SUDDES: New state budget will reveal true priorities

The biggest job the next Ohio General Assembly faces will be crafting a new state budget, for the two years beginning July 1, a budget fashioned in cooperation – that’s the hope anyway – with Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration.

The governor will set his priorities in the as-introduced budget, which DeWine must submit within four weeks of the General Assembly’s opening session (which will be held Jan. 3).

The legislature will massage DeWine’s plan during hearings and debate in the House and Senate, respectively, then in a Senate-House conference committee, which is where some of Ohio’s best shall-games get played. Then the 2,000-odd-page bill will land on DeWine’s desk.

When money’s tight in Columbus, it’s easy to say no to all the agencies and lobbies that want more state spending than a governor proposes. But when Ohio’s coffers are awash in cash – as they now appear to be – it’s tougher to say “no” and easier and politically more rewarding to say “yes.”

That’s where an old budget maxim should kick in: If you want to know what a state or local government actually wants to do, as opposed to what that government says it wants to do, see what it actually spends, and on what.

For instance: The state’s cash pile could and arguably should be used to continue underwriting Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan. The widely applauded plan was folded into the current two-year budget but wasn’t funded beyond that.

Rather than bolster the state’s investment in its future – which is one way to think about school spending – Statehouse Republicans’ overwhelming temptation will be to do what they’ve done for almost 40 years: Grab a headline by shaving Ohio’s income tax rates because, hey, everyone knows that’ll boost business investment and jobs in Ohio.

Turns out that things “everyone knows” don’t always turn out to be accurate. For example, Republicans won control of the state Senate in November 1984 by vowing to cut income taxes that Democratic legislators and Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste had boosted in 1983 to close gaping holes in Ohio’s budget caused by the 1981-82 recession.

In 1985, when the General Assembly’s tax-cut show began, per capita personal income in Ohio was 95.6% of national per capita income. But 36 years later, in 2021, Ohioans’ per capita personal income was 88.68% of national per capita income. If tax cuts – in lieu of social investment – were supposed to lead Ohio to prosperity, someone followed the wrong map.

Budgeting aside, in terms of heated Statehouse debate in 2023, abortion has to lead the list of likely flashpoints, far outweighing the budget. Then there are the continuing attempts to stoke fear about transgender Ohioans.

Funny thing, for generations, some self-styled conservatives railed against Medicare and Medicaid because those two health-care programs would, supposedly, interfere with “the doctor-patient relationship.” But in terms of coming between Ohioans and their doctors, what about the relationship between pregnant Ohioans and their physicians – and trans Ohioans and theirs?

MR. SPEAKER: Ohio House Republicans last week elected a new caucus leader. Term-limits are retiring the House’s current GOP leader, Speaker Robert R. Cupp, of Lima. Because Republicans will rule the 99-seat House 67-32 or 68-31 – a modern-day record – whomever House Republicans pick as caucus leader will become House speaker.

The three candidates were Reps. Derek Merrin, of suburban Toledo; Phil Plummer, of Dayton, once Montgomery County’s sheriff; and Jason Stephens, of Lawrence County’s Kitts Hill. The House Republican caucus elected Merrin as caucus leader, hence, speaker-to-be, with Plummer as his deputy.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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