Lack of clarity prompts questions about budget

If you study the biennium budget proposed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and his fiscal gurus and are unable to come up with a clear answer as to how an $8 billion hole was filled, are you just plain dumb, or is the spending plan so complicated that not even the budget director can explain it in simple terms?

Rest assured, the problem isn’t you.

Here’s how Tim Keen, director of the Office of Budget and Management, responded to a question about Kasich’s spending blueprint posed by The Vindicator’s Columbus correspondent, Marc Kovac:

“There’s no place that you could look at these numbers and say, ‘OK, I see this budget. Shouldn’t I be able to subtract something else and get $8 billion? And the answer is no.”

That answer, while unusually honest coming from a government bureaucrat, certainly won’t salve the wounds of the many recipients of state dollars who are bracing for deep, painful cuts.

Indeed, Keen’s response is bound to prompt questions from state legislators as they go through the 98,000-line budget bill and try to figure out just how the Kasich administration balanced revenue and spending.

Keen told The Vindicator’s correspondent that a mix of policy changes and reforms, spending cuts and updated revenue projections were used to fill the budget hole.

“We [made] hundreds and hundreds of decisions along the way to close this down and to get the executive budget that we introduced at these spending levels with revenues that would support that,” the OBM director said. “It’s not just a balanced budget. ... This is a structurally balanced budget. ... Ongoing revenues and ongoing expenditures are matched.”

But when local governments, schools and libraries are taking a hit of $2.2 billion in the biennium, taxpayers deserve to have a clear understanding of a “structurally balanced budget.” Indeed, given all the talk about the $8 billion shortfall and the need to make deep cuts in state funding across the board, why would the administration propose spending 1.1 percent more in fiscal 2012 which begins July 1, and 6.4 percent more in fiscal 2013 than was spent in fiscal 2011?

Different items

Keen explained that new general revenue spending includes different items than current spending, such as items that were outside the General Revenue Fund now being included, and that makes it difficult to compare dollar totals from one year to the next.

But, such comparisons are needed so recipients of state dollars and Ohioans in general can figure out just how big a financial challenge Gov. Kasich faced when he took office in January and had to quickly develop his two-year spending plan for the General Assembly to consider. The fact that Kasich and majorities in the House and Senate are Republicans does make this budgetary process politically tenable.

However, the General Assembly has a responsibility to look into the guts of the budget to determine whether the spending cuts that have been proposed are justified and necessary.

As we’ve said previously, the House and Senate should put administration officials on the hot seat and question them about the revenue projections, spending priorities and the $8 billion shortfall that has been the governor’s clarion call going back to last year’s general election.

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