By Marc Kovac
After weeks of hearings and hours of floor debate, the Republican-controlled Ohio House gave its approval to an amended version of Gov. John Kasich’s $55.5 billion-plus biennial budget.
The final vote Thursday was a party-line 59-40, with Democrats opposing, and the legislation heads to the Senate for further consideration.
Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Republican from Wooster and chairman of the House Finance Committee, said the 4,000-plus-page bill sets a foundation for the state’s future economic growth.
“This is a responsible budget because it achieves our three primary objectives,” Amstutz said. “It avoids imposing tax increases on an economy still in a fragile early recovery. It solves the lingering structural budget gap that developed two years ago and has been filled with temporary one-time funding sources. And, third, it maintains as much as possible the three core priorities that are funded by our state budget — that being student education, prisons and health care for under-resourced Ohioans.”
But Democrats disagreed. Rep. Vernon Sykes of Akron called the budget “shameful and inadequate” and said the legislation would undermine the economic progress the state is making.
“If their top priorities are destroying the middle class and the social-services safety net while at the same time increasing spending, then congratulations, they’re achieving those goals with this budget,” Sykes said. “What strikes me as strange is the fact that our priorities — or your priorities — are rife with hypocrisy. First you promote the idea of smaller government while increasing the general-revenue fund by $5 billion over the biennium.”
Final action on the two-year spending plan is still weeks away, with the Ohio Senate already several days into its own hearings on the bill.
And after that chamber makes changes, the budget likely will head to a conference committee, where the House and Senate will negotiate a final bill, to be signed by Kasich in late June, before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
The House version included most of Kasich’s original priorities — the transfer of the state’s liquor operations to fund the new JobsOhio nonprofit economic development group, the preservation of a state income-tax cut and numerous reforms to Medicaid and other programs aimed at controlling costs while still serving needy Ohioans.
The House version also would reverse the evidence-based education reforms implemented last session with support from former Gov. Ted Strickland, eliminate Ohio’s estate tax as of 2013, and allow the leasing of state parkland for oil and gas drilling.
Republicans attempted to soften decreases in state funding for local governments and school districts, stopping the phase out of some payments after the next biennium and providing incentives for local officials to consolidate their administrative or business functions.
Democrats attempted a number of amendments, including changes to prohibit the privatization of the Ohio Turnpike, prisons and other facilities and a procedural move to strip teacher compensation language similar to provisions in Senate Bill 5, the controversial collective-bargaining law, that would require teacher pay to be based on performance, not just seniority.