Ohio lawmakers reach deal on $850M budget gap

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2009 8:23 AM

State lawmakers ended an impasse over a budget gap late Wednesday by agreeing to combine Gov. Ted Strickland's tax cut delay with a pilot project to test new construction rules, averting cuts to school districts and a working holiday.

Lawmakers planned to vote on the deal Thursday once it can be translated into legislation.

The main pieces of the deal include a delay in the final 4.2 percent planned reduction in income taxes to fill an $850 million budget gap, a pilot program for proposed changes in state construction procedures and a change in the procedures school districts must use to get out of a requirement that they provide all-day kindergarten, said Keary McCarthy, a spokesman for House Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat.

Strickland's tax cut delay had run into a wall in the Senate, with the majority of Republicans refusing to vote for any plan that contained it because they viewed it as a tax increase. A small group of Republicans _ likely around five _ is expected to vote for it Thursday in return for the construction rules pilot program and the all-day kindergarten measure, under which a local school board would have to pass a resolution offering justification for why it can't provide all-day kindergarten.

With Senate Democrats also supporting the plan, it has enough votes to get through the chamber.

The deal ends roughly two months of uncertainty and increasingly tense negotiations that left school districts wondering whether they would be forced to shoulder the burden of $850 million in cuts. Lawmakers were forced to scramble to get a deal done before the end of the year because the law forbids them from changing a tax rate retroactively.

Strickland, a Democrat, had threatened to call lawmakers back into session over a planned holiday recess if they left town without a deal.

The construction changes would bring Ohio in line with the vast majority of states, which allow for the negotiation of projects through a general contractor instead of with a multitude of smaller contractors on different facets of the project. Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee has said that the university could save hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects if it were able to use so-called single-prime contracting.

The pilot project would involve the demonstration of the changes on a large, medium and small project, said state Sen. Capri Cafaro, the Senate Democratic leader. Democrats are against ushering the changes in for all projects because they believe the proposal has not been properly vetted in the committee process.

"This is an opportunity for us to objectively evaluate what is working and what is not," Cafaro said. "We have to make sure we don't make the perfect the enemy of the good. There is a fair compromise on the table that is amenable to everyone."