Taft's budget proposal warrants full hearings

Republican Gov. Bob Taft has called the biennium state budget he sent to the Ohio General Assembly Thursday the tightest in 40 years. If that isn't an incentive to the Republican majority in the House and Senate to reach out to the Democratic minority -- in previous years the GOP rode roughshod over the Democrats -- nothing is.
Indeed, given the cuts in funding that Taft, who will be leaving office at the end of 2006, has proposed, the Republicans might not find any Democrat eager to have his or her fingerprints on the spending plan. But House Speaker Jon Husted of Kettering and Senate President Bill Harris of Ashland should at least give the minority party a chance to be heard.
After all, the Republican Party has controlled state government for more than a decade, which makes it difficult for them to deflect blame for the state's economic ills.
Hearings on the governor's $51 billion two-year budget, which is built on the foundation of a $833 million tax reduction package and cuts in such important programs as the Local Government Fund, are scheduled to begin next week. The governor must sign the budget bill by June 30 and unlike the federal government, the state cannot deficit spend.
Therefore, with the reduction in revenue stemming from the elimination of some taxes that the governor has proposed, cuts in spending are inevitable. In the coming weeks, Ohioans will learn more about how Taft's budget "strikes a proper balance between the economic imperative of tax reform and the need to invest in our future through education."
Included in his initiative for education is a modest increase in funding for schools, $9 million set aside for school vouchers available to children in failing schools, and funding increases of 1 percent in the first year and less than 2 percent in the second year for public universities and colleges.
As the budget hearings proceed in the general assembly, we will have more to say about various aspects of the spending plan.
For now, we focus on Taft's recommendation of a 20 percent cut in state funding, through the Local Government Fund, for counties and cities, a 10 percent reduction for townships and villages and a 5 percent cut for libraries. The money, which is the lifeblood of many local governments, is used to finance police and fire services, garbage pick-up and other essential services.
In the Mahoning Valley, commissioners in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties are struggling to make ends meet and have warned of major disruptions of service if revenues decrease. A 20 percent reduction in state funding will have a devastating effect on the ability of the three county governments to operate effectively.
We would urge the General Assembly to consider the ramifications of short-changing local governments at a time of widespread public discontent. Counties, cities, townships and villages are on the frontline of the taxpayer revolt that is gaining momentum in the Mahoning Valley. Depriving them of state dollars will make it even more difficult to provide even mandated services.
Five Democrats, including Sens. Robert Hagan of Youngstown and Marc Dann of Liberty Township, have introduced a bill to restore the Local Government Fund money and to set up another fund that counties could use to pay the costs of consolidating or improving efficiency of local services.
It's a bill worthy of serious consideration because it aims to do what Gov. Taft and the Republican leadership are preaching, namely, reducing the cost of government.