You have to wonder if Statehouse debate on Ohio’s pending state budget – for the two years beginning July 1 – will produce a Spring Surprise.
Any officeholder, including Gov. Mike DeWine and General Assembly incumbents, would rather say “yes” than “no” at budget time, especially when she or he will be seeking re-election in 2022. And it looks like Ohio’s gravy boat is running over.
At the moment, the bad news is still bad: The General Assembly still – after 24 years and counting – hasn’t fixed school funding. And it still hasn’t fully repealed House Bill 6, which continues to force Ohio’s electricity consumers to subsidize two coal-burning power plants (one, in Indiana).
Incidentally, Columbus-based American Electric Power Co. and Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. “paid no federal corporate income taxes in their most recent fiscal year,” according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington think tank. So that’s why the legislature wanted ratepayers to bail out two nuclear plants – and still wants ratepayers to subsidize the two coal plants. Funny: It’s a “handout” on the rare occasions when the General Assembly tries to help Ohio’s poor, but “economic development” when the General Assembly jumps through hoops to benefit banks, insurance companies and utilities.
Ohio’s state finances are in more-than-decent shape. For the seven months ending Feb. 28 – latest data available at deadline – state tax receipts were $1.3 billion, or 8.3 percent more than during the comparable 2019-2020 period. And total revenue, including federal grants, was $2.3 billion, or 10.1 percent more, than the comparable 2019-2020 period – amid the worst pandemic in more than 100 years.
Meanwhile, fiscal year-to-date spending from the General Revenue Fund, Ohio’s checking account, was nearly flat. It rose only 0.4 percent compared to last year’s same seven-month period. Yet for 12 months through February, the Consumer Price Index, all items, “increased 1.7 percent before seasonal adjustment,” the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
So, Ohio’s piggy bank has fattened under DeWine. That may seem paradoxical, given COVID-19. But as a very shrewd bystander recently said, voters may forget DeWine furloughed about 16,000 non-union state employees last year for 10 workdays – the “equivalent of a 3.8 percent pay cut,”cleveland.com ‘s Andrew Tobias reported. Earlier, DeWine cut state agencies’ spending.
Then there’s this: All the extra cash sluicing into the state’s cash drawer this fiscal year? That doesn’t include even 1 cent of Ohio’s “rainy day” savings account, which totals almost $2.7 billion and remains untouched. Wait, there’s more: The American Rescue Plan Act, signed March 11 by President Biden, should ship $5 billion-plus to Ohio’s state government cashbox.
There are pluses and minuses to having a pile of spending money. As noted, politicians everywhere would rather say “yes” than “no.” But a governor’s toughest financial duty, and maybe the most critical, is to say “no” to a legislator who thinks Ohio taxpayers should fund, say, a new horseshoe pit in West Jerkwater (including a bronze plaque ballyhooing that hometown legislator’s name).
Typically, legislative brainstorms are much pricier than that, or start out, like Ohio’s charter schools, as “pilot projects” that balloon in successive budgets into must-fund entitlements.
In that connection, a minor Statehouse mystery of the last six months or so is the sudden scuttling, by the Senate, of a school funding plan that looked as if it might actually comply with the 1997 Ohio Supreme Court school funding order. The House passed it, the Senate didn’t, and the 2019-2020 session ended on Dec. 31, killing all pending measures.
You have to wonder if in the back of some sly Statehouse minds was a hunch that, pandemic or not, there might be extra cash pouring into the state’s checking account when – complete coincidence! – DeWine and the General Assembly would be crafting a two-year budget whose spending (another darn coincidence!) would kick in during Campaign ‘22.
And if perchance that spending could be packaged as getting Ohio’s public schools closer to school-funding Nirvana? And if – also – General Assembly incumbents will be running in redrawn districts? The pending budget, funded with help from the state revenue bump Mike DeWine has banked in Ohio’s treasury, might just script another GOP sweep of Ohio’s Statehouse in November 2022.
Thomas Suddes, a member of the cleveland.com editorial board, writes from Athens. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org