Mike DeWine did not deliver what many local officials wanted to see in his two-year state budget plan. The governor left the Local Government Fund largely at the level of his predecessor, John Kasich, who whacked the fund as part of covering the cost of big tax cuts. What the governor has proposed, to the applause of local officials, is additional money targeted to specific needs, such as nearly doubling the state’s commitment to child protective services.

An even more striking example comes in the form of new funding for indigent defense, or providing competent legal counsel to defendants without the means to afford representation. The governor proposes an increase from the current level of $38 million a year to $100 million in each year of the next biennium. That’s an increase of 162 percent.

The added funding is long overdue. This isn't a matter of discretion. The state, via its counties, has a constitutional obligation to ensure adequate defense counsel. Yet the state hardly has stepped up to meet its responsibility. The County Commissioners Association of Ohio notes since 1979, the state has been carrying less than 50 percent of the cost. The past 10 years, the share has slipped to an average 35 percent, reaching a low of 26 percent in 2009.

That means counties are left with a tab they must pick up, something especially hard for smaller counties. Still, even the larger Summit County illustrates the burden. The county devotes roughly $5 million annually to indigent defense for the common pleas and juvenile courts. The state reimburses the county for around 40 percent, leaving a net local expense of $3 million. The substantial increase the governor proposes would translate to an additional $750,000 to $1 million a year for the county, the state share thus approaching 60 percent.

No question, county officials are pleased, and keen to see state lawmakers follow the governor’s lead. Yet the new money amounts to a good beginning. That 60 percent still leaves counties with a heavy expense, and if they are struggling with the task, the state risks having a problem with the concept of equal protection under the law, or hardly a trifle.

In its budget request to the Office of Budget and Management, the state Public Defender’s Office argued, “The system must be funded so that counsel can be effective and not be economically coerced into conceding guilt where it does not exist or be prevented from providing representation where it is required.” It is not acceptable for some counties to ensure adequate indigent defense, and others face the prospect of affording something less.

The public defender’s budget request described the indigent defense program as “drastically underfunded” and verging on “system failure.” The governor’s budget would help. At the same time, the state has a duty to weigh how it could do more than he proposes.

If anything, the moment is ripe for rethinking the essential fiscal partnership between local governments and the state, even forming a star-studded policy task force to examine the issue and report back with recommendations. If the Local Government Fund isn’t coming back to previous levels, perhaps there are ways for the state to expand the targeted approach of the governor. Perhaps indigent defense is a place to start, the state picking up close to or the entire cost, ensuring the state fulfills the constitutional guarantee. That might even involve going to a public defender system for counties.

As things stand, the governor has proposed a marked improvement. Yet the challenge with constitutional guarantees is that “good enough” rarely, if ever, passes muster.