Governor and House close in on school plan

By Dan Trevas Record-Courier capital bureau Published:

COLUMBUS _ Republican and Democratic Ohio House members are sharing relatively

similar ideas with Gov. George Voinovich on how to improve a proposed school

funding overhaul.

House Democrats met with Voinovich for 90 minutes Thursday to discuss how

they would like to change a proposed constitutional amendment to increase

funding for primary and secondary education. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled

the current system unconstitutional in March and ordered the legislature

to come up with a new plan.

``We want to make sure the education budget is the highest priority of the

state,'' said Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron.

Sykes, ranking minority member of the House finance committee, is leading

the Democrats' effort to change the Republican resolutions that would place

an education reform package on the Nov. 4 ballot. The plan currently includes

an increase in the sales tax from five to six percent, a 12-cent per pack

increase in cigarette taxes and a cut in business property taxes.

Sykes said the Democrats would like to eliminate the sales and cigarette

tax increases from the plan.

The Democrats would like to eliminate reductions in the state income tax,

cut other loopholes out of the state tax plans and require the state to

cut the budgets of other state agencies.

Rep. Michael Verich, D-Warren, said the governor was receptive, but did

not indicate support for the changes. Verich said Voinovich liked the Democrats

idea to set the state education budget first then dole out what is left

over to other state programs.

Verich said before he and other lawmakers can endorse the ballot issue,

he has to receive from the administration a thorough definition of what

is included in an``adequate education'' and how exactly school districts

will be held responsible for producing results.

``I think we have to give the voters a clear idea of what we are giving

the schools are what we are getting in return,'' he said.

Cooperation among the parties in the House stands in contrast to continued

bipartisan feuding in the Ohio Senate that was touched off when the Republicans

released a June 29 memo from Sen. Leigh Herington, D-Kent, to Minority Leader

Ben Espy, D-Columbus, indicating the Democrats should find a way not to

support the Republican's school funding proposal.

In the memo, Herington wrote, ``It is imperative that we distinguish our

program from that of the Republicans, and that we not give up our political

advantage by agreeing to their program nor by being maneuvered into a position

which compromises the differences that we must articulate.''

Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, sent a letter to Espy Thursday

asking the Democrats for their input into the funding plan rather than waiting

to release their own ideas until after the Aug. 6 deadline to place an issue

on the fall ballot.

``If you and your colleagues have specific ideas on the best approach to

addressing the school funding issue, now is the time for them to surface.

Although that may not serve you politically, it will serve the interest

of those who have placed their trust in us to oversee state government in

Ohio,'' Finan said.

Earlier Thursday, the House finance committee concluded hearings for the

week on the funding plan. Finance Committee Chairman Tom Johnson, R-New

Concord, said he will be meeting with Sykes and other Democrats to share

ideas on changing the plan. Johnson will also be meeting with majority Republicans

in the House and Senate to get their input before releasing a revised version

of the ballot proposal.

``I think we will have a substitute resolution on Tuesday and plan to have

a vote on Thursday,'' he said.

Rep. Kerry Metzger, R-New Philadelphia, said he is one of several finance

committee members that wants to amend the plan to ensure it provides a long-term

solution to school funding.

Metzger and Sykes both said they would like to see the state earmark a portion

of the state income tax to ensure it provides ample resources for education.

The two also expressed similar reservations about the administration's plan

for property taxes. The plan now would allow voters district-by-district

to permit property taxes for schools to grow with inflation.

The supreme court ruling said the state's education system should be less

reliant on local property taxes because it creates great disparities in

the money available for education between rich and poor districts.

``I think if we earmark the income tax for education we can become less

reliant on property taxes,'' Metzger said.

Finance Committee Vice-Chairman Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, said House members

have not reached any consensus on the changes they want to make to the plan.

Amstutz said he wants the proposal to only make necessary changes to the

state constitution and not include items, such as tax increases, that could

be done by changes in the law.

Espy said the Senate Democrats will release their funding suggestions next

week.

Johnson said he expects many Democrats will endorse the House plan because

he will work closely with them to craft it.

``I think they are as interested in funding education as the Republicans

are,'' he said.

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