Ohio House panel boosts school funding, drops auditor provision before clearing $71.5B budget



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COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio House panel approved a two-year, $71.5 billion state operating budget Monday after boosting state funds for schools and scrapping language that would have allowed county jails to be privatized.

Other revisions to the spending blueprint would set aside $1.25 million to mail absentee ballot applications to voters in the swing state ahead of next year's presidential election.

The Republican-dominated House Finance Committee cleared the measure on a party-line 21-11 vote. The full House is expected to take up the measure Wednesday.

The panel already stripped major elements of Republican Gov. John Kasich's initial tax proposal from the bill, including tax increases on certain business and sales taxes, cigarettes and oil and gas drilling that were used to fund an income tax reduction.

House Republicans were generally resistant to Kasich's plans to increase taxes on businesses. They want a commission to study potential tax changes.

Democrats in the GOP-controlled chamber sought tax changes they claimed would better serve all income brackets, help schools and restore certain Medicaid benefits that Republicans trimmed.

Rep. Denise Driehaus, the House finance panel's top Democrat, said her caucus believed the spending plan creates health care barriers for some low-income residents and does not work for middle-class Ohioans.

"We think that this is moving us in the wrong direction," Driehaus, of Cincinnati, told her colleagues.

Finance Chairman Ryan Smith called the proposal "pro-growth" and said it would help schools, small businesses and residents.

The House adjusted Kasich's school-funding formula and added $281 million to what the governor proposed. The revisions would hold harmless 93 school districts that had been poised to lose state funding from the phase out of two tax revenue streams, Smith said.

The panel also dropped a provision it had added to prohibit the state's auditor from reviewing compliance with public records law.

Smith, a Bidwell Republican, said the wording was removed to give legislators more time to assess the implications of the issue. "However, many in the General Assembly do not believe the Auditor has this authority as defined by the Ohio Revised Code," he said in a statement.

State Auditor Dave Yost had been angry over the amendment that prevented him from ruling on public records complaints that state agencies are violating public records laws. He had proposed making such rulings part of a program aimed at resolving records disputes before they resulted in a lawsuit.

In a statement on Monday's change, Yost commended House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger "for his deft navigation of the many difficult policy choices in the current budget bill."

Other House changes added Monday would:

—Remove a provision barring unionized charter school employees from collecting state pensions.

—Create a $20 million grant program to help local governments pay for public-safety-related capital costs.

—Provide an option for universities to raise tuition by 2 percent or $200 and for community colleges to increase tuition by 2 percent or $100.

—Allow a doctor to report drug use to the local drug task force.

—Suggest the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy provide training on encounters with companion animals.

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