State budget surplus justifies revisiting funding for schools

When Gov. John Kasich and the Republican controlled General Assembly adopted the state’s $55 billion biennium budget, they justified the deep cuts in funding for school districts and local governments by contending that they had to deal with an $8 billion deficit in the spending plan. Indeed, Kasich had used the $8 billion figure as a sledgehammer in his 2010 race for governor against Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. He accused Strickland and the Democratic controlled House of Representatives of mismanaging the state’s finances.

Ohio voters, battered by the national economic recession that began in the last year of Republican George W, Bush’s presidency, decided to give Kasich and the Republicans a chance to right the ship of state. They not only made him governor, but gave the GOP control of every statewide office and the Ohio House and Senate.

Thus began what is for all purposes one-party rule. The result: A biennium budget that has caused undue hardship for local governments and has forced school districts around the state to make deep cuts in their operating budgets to absorb the funding reductions from the state. The Local Government Fund, which funnels state dollars to county, city and other local governments, was slashed by more than $1 billion, while schools took such a hit that the list of districts in state-declared fiscal caution, fiscal watch and even fiscal emergency is growing by leaps and bounds.

In defending the biennium budget, Gov. Kasich said it’s time for the public sector to come up with new ways of delivering the services taxpayers expect for their money. We have no argument with the idea that government must become more efficient. However, when funding cuts are made in the midst of a national recession, even the most creatively run public entity has difficulty making ends meet.

On any given day, The Vindicator highlights the financial trials and tribulations of another school district or another county, city, township or village government. At some point, all the cutting has the effect of undermining the delivery of services.

Teacher layoffs

When a school district is forced to lay off teachers, class sizes increase, and student learning suffers. When a city has to lay off policemen or firefighters, public safety is jeopardized. And when the two-year capital budget has money only for projects in public universities and colleges and nothing for communities, cities like Youngstown suffer.

During the legislative debate on the biennium budget, questions were raised about the governor’s insistence that the $8 billion hole in the spending blueprint was real. ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group, challenged the budget on the grounds that it was based on faulty numbers. There were estimates that showed the real shortfall to be between $5.9 billion and $6.1 billion.

Nonetheless, the Republicans passed the two-year budget with Kasich’s assumptions.

But today, not even year after the adoption, the state is reporting surplus tax revenue of at least $265 million, plus it has $250 million in a rainy day fund.

Thus the question: Should any of that money be used to bolster public schools and local governments? Democrats think so and proposed the Kids and Communities First Fund, which would contain $400 million — $265 million from the tax surplus, $120 million from the rainy day fund and $15 million from the “fracking” tax the governor has proposed.

Area representatives Ron Gerberry, Sean O’Brien, Bob Hagan and Tom Letson are pushing a bill to restore funding for local governments.

While true bipartisanship is too much to expect in this presidential election year in which Ohio is a major player, there was “a glimmer of hope for schools and local governments that they could see partial relief from heavy state budget cuts,” the Columbus Dispatch reported.

The glimmer was seen as Republicans in the House passed a budget revision bill. While rejecting the Democrats’ proposal for $400 million, a Republican legislator, Ron Amstutz, indicated that he would willing to work with Democrats to decide what to do with the surplus.

Huge surplus

Amstutz noted that there could be as much as an $800 billion surplus by the end of the fiscal year.

“Our local partners need our attention, but I think they need it in a cooperative mode, not in a fighting mode,” the Dispatch quoted the Republican from Wooster, chairman of the House Finance Committee, as saying. “And frankly, there are some spending problems at the local level that need to be addressed.”

The House voted 62-34 on the bill, which is now before the Senate.

But a major question looms: What will Kasich do if the Senate follows the House’s lead and passes the budget revision bill? The House version did not contain the “fracking” tax that the governor wants.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.