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Budget is supreme among the mysteries of government

Published: Mon, June 6, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

The Senate will be passing its ver- sion of Ohio’s $55 billion two-year budget this week, and then there will be a couple of weeks for the House and Senate to wrangle over their differences before sending the bill to Gov. John Kasich for his signature.

Somewhere in government there must be someone who actually understands all the ramifications of this budget, but anyone outside the process who claims to is just kidding himself.

Like so many massive government undertakings, the presumed good is loudly touted while the bad and the ugly lurks in the background, ready to be revealed only in the future after the bill becomes a law and the law goes into force.

Nonetheless, there are anecdotal observations that are worth making.

For instance, who can disagree with a proposed amendment that was revealed over the weekend by the Associated Press that would cut the lawmakers salaries by 5 percent. At a time when the mantra in Columbus has revolved around a presumed need for some to make sacrifices, this will be the first time the legislators themselves have actually stepped up to the plate. The only fault we would find with it is that it is not ambitious enough. Indeed, In February, Democratic Sen. Jason Wilson of Columbiana introduced a bill that would temporarily reduce lawmakers’ salaries by up to 10 percent, but that proposal has languished.

Ohio legislators get a base salary of about $60,500, far more than their average constituents, and that doesn’t include excellent benefits, including health and pension, and extra payments for leadership positions and to cover some of their expenses. And in most cases the legislative job is a second job. They are apparently experts at flexing their time around their other jobs or professions.

Good savings and not-so-good

We’d suggest that the money saved on legislative salaries is money well saved.

In some other cases, we’re not so sure. For instance, Janine Migden-Ostrander, Ohio’s Consumers’ Counsel, points out that her office has served the state’s residential utility customers for 35 years, primarily fighting proposed utility increases at a cost of about $1 per Ohio household per year. The governor’s budget, which was approved by the House, cut the Consumers’ Counsel budget by 51 percent and placed restrictions on some of the ways the office has advocated for customers. The Senate version would be somewhat less draconian, but would eventually cripple an office that can claim it helped save Ohio utility customers $2 billion over two years on a budget of just $8.5 million.

And then, of course, there are those issues that inexplicably work their way into a budget bill, such as provision reported on by the Toledo Blade that would increase the cap on the alcohol content of beer brewed and sold in the state from the current 12 percent to 18 percent.

That, however, is the least of the mysteries to be uncovered.

As an extensive story on the state’s $55 billion budget by the Cincinnati Enquirer asked other day: How did the governor and Legislature manage to erase a projected $8 billion deficit, add $5 billion in spending and still balance the budget?

When state budget director Tim Keen appeared before the Ohio House Finance and Appropriations Committee, state Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Cincinnati area Democrat, asked to see a chart explaining how the projected shortfall was erased while proposed spending over the next two fiscal years was increased.

We suspect a lot of Ohioans would like to see such a chart. But in reality, they’re just going to have to wait to see how it plays out.

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