton, Jr., a Youngstown Democrat, said he also was concerned with how the state might try to meet the cost of the high court's ruling.
"My whole thing is, we need to get this job done," Patton said .
"My concern is how we're going to meet the rest of these mandates. If it costs a little more in taxes, I'm not sure if I'm for that," he said. "I think there are definitely other ways to raise money."
Patton suggested looking at closing more loopholes in the state tax system or looking at streamlining government spending.
Cost estimates: Estimates varied as to what the proposed changes to the funding method might cost. Senate Republican leaders pegged it at $1.25 billion in each year of the current two-year budget.
The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the group that successfully challenged the funding method, estimated the cost at about $600 million in each year of the current budget.
Right direction: State Sen. Robert F. Hagan, another Youngstown Democrat, said he thinks the ruling was in the right direction.
"I think it's a positive issue that the Supreme Court said that they didn't fully address the issue of funding and the Democrats have been saying they did not address the issue of funding," Hagan said.
Boccieri said he thinks it was dangerous for the high court to be giving specific directions to the Legislature.
"We write the laws," Boccieri said.