Strickland proposes new spending plan, budget cuts

COLUMBUS – Gov. Ted Strickland yesterday laid out a dramatic series of new spending proposals and budget cuts in the first State of the State speech by a Democratic governor in almost two decades.

Strickland proposed eliminating the state’s school voucher program except for the Cleveland program, giving record funding increases for Ohio public universities and ending a tax break for gasoline producers to save money in a budget that will shrink state spending next year.

Strickland, 65, the first Democratic governor in 16 years, also proposed spending $1 billion over four years on energy programs to make the state a leader in new energy technologies.

“Now is the time for hope,” Strickland said. “A new day is coming. A new Ohio awaits us.”

The newly elected governor’s speech quickly laid out several proposals guaranteed to spark debate over the next several weeks. He also won early and loud applause for comments on budget cutting.

But after one burst of applause that proceeded announcements of new spending proposals, he quipped, “That may be the last standing ovation I get.”

Strickland says state spending would shrink next year as part of his budget plan and grow only modestly the year after that.

He said nine agencies will either receive cuts or funding that doesn’t keep up with inflation, and nine other agencies will see small increases under his plan.

“There is belt tightening ahead,” he said. “My budget reflects tough choices.”

Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said the chief budget proposals will be revealed today, as required by the Constitution, with the detailed plan to follow early next week.

Strickland’s speech won immediate praise from Democratic lawmakers, who have struggled under two successive Republican governors.

“I was so pleased to hear a real educational plan, a plan that talks about accountability, a plan that talks about fairness and equity for all of our children,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty of Columbus, the top-ranking House Democrat.

Republicans, in the majority in the House and Senate, were skeptical.

“We only heard about spending money,” said House Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, a northeast Ohio Republican. “We only heard about tough choices when it comes to where the money’s coming from.”

Senate President Bill Harris offered only a cautious, “there’s work to be done. The debate can begin.”

Strickland proposed providing state health insurance for every poor child in Ohio and dramatically expanding Medicaid coverage for other poor residents.

He wants a large expansion of the state’s popular program for the elderly that allows seniors to stay in their homes instead of entering nursing homes, proposing an increase of 5,600 spots.

About 26,300 seniors were enrolled in the program at the end of January.

Among his education goals, Strickland wants a moratorium on new charter schools and a ban on for-profit management companies running charter schools.

tle because House Speaker Jon Husted, a Dayton-area Republican, is a strong supporter of charter schools and vouchers.

“By virtue of eliminating the voucher program, you’re forced to send students back to failing schools,” Husted said.

Concerned about the state’s high tuition costs, Strickland will recommend record funding increases for public colleges and universities in exchange for no tuition increases next year and only 3 percent the following year.

Strickland called for large increases in the state share of education funding, including a 7 percent increase in funding to close gaps between rich and poor schools.

His plan would boost the state share of education to 54 percent, the biggest portion since the state’s school-funding system was repeatedly declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

“Where you grow up in Ohio should not determine where you end up in life,” Strickland said.

“We can make Ohio’s schools constitutional, functional and exceptional,” he said.

Strickland also recommended cutting property taxes for the disabled and senior citizens. The state would make up the money lost by local schools because of those cuts.

School groups offered cautious praise for the funding plan.

“It’s not where we need it to be, but it’s a definite switch in the right direction,” said Sue Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s two big teachers’ unions.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio, which represents Catholic high schools, was disappointed by the voucher proposal.

The program has provided a meaningful alternative to hundreds of schoolchildren, executive director Timothy Luckhaupt said.

“It would appear the parents and students are happy with that choice,” he said.

Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, a longtime advocate for children’s causes, said the state has long-needed universal health care for children.

Strickland’s proposal “puts us right up there as one of four or five states in the country that have done this,” Tenenbaum said.