By Marc Kovac
The Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature has signed off on a $62 billion biennial budget bill, capping months of debate on tax reform, school funding and other issues.
GOP members mostly supported the package, saying tax cuts, job training and business-boosting provisions will further the state’s economic recovery.
“Ohio is open for business,” Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, said Thursday. “We are open for jobs.”
But Democrats called the legislation, to be signed by Gov. John Kasich before the start of the new fiscal year Monday, a disappointing mix of ill-advised law changes, with tax breaks for the wealthy and little relief for schools, local governments and needy residents.
Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, said the tax breaks in the budget would benefit the wealthy while making the working poor pay more. Minimum-wage workers, he said, will pay about $12 more a year while higher-income residents will pay about thousands less.
“This helps the 1 percent making at least $335,000,” he said. “They are a $6,000 winner in this tax plan.”
The Ohio Senate moved the conference committee report on the bill — essentially the final version negotiated by members of the House and Senate — on a vote of 21-11, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition.
The 53-44 vote in the House was comparable, with seven Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.
The budget outlines spending over the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years, the bulk of it devoted to schools and health-care programs, including Medicaid.
Sen. Capri Cafaro of Liberty, D-32nd, an advocate of Medicaid expansion and reform not included in the budget, called the budget “fiscally irresponsible, heartless, cowardly and short-sighted.”
At 5,000-plus pages, the two-year spending plan also includes a number of policy changes that backers say will help position the state for further economic growth.
“This is about the people of Ohio — all of the people of Ohio,” said Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina. “It’s about giving all Ohioans an opportunity to succeed.”
Front and center in the legislation is a tax-reform package that includes a 10-percent personal income-tax cut over three years, a 50-percent reduction in small business taxes, an increase in state sales tax to 5.75 percent from 5.5 percent, a broadening of the Commercial Activity Tax, and the end of the state’s 12.5-percent property tax rollback on future and replacement levies.
“Millions of middle-class Ohioans will receive a tax cut through this proposal,” said Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton, who heads the chamber’s finance panel.
Also included is a change in the school-funding formula that backers say amounts to the largest influx in state aid to districts in at least a decade, as well as increased consideration of graduation rates for state funding of universities.
“Our focus in this budget was to adequately care for the educational needs of all Ohio children,” Oelslager said. He added later, “This bill ... makes a major, major commitment to funding K-12 education in this state and laying the foundation for economic development and workforce development so our kids can compete in a world economy.”
The budget, however, did not include Kasich’s Medicaid eligibility expansion, though Faber said there is a Medicaid expansion of sorts, with increased funding providing coverage to an additional 231,000 needy Ohioans.
Republicans say they’ll tackle Medicaid in coming months. Sen. Tom Sawyer, D- Akron, ranking minority member of the Senate finance committee, said Republicans did little to address “fundamental concerns” raised by minority-party members.
That includes more funding for schools and local governments, greater public scrutiny of government activities, and enhanced access to health care for women.
and low-income residents.