COLUMBUS _ Republican and Democratic Ohio House members are sharing relatively
similar ideas with Gov. George Voinovich on how to improve a proposed school
House Democrats met with Voinovich for 90 minutes Thursday to discuss how
they would like to change a proposed constitutional amendment to increase
funding for primary and secondary education. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled
the current system unconstitutional in March and ordered the legislature
to come up with a new plan.
``We want to make sure the education budget is the highest priority of the
state,'' said Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron.
Sykes, ranking minority member of the House finance committee, is leading
the Democrats' effort to change the Republican resolutions that would place
an education reform package on the Nov. 4 ballot. The plan currently includes
an increase in the sales tax from five to six percent, a 12-cent per pack
increase in cigarette taxes and a cut in business property taxes.
Sykes said the Democrats would like to eliminate the sales and cigarette
tax increases from the plan.
The Democrats would like to eliminate reductions in the state income tax,
cut other loopholes out of the state tax plans and require the state to
cut the budgets of other state agencies.
Rep. Michael Verich, D-Warren, said the governor was receptive, but did
not indicate support for the changes. Verich said Voinovich liked the Democrats
idea to set the state education budget first then dole out what is left
over to other state programs.
Verich said before he and other lawmakers can endorse the ballot issue,
he has to receive from the administration a thorough definition of what
is included in an``adequate education'' and how exactly school districts
will be held responsible for producing results.
``I think we have to give the voters a clear idea of what we are giving
the schools are what we are getting in return,'' he said.
Cooperation among the parties in the House stands in contrast to continued
bipartisan feuding in the Ohio Senate that was touched off when the Republicans
released a June 29 memo from Sen. Leigh Herington, D-Kent, to Minority Leader
Ben Espy, D-Columbus, indicating the Democrats should find a way not to
support the Republican's school funding proposal.
In the memo, Herington wrote, ``It is imperative that we distinguish our
program from that of the Republicans, and that we not give up our political
advantage by agreeing to their program nor by being maneuvered into a position
which compromises the differences that we must articulate.''
Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, sent a letter to Espy Thursday
asking the Democrats for their input into the funding plan rather than waiting
to release their own ideas until after the Aug. 6 deadline to place an issue
on the fall ballot.
``If you and your colleagues have specific ideas on the best approach to
addressing the school funding issue, now is the time for them to surface.
Although that may not serve you politically, it will serve the interest
of those who have placed their trust in us to oversee state government in
Ohio,'' Finan said.
Earlier Thursday, the House finance committee concluded hearings for the
week on the funding plan. Finance Committee Chairman Tom Johnson, R-New
Concord, said he will be meeting with Sykes and other Democrats to share
ideas on changing the plan. Johnson will also be meeting with majority Republicans
in the House and Senate to get their input before releasing a revised version
of the ballot proposal.
``I think we will have a substitute resolution on Tuesday and plan to have
a vote on Thursday,'' he said.
Rep. Kerry Metzger, R-New Philadelphia, said he is one of several finance
committee members that wants to amend the plan to ensure it provides a long-term
solution to school funding.
Metzger and Sykes both said they would like to see the state earmark a portion
of the state income tax to ensure it provides ample resources for education.
The two also expressed similar reservations about the administration's plan
for property taxes. The plan now would allow voters district-by-district
to permit property taxes for schools to grow with inflation.
The supreme court ruling said the state's education system should be less
reliant on local property taxes because it creates great disparities in
the money available for education between rich and poor districts.
``I think if we earmark the income tax for education we can become less
reliant on property taxes,'' Metzger said.
Finance Committee Vice-Chairman Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, said House members
have not reached any consensus on the changes they want to make to the plan.
Amstutz said he wants the proposal to only make necessary changes to the
state constitution and not include items, such as tax increases, that could
be done by changes in the law.
Espy said the Senate Democrats will release their funding suggestions next
Johnson said he expects many Democrats will endorse the House plan because
he will work closely with them to craft it.
``I think they are as interested in funding education as the Republicans
are,'' he said.