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Gov. Strickland explores 25 percent cut scenario

By STEPHEN MAJORS, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Dec. 11, 2008 (AP): Ohio would close state parks and prisons, raise tuition at public colleges by $2,000 and leave local school districts without money to meet payroll under the governor's worst-case budget scenario released Thursday.

In a plea for federal aid, Gov. Ted Strickland said he created the scenario to show how bad things could be without help from Washington. Governors from around the U.S. are seeking tens of billions of dollars to help with day-to-day operating costs, along with requests for Medicaid and infrastructure projects.

``One of the reasons that we wanted to do this is simply to make it crystal clear the stark choices that would have to be made if, in fact, no federal assistance was forthcoming,'' Strickland said. ``It would be horrendous. It would be devastating.''

Ohio faces a $7.3 billion deficit in the next two years based on current tax revenue projections, which are heading downward as all major economics indicators have plummeted.

Without Washington's help, state agencies would need to cut 25 percent off their current funding levels if the state wants to preserve Medicaid, a tax reduction and continue making debt payments, Strickland said.

The dire picture foreshadows what is sure to be one of the most challenging budget-crafting environments lawmakers have faced in recent Ohio history.

A Republican-controlled Senate, a Democratic-controlled House and a Democratic governor will have to decide what to cut, what to spare and whether they need to do anything to increase revenue.

``We're going to have to have a serious discussion regarding the priorities of our state, what it is we think are the most important things to do because we aren't going to be able to do the things we have been doing,'' Strickland said.

House Speaker Jon Husted, a Kettering Republican who is heading to the state Senate in January, acknowledged the budgeting process would be tough but said the budget figures were just projections.

``It all starts when the governor introduces his budget,'' Husted said. ``Until we know what direction he's going to go this is just an interesting conversation.''

Republicans didn't discount the fiscal challenges, but also saw the benefit to Strickland's strategy of releasing a worst-case scenario.

``Sometimes you can put numbers out there and scare the bejeebies out of people, and then when the numbers come back and they're not that bad, there's a little relief,'' said state Rep. Jay Hottinger, a Republican from Newark.

Policy debates are likely to ensue, especially in the area of how the state handles its inmate population, which increasingly consists of offenders in prison for a brief time after committing small crimes fueled by drug and alcohol addiction.

Strickland has said a tax increase would further harm an already damaged economic environment, but has stopped short of completely ruling out the option.

He said federal aid—which the governor thinks is deserved because the economic slowdown is a result of federal action or inaction—is the preferred way to address the problem, but suggested that tough decisions about revenue would have to be made without it.

Strickland will have to reconcile his priorities and principles—not raising taxes, not expanding gambling and solving a school funding system deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court—with the lack of revenue, Hottinger said.

``Those three things are on a collision course,'' he said. ``Something's gotta give.''

Strickland's worst-case budget projections would:
_ Reduce the amount the state spends per student on college education by $1,987 to its lowest level in recent history. Ohio already ranks poorly among states in affordable cost to attend state colleges and universities.

_ Eliminate 5,237 positions at the state prisons department, including corrections and parole officers. Ohio also would close six institutions at a time when prisons are already crowded. Many treatment and job programs for inmates would be cut.

``The majority of people are going to come back home someday,'' said Terry Collins, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. ``Do we want them to come out a little bit better then they came in?''

_ Cut job creating programs at the Department of Development just when the state needs it the most. The department might also close a number of its foreign trade offices, which help open countries to exports from Ohio companies. Exports are the one bright spot for the hard-hit manufacturing industry, which has been able to take advantage of the weak U.S. dollar.






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