Portion­ of state budget bill passes

Ohio legislators approved Gov. John Kasich’s main mid-biennium budget review after rounds of partisan disagreement Thursday before leaving for summer, alongside a list of several other bills that are awaiting the governor’s signature.

The main House Bill 483 spearheaded the mix of the 2014 mid-biennium budget, designed to work ahead at saving money and update or eliminate ineffective programs and policies during the off year.

Other than a few bills that stalled out before making it to Kasich’s desk, HB 483, with various tax cuts, an expansion to drug addiction services, and extra funding for school security, passed through alongside other bills involving everything from higher education to veterans.

The final votes on HB 483 were 58-32 in the House and 24-7 in the Senate.

Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said one of the main concerns to Republicans was one of HB 483’s biggest controversies-the law allowing the governor to tap $300 million in Medicaid reserve funds without legislative approval.

“We want Medicaid expenditures to stay at a reasonable level and avoid an explosion in spending,” Thompson said. “That was a key component as to why things took longer.”

Hurrying to get House approval for the Medicaid expansion, the Senate added the $300 million move onto an unrelated workforce bill that requires legislative approval before Kasich could use the funds and for future Medicaid spending that finally passed in the House and Senate.

Thompson said there were plenty of other things with the main budget bill he approved of, including an income tax break that would increase to 10 percent instead of 9 percent, and increased spending for drug addiction services.

“We’re working diligently to address the supply side of opioids and the usage side while trying to keep as much control as we can so that these drugs aren’t falling into the hands of people who are addicted,” he said. “As a community, we’re trying to up the participation of citizens and entities to get a handle on our addiction crisis.”

Thompson said he was also pleased with the language in the bill that retained $17 million for additional grants to improve security systems at schools.

Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, voted against HB 483 when it went to the final Senate conference committee, as he thought that it continued along the path of protecting the wealthy.

“This to me was more of the same, to accelerate tax cuts to people in Ohio who are already doing well at the expense of everyone else,” he said. “It wasn’t so much what was in it, but the missed opportunities where we could have used it to invest in schools, cities, townships, communities that have taken the brunt of cuts.”

Gentile said he was also disappointed at the unwillingness to restore the Homestead Exemption, which allows for a state share of property taxes for property owners that are disabled or over 65.

“Nothing against anyone who is successful, but we’re doing it at the expense of seniors and homeowners who are footing the bill,” he said. “This prioritizes high-income earners over the middle class and seniors.”

The legislation also increased a small business tax deduction, personal exemptions for Ohioans earning up to $80,000 annually and the state’s earned income tax credit, up to 10 percent from the original 5 percent.

Thompson said the timing was difficult because of how many bills had been rolled into one, as HB 483 also included such odds and ends provisions like providing bonus payments for caseworkers who help unemployed Ohioans find jobs and language declaring that college athletes are not employees of the schools they attend.

Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, agreed that there were mixed feelings in regards to most of the bills.

“With this being a corrective budget, it really is an opportunity to make changes to things that have occurred throughout the year, and this really failed to fix all the cuts to education and government programs,” she said. “There were really some missed opportunities.”

Phillips echoed Thompson’s approval over increased funding for addiction services while highlighting mental health, as well as the increased funding for early childhood education.

Gentile said he was particularly happy of the approval of HB 488, which was written in support of veterans hoping to go to college.

“This bill will give credit to our service men and women pursuing higher education and connect students with alumni out in the workforce and institutions to help transition them,” he said. “This will help facilitate more jobs, internship and co-op opportunities for them while enrolling in college.”

The law also increases penalties for theft and fraud when the victim is an active duty service member.

“I think it’s a good step forward in making Ohio a leader in making veteran-friendly institutions,” Gentile said.

The bill passed its last considerations in both the House and Senate unanimously.

In addition, both the House and Senate concurred on HB 487, which replaces the Ohio Graduation Tests with a series of separate, subject-specific exams and creates three different pathways for a student to graduate from college.

In order to finish, seniors must either obtain a high enough score on a nationally-recognized college preparation test like the SAT or ACT, pass seven end-of-the-year exams, or complete assessment to obtain a workforce diploma.

Kasich also already signed HB 484, which allows community and technical colleges to establish tuition guarantee programs and eliminates enrollment limits for major public universities.

Among some of the noted strange provisions in some of the legislation included language in HB 483 that allows optometrists to write prescriptions for handicapped stickers and an amendment in HB 487 that allows non-physicians to clear student athletes for play after an injury or concussion.

HB 487 also requires schools to offer career-technical education to students beginning in seventh grade, a concept introduced by Kasich earlier this year.

Bills that stalled without reaching Kasich’s desk included HB 375, which would set the tax rate on oil and gas produced by horizontal hydraulic fracturing at 2.5 percent; HB 490, which broadens the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s ability to revoke fracking privileges for companies that violate environmental regulations; and HB 472, which would increase taxes for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Kasich is expected to sign approved bills fairly soon, but can also make last-minute changes through his ability to line-item veto.