Will state lawmakers rise to the $8 billion challenge?

If past is prologue, then Ohioans can hold out little hope of substantive results from a state panel charged with crafting ways to close a gargantuan deficit gap in the next biennial budget.

After all, it has taken nearly one full year for members of the Ohio Budget Planning and Management Commission — a panel of three Democratic and three Republican legislators — to muster up the intestinal fortitude to even gather together today for their first meeting — and then only after considerable poking and prodding from fellow lawmakers and others.

Though not excusable, the hesitancy is somewhat understandable. Commission members face the Herculean and unenviable task of carving out an estimated $8 billion to balance the 2012-13 state budget that takes effect July 1, 2011.

According to the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, a social-service research tank, once all economic and policy factors are considered, the deficit for the next budget will be $6 billion to $7 billion. But some Statehouse Republicans say it will be closer to $8 billion.

Stark reality

That amount equals 20 percent of all state spending, which means commission members must come to grips with the reality that draconian cost-cutting and/or revenue-building initiatives must be on the table from the outset. As the center points out in its report to the commission, $8 billion in savings won’t be achieved easily.

Considering that laying off all 58,000 state workers would save only $4 billion over two years and freeing 25,000 prison inmates would wipe away only $1.8 billion in red ink, the challenge becomes starkly clear.

But it is a challenge that commission members and all legislators must embrace. Too many vital state-supported services hang in the balance.

As State Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from the Cincinnati area and co-chairman of the commission, aptly advises her colleagues, “I am hopeful that the commission will analyze big-picture reforms before the crunch of the traditional budget deliberations.”

The big-picture ideas presented by Community Solutions serve as a viable starting point.

The sooner public schools know how much of a hit they will take in basic-aid reductions and the sooner state residents know how much of a jolt potential tax increases will pound them, the better. Waiting until the eleventh hour next spring to make the difficult choices will only aggravate what promises to be a painful remedy.

Commission members must also pay heed to State Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat from Akron and the commission’s other co-chairman: “I am hopeful that this commission will foster a productive, bipartisan dialogue.”

Politics over policy

On both the state and federal levels, 2010 has emerged as a year of maximum partisan politicking that has produced minimal meaningful policy making. The charge of the commission is far too grave to permit inter-party strife and political one-upmanship to deter progress.

On the positive side, however, if commission members knuckle down now and work diligently throughout the summer and early fall, there is a sliver of hope that meaningful budgetary reforms can be studied and recommended to the governor by the November deadline. That would still give the governor and the state Legislature more time than usual to hammer out the details and produce a final budget that responsibly balances state spending without strangling essential state services or looting weary taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

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