From Cleveland Plain Dealer…
Panel charged with suggesting Ohio budget solutions concludes in disagreement
By Aaron Marshall, The Plain Dealer
Friday, December 17, 2010, 7:00 AM
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A state study panel launched to bring bipartisan answers to the state's budget crisis has ended in disagreement and disarray, with Republicans and Democrats each turning in separate sets of recommendations this week.
Marred by partisan bickering from jump street over the scope of the work as well as when to start, the panel took almost a year to begin meeting and then held only four sessions. The dueling reports -- which were released almost two weeks late -- showed much different approaches from Republicans and Democrats on how to tackle a projected $8 billion shortfall in the next budget, but didn't break much new ground.
In their report, Republicans were adamant that taxes cannot be raised to help fill the hole, a position held by Governor-elect John Kasich as well as House Speaker William G. Batchelder, who have both signed "no new taxes" pledges. They pushed privatization efforts, oil drilling on state parkland, collective bargaining reform and continuation of state furlough days for state employees. They also suggested that Ohio change Medicaid eligibility rules to cut the rolls.
Democrats were silent on the tax issue and favored preserving state programs by turning to Congress for additional assistance in Medicaid and unemployment compensation fund debt, as well as changing the definition of an "independent contractor."
Democrats have claimed that improperly classifying employees as independent contractors when they really are employees costs the state as much as $223 million in foregone tax revenue and as much as $510 million in unpaid Bureau of Workers' Compensation premiums. Those costs, based on a 2009 Ohio Attorney General's office report, are incurred because those employing independent contractors don't pay BWC premiums, unemployment compensation taxes and don't take out state income taxes.
Some of the Republican recommendations will likely be implemented by the GOP-controlled legislature next year. The reports also could serve as an outline of the prickly policy debates likely to dominate next year's state budget discussion.
Rep. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat and panel co-chair, said that political differences among panel members that hobbled the committee are a preview of what's coming next year when the pressure of actually balancing the budget raises the stakes.
"I think that's going to cause a little friction in trying to resolve the differences we have," he said. "It's going to be a very difficult process next year and in order to improve our fiscal climate, we're going to have to make some changes."
Sykes said one of the most important components of the reports is sentencing reform that both sides mention as worthy of consideration. The reforms would move some Ohio prisoners serving shorter sentences out of jail, saving the state money.
"It's something that we have been trying to encourage during this General Assembly, but it's been a very difficult thing to do in the political climate we have," he said.
State Sen. Shannon Jones, a Springfield Republican who was a panel co-chair, acknowledged that the budget study committee fell short of her hopes. She said, in retrospect, that perhaps her hopes were too high for an election-year panel tackling thorny budget issues.
"My goal was to have robust and vigorous discussion of all of the options on the table to transform state government," she said. "I don't know why it didn't end up being that way. Perhaps I didn't have the proper expectations for it."
Jones said she was most excited about a Republican proposal to review and reform Ohio's 27-year-old collective bargaining law to give governments more flexibility in personnel expenses as well as promotion and retention of employees.