Lawmakers OK plan for funding

By Paul Souhrada Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS _ Lawmakers have hit the halfway point in their race to meet a court-ordered deadline to change the way the state pays for schools.

But some might argue the second half is all uphill.

The House and Senate on Sunday approved a plan to pump more money into schools, beef up a school building assistance program and modestly trim property tax bills.

Still to come, though, is a way to pay for the changes beyond next school year. Legislators are considering a plan to ask voters to raise the state sales tax by a half-cent per dollar _ to 5.5 percent _ to pay for the plan. The House might take up the issue today.

Overall, the proposal would provide about $550 million per year in added funding and about $230 million in property-tax relief.

Facing a Wednesday deadline for putting issues on the May 5 ballot, the Senate, by a 21-11 vote Sunday, passed part of the plan that changes the way money is distributed to schools.

All 21 Senate Republicans approved the plan. Eleven Democrats, protesting the elimination of a pet provision, stood firm against it.

"The piece eliminated was the only real, substantive property tax relief in the package," said State Senator Leigh Herington, a Democrat of Kent who voted against the plan. "We projected that could have eliminated up to 12-mills of real property tax under the provision, subject to public referendum."

"The provision's removal could be fatal when it comes time to determine whether we met the (Ohio Supreme) court's requirements concerning DeRolph (case)," he added. The court's March 1997 ruling in the DeRolph case forced the legislature to revise the way schools are funded in Ohio.

The House followed about an hour later, voting 75-22 in favor of the proposal. The bipartisan showing had 49 Republicans voting for the bill along with 26 Democrats, while 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted no.

"This plan takes a major step forward in addressing our school-funding issue," said State Representative Ann Womer Benjamin, a Republican of Aurora. "It's not perfect, but it's certainly the best plan we could expect to pass in both houses."

The plan includes a series of budget cuts for state agencies and shifts that money, plus the new tax money, to primary and secondary education.

Democrats also said the plan was not the best possible response to the Ohio Supreme Court's order to fix the way the state pays for public education.

But Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, urged his colleagues to support the plan for the small but significant steps it takes.

Concessions won by House Democrats include more money for all-day and everyday kindergarten in the poorest school districts, money for alternative schools to house troubled and disruptive students, an extra $10 million for vocational education and an emphasis on smaller class sizes in early grades.

The Supreme Court last year gave the state until March 24 to come up with a plan to make funding more equal among districts and end an over-reliance on property taxes.

If lawmakers and voters approve the plan, Judge Linton Lewis of Perry County Common Pleas Court also must OK it. His ruling could then be appealed to the Supreme Court.

If voters reject the tax plan, the state will try to convince the courts that it has done enough to improve funding since 1991, when the original lawsuit was filed by a coalition of school districts.

House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, warned of deep budget cuts if taxes are not raised.

"Once you pass (the bill), you are obligated to fund it," Davidson said.

If voters don't go for the tax change _ and tax receipts don't grow faster than expected, lawmakers will be looking to the rest of the budget for the school money, she said.

Rep. Jeff Jacobson, R-Vandalia, doesn't think that will be a problem. He said tax receipts already are more than $150 million ahead of projections this year, and should continue to grow.

Earlier, a joint House-Senate conference committee lost the Senate Democrats when it rejected a provision that would have allowed local school districts to change a property tax to an income tax if the rate did not exceed 1 percent.

Republicans objected to the amendment because districts could have made the switch without voter approval.

Sen. Roy Ray, R-Akron and co-chairman of the conference committee, said the amendment had some support in the House, but the opposition threatened the whole package.

Sen. Linda Furney, D-Toledo, and another committee member, said taking out the provision helped to strip the bill of property-tax relief and local control of schools.

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