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Ohio lawmakers begin budget debate

by MARC KOVAC | RPC CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published: February 1, 2017 7:18 PM

COLUMBUS — The Republican heads of the legislative panels that will spearhead deliberations on the biennial state budget are mostly reserving public comment on Gov. John Kasich’s two-year spending plan.

Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell), chairman of the House Finance Committee, and Sen. Scott Oelslager (R-North Canton), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters Wednesday that it’s too early in the legislative process, and lawmakers are still digesting what the governor has proposed.

But both also voiced a commitment to ensuring education, infrastructure, community safety and other basic public services are funded appropriately.

“It’s a tight budget, I think everybody realizes that…,” Smith said. “There’s no rosy revenue projections, I don’t think, at this point… We’ve got to get creative and innovative….”

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) meanwhile, voiced many of the same priorities as Republicans, but he slammed the governor’s budget for proposing an income tax cut with a sales tax hike rather than investing more in schools and local governments.

“All I saw was tax shifting,” Schiavoni said. “… I’m reassured to hear that both the Finance chairs really want to work [education and other priority issues]. We need to do that first.”

House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) added, “The good news is that we’re an independent body of government. Just because the governor sends us a budget that looks one way, we certainly have the opportunity to shape it and mold it, and that’s what we’re there for. I trust that we’re going to do a fair amount of that as we’ve done in the past.”

The four legislative leaders offered opening comments Wednesday during the Ohio Associated Press’ 2017 Legislative and Political Preview in Columbus. The day included question-and-answer sessions with Kasich and other statewide office holders, as well as Ohio Republican and Democratic party leaders.

The opening session offered a snapshot of the coming budget debate. The House Finance Committee began its deliberations on the main biennial budget Wednesday afternoon, with plans for the introduction of separate transportation and other budgets in coming days.

While mostly reserving criticism of the executive budget, Smith said the governor’s proposed increase in taxes on oil and gas produced via horizontal hydraulic fracturing likely would not be palatable to House Republicans.

He acknowledged that the governor’s sales tax plan was narrower in scope than his earlier proposals. But Smith said he wasn’t sure how House Republicans would respond.

“We have not had a caucus with Republicans yet, our 66 members, to even talk through this,” he said.

Oelslager also said Senate Republicans have not yet discussed the governor’s budget. The majority party could support some tax reform measures, including a decrease in the number of income tax brackets.

“I know that our caucus is always open to tax reform proposals,” Oelslager said. “We’re trying to make the tax system as simple as possible for Ohioans….”

Democratic lawmakers aren’t supportive of the governor’s sales tax proposal.

“It [nickel and diming] working-class people,” Schiavoni said. “Middle income people, low-income earners, they have to pay this increased sales tax when they go buy the shirt for their kid for school… These increases in sales tax, I don’t think it’s narrow at all.”


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