Ohio House OKs $61 billion-plus, two-year budget

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- The Ohio House put its stamp on a $61 billion-plus, two-year spending plan April 18, including provisions calling for additional study on a new "Ohio Plan" for handling health care services for the needy.

The final bill, passed on a split vote with many Democrats opposed, did not include a much-debated expansion to Medicaid coverage, as proposed by Gov. John Kasich.

But it did include an amendment, added during floor deliberations, that requires the state's Medicaid director to work with lawmakers on a proposal to provide health care for vulnerable residents, with a focus on reducing the roles of the latter.

Rep. Barbara Sears, a Republican from Toledo, said the plan should be "threaded with work force development tools to provide real opportunities for success" and "the Ohio Plan needs to work to improve health care for Ohioans in a cost-efficient and measurable manner."

The biennial budget moved on a vote of 61-35 and heads to the Ohio Senate, which has already launched hearings on its contents. Final passage is expected in late June, following changes in the Senate and by a conference committee of the two chambers.

Provisions must be signed into law before July 1, the start of the new state fiscal year. And lawmakers indicated there was much work to do between now and then.

"There's too much to do here, and it's too important, and it should be … a bipartisan effort," said Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Republican from Wooster who serves as chairman of the powerful House finance committee.

Medicaid debate

The passage April 18 followed weeks of committee deliberations, a lengthy floor debate and hours of behind-closed-door discussion among Republican lawmakers, pushing the start time of the day's session back by more than five hours.

Amstutz contrasted the final House version of the bill with the budget passed by lawmakers two years ago, the first of Kasich's administration and an attempt to "right state government's fiscal ship."

Disciplined spending and saving at the state level combined with a recovering state economy have put lawmakers in a position to increase funding for health care for the needy and primary and secondary education, he said, noting an increase in spending of $1.9 billion over the biennium.

Republicans earlier removed Kasich's tax reform package, which called for a decrease and broadening of the state's sales tax, a hike in taxes on oil and gas produce via fracking and a cut to the state's income tax rates.

They replaced the provisions with a 7 percent income tax cut for all brackets, amounting to about $1.5 billion in savings for filers.

Democrats again attempted to reinsert language expanding Medicaid coverage to include Ohioans earning up to 138 percent of federal poverty level (about $15,400 per person or $23,050 for a family of four).

Proponents, including the Kasich administration, have said the move would leverage billions in federal Medicaid dollars, save the state more than $400 million in general revenue funds and insure 275,000-plus additional low-income residents, many working full time but not earning enough to pay for insurance.

"I personally believe that access to health care is a right and not a privilege," said Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat from the Cleveland area, who offered the amendment during committee deliberations and from the House floor April 18. "We heard that sentiment over and over again from the people who came to talk to us … Medicaid expansion provides the historic opportunity to improve health and safety, to provide a major boost to our economy and continue the important reforms that have already begun…"

The provisions were included in Kasich's executive budget proposal but removed by Republicans. Some of the latter view it as an endorsement of federal health care mandates and out-of-control government spending and debt.

Republicans blocked two Democratic amendments that sought to expand Medicaid, but both members from parties backed Sears' "Ohio Plan," giving lawmakers until the end of the year for negotiations.

"I do not believe that we have had adequate time to reach the best public policy results for Ohioans," said Rep. Mike Dovilla, a Republican from the Cleveland area, in supporting the move.

Other amendments

Elsewhere in the budget, lawmakers removed language that would have prohibited sexual education classes in schools encouraging "gateway sexual activity," and instead focus on abstinence instruction.

The amendment also would have blocked distribution on school grounds of materials that promote sexual activity and demonstrations of devices used for sexual stimulation. Individuals or organizations that violated the ban could have faced legal action by parents and fines of up to $5,000.

Amstutz said the issue required more discussion.

But Republicans let stand provisions could lead to funding cuts for Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent, attempted to remove the language, calling related provisions a "war on women."

"One in five women seek the care of Planned Parenthood in their lifetime," she said. "And 97 percent of the care provided by Planned Parenthood is preventative health care, not abortions. … Republicans are playing political games with our taxpayer dollars and more importantly with women's lives."

A Republican opposed Clyde's amendment.

"This is not a war on women," said Rep. Anne Gonzales, a Republican from suburban Columbus. "This is about providing comprehensive health care to women and doing it efficiently. … I have yet to see any evidence that re-prioritizing funds will impact these family planning services...."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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