Taft: Schools, Colleges Could See Additional Cuts

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Alarmed by a worsening state deficit, Senate Republicans Tuesday considered millions of dollars in additional budget cuts as they pushed a plan to balance a $1.7 billion shortfall.

Senate President Richard Finan said the budget proposal would contain "close to $500 million in spending cuts."

Gov. Bob Taft said some of those cuts could include spending by the Department of Education and public colleges and universities, although direct aid to students wouldn't be affected.

Several state agencies may have to accept additional spending cuts, Taft said, acknowledging that the deficit is worse than his budget office predicted last month.

"If we all agree on some selective administrative cuts that don't harm what we're sending to schools or harm what we're sending to colleges, we're certainly going to take a look at that," Taft said.

The Education Department will spend about $7.2 billion next year, more than 98 percent of which goes directly to schools. Its budget is between $16 million and $17 million annually.

Taft said he would be reluctant to cut OhioReads, the reading volunteer program he has pushed as governor, but he did not rule it out, either. OhioReads' annual budget is about $33 million.

"I would be very reluctant to cut OhioReads but we may have to make some savings in the Department of Education," Taft said.

Senate Democrats criticized the potential of any cuts to education. They said Ohio is already under court order to improve spending on schools, while past cuts to higher education have led to tuition increases.

"The Republican budget plan deserves an F," said Sen. Gregory DiDonato of New Philadelphia, the Senate's top-ranking Democrat. "It's another miserable failure."

Additional budget cuts are necessary because the current proposal to triple Ohio's tax on cigarettes to 74 cents is not enough to make up the growing deficit, Finan said.

"Even with a tobacco tax, you still need a ton of cuts," he said.

Taft's official estimate of the state's budget deficit is $1.2 billion over two years, including $500 million for the year ending June 30.

Last week, the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission said the two-year deficit had worsened, to $1.7 billion. Taft and Finan said on Tuesday they now are following the LSC figure.

The budget plan includes tripling Ohio's tax on cigarettes, delaying business tax breaks promised by President Bush's federal stimulus package and implementing a series of targeted taxes on businesses.

The Senate Finance Committee planned to approve a budget plan Wednesday morning. A vote in the full Senate was expected Wednesday afternoon.

If lawmakers and Taft, a Republican, approve a plan by June 1, increasing the cigarette tax to 74 cents could raise about $26 million this year and about $400 million next fiscal year.

Business groups oppose the tax, saying it hurts retailers and wholesalers who sell cigarettes. Anti-smoking groups support it, saying it will save lives.

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