The Ohio Senate unanimously approved its two-year state budget plan. The House version won overwhelming support, from Republicans and Democrats. With Republicans in charge of the governor’s office and practically everything else at the Statehouse, the task of reaching agreement on a final budget document would follow soon, or at least by the June 30 deadline. Oops. The two chambers proved unable to get the job done, the state now operating on a temporary budget for 17 days.
If Republicans are embarrassed, they should be. It’s not that the state will suffer in some significant way. Rather, many factors make this a favorable time for putting together a state budget. That includes ample revenue, reflected in a current surplus of more than $600 million and a rainy day fund of $2.7 billion.
The last time state lawmakers approved such an interim budget was a decade ago. They faced difficult circumstances, starting with the massive hole in the budget resulting from the Great Recession. That meant slashing spending and confronting ways to increase revenue, triggering arguments about adding electronic slot machines and whether the state should go forward with the final installment of a 21 percent reduction in individual income tax rates.
Add to the equation divided government, Democrats then with the House majority and the governor’s office, Republicans in command of the Senate, and a big election year looming in 2010. So circumstances were ripe for sharp differences and a delayed budget.
What about this time? There was an early indicator. Recall lawmakers letting slide the March deadline for the state transportation budget, as the House and Senate disagreed about the size of the state gas tax increase, which took effect on Monday. More, Larry Householder prevailed in the heated race for House speaker with support from equivalent numbers of Republicans and Democrats. That translated to a state budget plan with notable input from the Democratic minority.
Still, this bridging of policy differences shouldn’t be so hard, or lead to the testy exchanges over the weekend, the speaker at one point describing criticism from the Senate as the “most bizarre contrived excuse for continual procrastination I have ever heard.” Did he later add an exclamation point in saying about the budget, “If there can be some decisions made, we’ll pass one”? It is puzzling that negotiators went a day or more without talking.
Both chambers propose an additional reduction in income tax rates. The House puts the cut at 6.6 percent, the Senate at 8 percent. Actually, Ohio doesn’t need another tax cut that skews heavily toward those at the highest income rungs. Rates have been reduced already by one-third. In that way, the House version is better. The House plan also gets the edge in narrowing the $1-billion-a-year tax break for business income, cutting in half an exemption that has done little to boost job growth or economic activity.
Another difference involves support for school districts with large numbers of students in poverty. Gov. Mike DeWine proposed $550 million for wraparound services, such as mental health counseling, mentors and after-school programs. The House added $125 million to the sum largely for the good reason that insufficient resources went to poor rural schools. That is a better choice than expanding tax cuts for those who do not need them.
If the chambers are at odds over new high school graduation standards or repairing the process for state intervention in failing schools, then deal with them in separate legislation, as is more appropriate, anyway. The point is the moment for compromise arrived several days ago. Surely, Republicans don’t want the added embarrassment of falling short when July 17 arrives.