Ohio’s $62 billion budget bill gets into social engineering too

The bill that Ohio Gov. John Ka- sich signed Sunday was labeled a budget bill, but it was also a vehicle that the Legislature used to push through laws that restrict abortion, undercut the state’s open meetings law, shift the tax burden, promote charter schools and vouchers at the expense of public education and mortgage the Ohio Turnpike to provide construction money that may or may not be used on the Turnpike, but will be paid for by Turnpike customers.

And that’s just a thumbnail of what’s included in a $62 billion spending bill that was three-feet thick (which begs the question of how many members of the Ohio General Assembly bothered to read a law that will determine who pays, who spends, who wins and who loses for the next two years).

And here’s the kicker: It could have been worse.

Kasich uses veto pen

Before signing the bill Sunday, Kasich, to his credit, issued 22 line-item vetoes, many of them exposing special interests that legislators had inserted into the bill. He could have and should have used an even heftier veto pen.

One of the most significant vetoes, was his overturning an attempt by legislators to block his administration from expanding Medicaid to additional low-income residents. That action will make 366,000 Ohioans eligible for coverage beginning in 2014 under President Barack Obama’s federal health care law. Republicans in the House and Senate were willing to allow hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicaid payment bypass Ohio, to the detriment of the state’s working poor and the doctors and hospitals that presently provide them care with little likelihood of receiving payment.

That was just one part of an ideologically packed budget bill.

It will be years before some of the other effects of the budget are felt. The budget reduces the statewide income tax rate gradually over three years, beginning with an 8.5 percent tax cut in 2013 and moving to a 10 percent tax reduction by 2015. But it increases the state sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5.75 percent. Democrats claim that will disproportionately affect the poor and middle class. Republicans claim not.

A voucher explosion

The expansion of vouchers for families whose income level is below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines starts small, with 2,000 kindergartners eligible for $4,250 a year to attend a private rather than public school. But it will grow. The American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group, estimates that by the year 2025, between 60 and 70 percent of Ohio families will be eligible for the voucher program.

This is another assault on public education by a Legislature that has been single-minded for nearly two decades, expanding charter schools and voucher programs at every turn, without awaiting evidence of their efficacy.

In a day of deteriorating infrastructure, spending $3 billion for road and bridge projects is a good investment. Increasing Turnpike tolls 2.7 percent for the next 10 years to pay for those projects is taking from Peter to pay Paul.

We’d have liked to have seen a 23rd line item veto from Kasich, scratching the bill’s expansion of exceptions to the state’s open meetings law that will allow more secret sessions for the purpose of discussing potential economic development. The people have a stake when government becomes involved in economic development and they shouldn’t be locked out of the process until it’s too late to raise objections. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work.

Of course, the whole process of loading up a budget bill with special interest provisions that are at best tangential to the budget is an assault on the democratic process.

Tacking new restrictions on a woman’s right to choose onto a budget bill is a good example. Requiring a doctor to perform an ultrasound examination on a woman considering an abortion to detect a fetal heartbeat and then requiring the doctor to inform the woman if one is found isn’t a budget issue. It’s a medical issue that should be left to a doctor and patient, not legislators, and certainly not legislators working on a budget bill that is three feet thick.

Ohio’s intrusion into personal health care decisions — aimed exclusively at women and organizations such as Planned Parenthood that serve them — serves the narrow political interests of Kasich and the Legislature, not the people of the state.

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