Ohio budget debate mired in gridlock

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2009 5:26 PM

Ohio's budget is immobilized as the year's end approaches, suffering from a gaping $850 million hole and a messy mix of competing policy and political forces.

Worry is intensifying across the state among school districts, social service agencies and state employee unions that could potentially suffer from the lack of revenue. Many wonder how the dispute will be resolved.

And it is not merely Democrats fighting Republicans. Both parties are divided.

Black Democrats, controlling five Senate votes, have broken with Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's administration over a rewrite of state construction rules that the governor spearheaded. Senate Republicans who control the chamber's majority are fractured over Strickland's proposal to suspend for two years the last installment of a 21-percent income tax cut.

Leaders of both parties are struggling to cobble together just the right proposal to eke out a majority of votes on the budget bill, end the stalemate and preserve their political futures.

The harder they tried this week, though, the worse things seemed to get. Each add-on intended to gain a vote in one party or one chamber _ whether money-saving changes to construction rules, sentencing practices or state park drilling _ lost one somewhere else.

Insiders say matters are complicated by the impending 2010 elections, in which many legislators are either up for election or fighting for the interests of their favored gubernatorial candidate. Democrat Strickland's chief opponent in next year's election is former Republican congressman John Kasich.

Many Republicans philosophically oppose postponing the tax cut, which they view as a tax increase. Some also are resentful that Strickland did not include it in his initial $50 million, two-year budget blueprint, where they could have begrudgingly voted in favor of it while pointing to all the other good things the budget had done for their constituents.

Instead, Strickland balanced the plan by legalizing video-run slot machines at racetracks. Five Senate Republicans reluctantly supported the budget bill with the slots included _ only to have the devices sidelined by a court challenge. With the political price for that pro-gambling vote already paid, the budget-balancing revenue was then lost.

According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Ohio is one of only nine states where the two houses of the Legislature are controlled by opposing parties.

At first, things went smoothly.

After passage of Strickland's first two-year budget in 2007, the governor and then-House Speaker Jon Husted, a Republican, embraced in friendly, bipartisan congratulations over their success. All but one of 132 state lawmakers supported.

It was dubbed a "kum-bay-ah moment" of bipartisanship in state government.