Senate Republicans are preparing to make additional reductions to the state budget as approved by the House last week, and that could mean less for central Ohio school districts, especially Columbus.
Already unhappy that the House took longer than usual to pass the budget — shrinking the timetable for the Senate to act — senators also don’t like the fact that the House came up short of filling the budget's projected $800 million shortfall.
Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, says his members plan deeper cuts. And this won’t simply mean finding another $170 million to add to the roughly $630 million in changes the House made toward the $800 million target, which was set in April as a result of continued poor tax revenues.
For example, Senate Republicans, along with Gov. John Kasich, are not fans of pieces of the House’s $106 million in gambling changes, such as adding video poker to racinos.
Some are questioning if that move, officially an expansion of the Ohio Lottery, is constitutional. Casinos operators also are raising objections.
But removing the gambling provisions also removes a revenue source, making the remaining budget hole wider.
The Senate’s biggest cost cutting could come from the two largest pieces of the budget: K-12 education and Medicaid.
There is talk of freezing school funding for two years, essentially giving districts the same amount each year they are getting right now.
Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, a veteran lawmaker who has been involved in numerous education policy debates, said funding for a number of districts has been strong the past four years. However, he said, a two-year freeze “would be very difficult to achieve.”
“For those of us who believe education should be a priority, I’ve got concerns that a majority of the school districts in this state may lose money under the current budget,” Gardner said. Obhof has expressed a similar sentiment.
If the Senate erases the cuts for the 351 districts set to lose funding under the House-passed plan (it was about 390 under Kasich’s proposed budget), that could mean additional money for districts such as Worthington ($1.5 million), Grandview Heights ($753,000), and Lakewood ($1.4 million).
But overall, the Senate wants spending reductions. For districts like Olentangy and 14 in Franklin County, the bigger question is whether the Senate will reduce the proposed 5.5 percent annual funding cap.
Dropping that to zero would mean significantly less money for districts including Columbus ($24.8 million), South-Western ($14.2 million) and Hilliard ($5.2 million).
“A 5.5 percent gain for a very high-growth district is not the same as a gain cap for a modestly growing district, or one that is barely growing at all,” Gardner said. “All capped districts are not equal.”
The Senate also will decide how they want to factor in the continued reductions in tangible personal property tax reimbursements for schools, and the varying local tax effort of different districts.
“What if a district is gaining students but doesn’t attempt to raise local dollars? Should that be a factor?” Gardner said.
Other potential budget changes to keep an eye on:
• Across-the-board cuts. The House made 1.5 percent in across-the-board cuts to some agencies, and the Senate reportedly is considering going to 3 percent.
• Prisons. The Senate would like to trim about $90 million from the prison system. This could involve more diversion of low-level offenders.
• Medicaid. The Senate would like to take about $200 million out of Medicaid spending, though how is unclear right now. The Kasich administration is pushing for the Senate to reinstate its proposed shift of long-term care patients to Medicaid Managed Care.
The Senate and the governor also are not particularly happy about an accounting maneuver by the House: pushing a $184 million Medicaid payment into the next budget to save money.
• Opioid crisis. The House added $171 million to address the epidemic. Obhof has said the Senate also will make it a priority and has signaled he has some of his own ideas in mind, stressing it doesn’t always take money.
The House plan includes earmarks of $130 million for treatment, child-protection services and kinship care, among other spending. The Senate may look to pay for some of that plan with federal money or other fees, and they have questions about accountability for some of the local spending.
• Senators are considering cuts to some spending increases included by the House, which totaled about $160 million. The Senate also is taking a close look at House-added earmarks, such as $5 million to Ohio State University to create a Leadership Institute for training future elected officials.