State leaders say they expect deficit in next two-year budget

By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft acknowledges there likely will be a state budget deficit when the new fiscal year begins July 1. but is sticking by his pre-election stance that the changing economy makes it difficult to predict how large it will be.

"We don't know how large it will be, we won't know for quite a while until we see what happens to the economy in the next couple of months and make our projections," Taft said on Thursday.

Taft (pictured, above) will put together the budget that covers fiscal years 2004-2005 in January, and lawmakers must approve it before it goes into effect July 1.

Throughout the campaign for Tuesday's election, the Republican governor said that it was too early to talk about potential holes in the upcoming budget. Instead, he reiterated that the budget for the current fiscal year 2003 does not have a deficit.

His Democratic opponent, Tim Hagan, maintained that the state was facing a $4 billion deficit, and accused Taft of postponing an announcement of his plans for the next budget until after the election.

State leaders never confirmed the $4 billion figure, and even now won't estimate the size of Ohio's potential shortfall.

Still, Speaker Larry Householder said Thursday that he expects a "very large" deficit.

"We've got a large hole to fill," Householder, a Republican from Glenford, said. He said he didn't know if the deficit could be made up without raising taxes.

Senate President Richard Finan said it was possible voters would be asked to decide between video slot machines at race tracks or a tax increase for education.

However, he noted: "That's the next General Assembly's decision." Finan, a Republican from Cincinnati, must leave the Legislature in December after nearly 30 years because of term limits.

Lawmakers spent much of the past two years figuring out how to fill two billion-dollar budget deficits after the national economic slowdown caused lower-than-expected revenue collections.

Ohio joined a multistate lottery and lawmakers enacted a cigarette tax to raise enough money to fill the $1.5 billion and $1.9 billion holes in the current $45 billion budget that ends June 30.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)