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Legislators begin work on state capital budget bill

But leaders of two houses disagree on timing

While Democrats in the Ohio House of Representatives are moving forward with development of a new two-year capital improvements budget bill, Republicans in the Ohio Senate are saying, "not so fast."

Traditionally the state operating budget is passed in odd-numbered years and the capital budget in even-numbered years. Majority Democrats in the Ohio House of Representatives have already begun distributing project guidelines to their constituents around the state, producing the anticipated surge of phone calls and e-mails to members of both chambers from those seeking funding for their pet projects.

But Republican Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) says he wants to make sure the $700 million bond issue for the Third Frontier initiative, which appears on the May 1 statewide ballot, is passed before taking up a capital budget.

"We worked hard to be fiscally responsible as it relates to the Third Frontier initiative that's on the ballot, so I would like for us to concentrate on getting that passed before we get into the capital budget," Harris said.

House Speaker Armond Budish (D-Beachwood), on the other hand, said, "We hope to be working on that very soon. We'd like members to be getting us their projects now."

In fact, House members were recently sent a capital project request form and a list of project types that don't qualify for the bond money, such as those entailing operating expenses. While the vast majority of bonds authorized by the capital bill will fund state construction projects, it's the relatively meager $100 million or so usually set aside for local "community projects" that gets the most attention from legislators.

The Speaker echoed the Senate leader in stating that voters should understand the key differences between the legislature-approved capital plan and the pending Third Frontier ballot issue.

"They are completely different," Budish said. "One is investment in technology, aerospace, biomedical and other jobs of the future. Capital projects help our communities with capital needs, so they're very different."

The bond packages are also different in that the Third Frontier, unlike the capital bill, will not count against the state's five percent debt ceiling (based on general fund revenues and lottery profits) set out in the Ohio Constitution.

Still, the state's debt load, along with other fiscal and economic concerns in general are expected to depress the size of this capital budget, limiting it to no more than $1.8 billion.

"I expect it to be smaller and I expect the projects to be smaller and fewer," Speaker Budish said.

Timing and financial issues aside, if the debate over the last year's operating budget bill is any indication, capital bill deliberations could provide fertile ground for the next partisan tug-of-war over state finances and public policies in general.

Pari Sabety, director of the Office of Budget and Management, said there have been preliminary discussions with agencies on corrective language but to what extent the bill would serve as a vehicle for statutory changes hasn't been hashed out yet with legislative leaders.

There have even been suggestions that the recommendations of the Ohio Construction Reform Panel could be included in the capital budget bill. Some Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to amend those recommendations into an operating budget corrections bill last fall, triggering a lengthy legislative impasse in the process.

Harris said he wanted to sit down with Governor Ted Strickland and Budish to discuss the capital bill plans. The Senate leader implied that Democrats Strickland and Budish have only themselves to blame for the problems they've had getting legislation through the Republican-controlled Senate because they have failed to consult with GOP leaders prior to moving ahead with controversial legislative proposals.

"We have not yet had any types of communications with the governor relative to what his intentions, what he'd like to do with the capital budget," Harris said, adding that the House's preparations have already triggered numerous inquiries.

"It's got lots of people coming to our members and coming to me wanting to talk about the capital budget, and what about community projects and so forth and getting people interested in it, but we don't have anything at this point that we can work toward.

"It's uncomfortable to go to a meeting and (hear), ‘This is what I've decided what we're going to do,' . . . when all the decision-makers haven't decided it," Harris said. "So I just hope that before this goes forward we'll have an opportunity" to talk.

Sabety said the administration fully intends to initiate such discussions and deferred most questions over details of the bill pending those talks.

"This bill is normally done as a consensus bill between the House, the Senate and the executive branch," she said. "We're looking forward to beginning deeper conversations about that but those conversations have not yet begun."

Reporting provided by Gongwer News Service



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