Budget cuts only part of state school funding remedy

By Paul Souhrada Associated Press Published:

"We think they're manageable," Greg Browning, director of the Office of Budget and Management, told lawmakers Wednesday

Browning made his comments during a meeting of the House Finance Committee, which is debating a $5.23 billion education budget to take effect July 1. House Republican leaders proposed $100 million in cuts from non-education spending as a way to free up money for schools.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Tom Johnson of New Concord, also would temporarily suspend a budget mechanism created to give taxpayers a break when either tax receipts exceed projections or agencies spend less than anticipated. That would pump $200 million more into school building aid and a new emergency fund to help cash-strapped districts.

Members of the committee, though, for the second day in a row, focused on the budget cuts _ particularly those coming from relatively small agencies and commissions _ and the fact that the Legislature just passed the state's two-year spending plan in June.

"I have real concerns," said Rep. Rose Vesper, R-Cincinnati. "Everybody worked real hard to put together one of the best budgets the House, Senate and governor ever put forth."

Browning resisted lawmakers' requests to give specifics about what programs would lose under the proposed cuts, saying those decisions had not been made. But he emphasized that Gov. George Voinovich is not interested in gutting programs.

He also indicated that it might not be a bad idea to exempt smaller agencies that would have a difficult time absorbing even the 0.5 percent to 3 percent cuts proposed in the House plan.

And he stuck by a Voinovich-backed plan to ask voters to consider a penny-per-dollar increase in the state sales tax to raise $1.1 billion more annually for schools.

But he said lawmakers can forget about touching the state's rainy day fund, which now sits at roughly $900 million.

A newspaper report today said Senate Minority Leader Ben Espy, R-Columbus, has written Senate President Richard H. Finan, R-Cincinnati, a letter saying Senate Democrats will support a sales tax increase to help phase in a school funding plan over four or five years.

Espy said in a story published in The Columbus Dispatch that the tax boost could be less than the 1-cent increase Voinovich supports. Senate Democrats opposed Voinovich's plan in June.

The letter listed several funding proposals favored by the 12-member Senate Democratic caucus. They included expanding the sales -tax base, eliminating the inventory tax on business and requiring that part of new property tax revenues be pooled at the county level to eliminate disparities between cities and suburbs.

"We're the only caucus that's had a plan, and it's time someone said they accept or reject our plan," Espy said Thursday.

Senate Democrats favor many of the funding changes recommended by BEST, a coalition of educators, business officials, organized labor and civic leaders.

Browning called the cuts a building block toward meeting the order to fix the state's method of paying for public schools. But he cautioned lawmakers against thinking they can fix the problem by shrinking state spending in other areas.

The high court ruled in March that the current system is unconstitutional because it does not guarantee an adequate education for all students and relies too heavily on local property taxes. The court gave the Legislature one year to come up with a solution.

"Cuts are part of the solution," Browning said. "But we can't fix the problem with cuts alone. We need a more comprehensive solution."

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