You've probably heard that Ohio is facing an $8 billion shortfall. But you may not know that the state budget, which recently passed the House and is in now in the Senate, is nearly $5 billion more than the current budget.
This is still a tough economy, and while we're beginning to see some signs of recovery, there's still a long way to go. The projected $8 billion shortfall led to widespread expectations that there would be cuts included as part of this budget proposal, and there are. But spending $5 billion more, while making deep cuts in vital programs, raises serious questions about priorities. I believe we could protect critical services if Governor Kasich and the current majority made that a priority. And we could do that without raising taxes.
This budget makes damaging cuts to education-a total of more than $3 billion. These cuts will cost our local school districts millions, and will result in teacher layoffs, the loss of educational opportunities for our children, and the potential for larger classes. Dr. Bob Sommers, Governor Kasich's education advisor, says that it might be acceptable to have classes of up to 50 students. I think our children deserve better.
In terms of policy, this budget would allow a new kind of charter school to be opened by for-profit corporations, with little oversight in terms of academic performance or of the use of public funds. The Fordham Foundation, which supports the charter school movement, has said this lack of oversight would make Ohio the "laughingstock" of the nation. When funds for education are being cut, I cannot understand increasing funding for charters, which are failing at much higher rates-close to half are in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency. We need to be careful stewards of taxpayers' dollars-not allow them to be siphoned off into unaccountable private ventures.
In the area of health and human services, which are vital to many of our friends and neighbors, there will be serious cuts as well. More than $400 million is proposed to be cut from skilled nursing facilities. This is being proposed in order to "re-balance" the long-term care budget. The goal is to help seniors stay in their homes. This is a great goal, but the problem is that this budget cuts funding for PASSPORT and other programs that help provide those home-based services. And for those individuals who do need skilled nursing care, I remain concerned about the quality of care that will be provided to our most frail and most vulnerable citizens.
Finally, there are significant policy proposals in this budget which need a full debate and a stand-alone vote. Should Ohio sell six prisons? If so, what's a fair market value for these buildings that were built with taxpayer dollars? Should Ohio sell off the profits from the liquor distribution system? If so, what's that worth? Should local governments have control over their building projects, and the ability to ensure quality construction? These are big policy decisions, and they should not be part of the budget bill. That smacks of logrolling, where tough votes are shielded from public criticism. It's undemocratic, and if it means that we're selling off state assets at yard sale prices, the taxpayers should be outraged.
There were some areas of this budget that were improved before it left the House. The provision that provides a safety net for small counties in terms of local government funding is a significant improvement. The partial restoration of funding for health clinics is an improvement. But the budget remains deeply flawed. The priorities are wrong, and these are a few of the reasons I voted against the bill. Work remains to be done, and I hope the Senate will help to re-set priorities to protect education, local services, and vulnerable Ohioans. This can be done without raising taxes. Ohio deserves better, and I hope by the end of this process we'll see a better budget.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips represents the 92nd House District in southeastern Ohio, which includes Athens, Meigs, Morgan, and Western Washington counties. Much of her career has dealt with education policy. Rep. Phillips was the founding Executive Director of the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign, an initiative to promote quality public education in Ohio. She currently serves as the Assistant Minority Whip and sits on the Finance and Appropriations, Education, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Rules and Reference Committees.