10 things to know about the Ohio budget process

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- Gov. John Kasich is playing host to town hall meetings touting the benefits of his two-year spending plan, partisans have launched a war of words over the contents and lawmakers are poised for lengthy question-and-answer sessions and behind-closed-door discussions to finalize the legislation before summer.

Thus started the biennial budget deliberations at the Ohio Statehouse this month, with ample opportunity for citizens to dig into the minutiae of state government.

Along those lines, here are 10 things you should know about the process:

1. Budget Documents: If you want to keep tabs on the budget, a good place to start is the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, online at www.lsc.state.oh.us. The biennial process involves four separate budgets. The main operating budget is the focus of most of the debate, but lawmakers also must sign off on spending for the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety, the Bureau of Workers Compensation and the Industrial Commission. The LSC website includes an entire section on budget bills, with "comparison documents" that provide an easy-to-read list of provisions in each, including those that receive little attention. For example, the comp doc for the transportation budget includes language that "Specifies that a red traffic signal, whether circular or an arrow, prohibits a left turn unless turning from a one-way street onto another one-way street."

2. Blue Book: The Kasich administration has compiled a "Blue Book" outlining its budget recommendations, available online at jobsbudget.ohio.gov. In addition to specifics about agency spending, the book provides demographic information about the state. For example, Ohio has 11.5 million people and is the seventh largest state in the nation, but its population growth in recent year lags far behind the rest of the country. Four out of five Ohioans live in cities, with close to half concentrated in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. One-third live in northeast Ohio. The state's per capita income last year reached nearly $38,000, up about 4.5 percent from 2010. The state's average household income, $45,090, was behind the national average, $50,046. Manufacturing still represents the largest percentage of the gross state product, about 16 percent. Twenty-eight of the companies on the latest Fortune 500 list are based in Ohio.

3. Timeline: The governor is required to submit his executive budget proposal to lawmakers by early February. Finance committees and subcommittees and other lawmaker panels take up the legislation afterward, with roughly five months of public hearings and deliberations on the contents. The budget must be enacted so that it takes effect by July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. If not, lawmakers have to pass temporary spending authority until they complete the process.

4. Balancing Act: Statehouse politicians tout balanced budgets, which may seem like a big deal given ongoing fiscal issues and mounting debt and deficits at the federal level. But Ohio lawmakers and the governor are required under the state constitution to ensure spending plans don't outpace tax collections and other "revenues."

5. Totals: Kasich's two-year budget includes $63 billion in general revenue spending. That compares to more than $56 billion OK'd by lawmakers for the current biennium. Two departments dominate the budget, Medicaid and primary and secondary education. Health care and other services for needy Ohioans account for about $31 billion, while schools approach close to $15 billion. Kasich's plan calls for a shift in how the state pays for those services from relying on income taxes to a broadened sales tax structure. Under the proposal, sales and use taxes represent about 34 percent of estimated collections, versus about 24 percent for individual income taxes. Federal grants and reimbursements make up about 32 percent.

6. Sales Tax: Ohioans already pay sales tax on a variety of services, including lawn care, taxi rides, shoe repair and tanning parlors, according to a spreadsheet compiled by the Ohio Department of Taxation. The administration has proposed a "broadening" of sales tax collections to cover a lengthy list of other services, including bail bonds, magazine subscriptions, music and book downloads, bowling rounds and land surveyors. Many other services will remain exempt from sales tax, including adult and child day care, education-related costs, utilities and dance and golf lessons.

7. What about the Locals: There are two parts to Ohio's sales tax structure, a state portion and a local piggyback. The former is set at 5.5 percent, with all of the proceeds forwarded to the state's general revenue fund. Kasich's proposal would decrease that rate to 5 percent. County commissioners and transit authorities have some discretion in the latter, with both authorized to levy an additional 1.5 percent, in quarter percent increments but subject to referendum by local voters. The highest local rate could be 8.5 percent, though the highest currently in the state is 7.75 percent in Cuyahoga County, said Gary Gudmundson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Taxation. The authority for commissioners to piggyback onto the state rate is provided in Ohio Revised Code by lawmakers, who also have the authority to roll back local collections, Gudmundson said. Kasich's budget proposal would lower local add-on rates but guarantee counties receive 10 percent more in sales taxes during the next two years.

8. Income Tax Plan: Kasich's budget proposes cuts in income tax rates for individuals and business owners. According to Ohio Department of Taxation, the changes would mean about $133 in savings for a family of four with an adjusted gross income of $40,000 and $662 for that same size household with an adjusted gross income of $105,000. Single filers at those two levels would save $195 and $749, respectively. A business owner with business income of $500,000 would save nearly $15,000, while one with $100,000 in business income would save about $2,200.

9. Hike or Cut? There likely will be much debate over whether the governor's budget represents a tax hike or a tax cut, particularly for middle-income Ohioans. Democrats already are calling it a tax increase, saying the cuts in income tax rates will not make up for the broadened sales tax collections. But Republicans are saying the plan represents a $1.4 billion tax cut once all of its components are totaled.

10. What's Next? The House finance committee, related subcommittees and other legislative panels will meet throughout the coming weeks to discuss the budget bills. Members are still awaiting the formal introduction of Kasich's budget, however. They launched hearings last week based on the initial reports filed but not the actual budget legislation and a comparison document outlining its various provisions.

Email Marc Kovac at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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