Ohio’s 2-year $71.3 billion budget clears state Senate panel

Senate President Keith Faber, right, R-Celina, discusses plans to keep a proposed increase to the tax hike on Ohio’s oil-and-gas drillers out of the state budget, as House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, center, R-Clarksville, and Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, look on at a news conference on Tuesday in Columbus. Legislative leaders want to create a task force to review the issue and come up with a final report by Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Ann Sanner)

COLUMBUS (AP) — Majority Republicans in the Ohio Senate eliminated collective bargaining rights of certain independent workers and inserted pay increases for locally elected officials and new regulations for abortion clinics during a series of last-minute changes to a sweeping state budget proposal that cleared a legislative committee Wednesday.

The $71.3 billion budget funds state operations for two years beginning July 1. The full Senate was expected to vote on the spending plan Thursday. House and Senate members would then hash out their differences in a conference committee.

The measure would increase Ohio’s tobacco taxes, boost higher-education funding and eliminate state taxes for certain small business income.

Before passing the bill, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee changed the spending plan to affirm the elimination of collective bargaining rights for independent child care and health care workers under contract with the state. The revision would make permanent an order from Republican Gov. John Kasich that nixed those workers’ collective bargaining rights and it seeks to block future governors from allowing these workers to unionize.

“I don’t know how you can have home health workers deemed a part of a union when they are all independent contractors,” Senate President Keith Faber told reporters, adding that lawmakers didn’t want it up for debate every time the state has a new governor.

GOP senators also added a 5 percent salary increase in 2016 and 2017 for county auditors, treasurers, commissioners and other local officials who have not had a pay bump in years.

The budget measure already contained a salary boost for judges, prosecutors and sheriffs. Members of the Legislature and statewide officeholders were excluded from the pay increases; Faber said he continues to push for a separate measure that would create an independent commission to set those wages.

Another revision could be problematic for the remaining abortion clinic in Toledo. Such facilities must have transfer agreements with “local” hospitals for emergencies, though the Senate change requires those hospitals to be no farther than 30 miles away. The hospital used by Toledo’s Capital Care Network is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about 50 miles away.

Senate Finance Chairman Scott Oelslager, a North Canton Republican, said he did not know why the 30 mile limit was chosen but thought it was good public policy.

The Senate’s spending plan maintained many of the House’s tax changes in the bill, including a 6.3 percent cut to the state income tax. But senators added a proposal to eliminate taxes on the first $250,000 in business income and cap the tax rate on amounts above $250,000 at around 3 percent. They also upped the cigarette tax from $1.25 to $1.65 a pack.

Despite efforts to negotiate a proposed tax hike on oil-and-gas drillers, legislative leaders opted to leave the idea out of the budget for a task force to further review.

The Senate’s spending plan restores Medicaid health coverage for certain pregnant women and women with breast and cervical cancer, freezes tuition at state universities for two years and increases higher-education funding by $240 million. Senators included provisions to ease concealed handgun rules for active military and bar journalists’ access to concealed handgun records.

The Senate also kept in place a House provision that puts local government fund payments at risk for cities that collect fines from traffic cameras, following new state restrictions on the devices. Ohio law requires law enforcement officers be present when the cameras are used to catch speeding motorists or red-light runners, though some municipalities are challenging the law.

The Democrats’ attempt to remove the camera provision failed; dozens of their other amendments were also tabled.

Sen. Michael Skindell, the committee’s top Democrat, said the Senate’s spending plan provides tax cuts for the wealthy and fails to adequately invest in mental health treatment, addiction services and education.

“This budget again has turned its back on local governments and requiring local governments to go to their citizens to raise taxes on them, as opposed to having the state provide the assistance to local governments,” Skindell said.

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