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Senate Democrats offer slew of Ohio budget changes

Ann Sanner, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Democrats in the Ohio Senate suggested Wednesday that budget writers take millions of dollars from a proposed income tax cut for higher wage earners and direct it to schools instead, as work intensified on the state's spending plan.

The idea is among roughly 200 amendments that Democratic senators are offering to Ohio's $61.5 billion, two-year budget. The Senate's version of the plan is expected to be released next week. The budget must be completed by June 30.

The House-passed version of the budget contains a 7 percent permanent income tax cut, though Senate Democrats want to see changes to the $1.5 billion income tax reduction over two years.

State Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland offered the education amendment. She said it would eliminate the income tax cut for Ohioans making more than $106,150, while keeping the reduction for those in lower income brackets. That would free up $508 million for schools to use in the classroom and for transportation.

The proposal is designed to steer the money to schools that need it the most, Turner said.

Schools would get the extra dollars based on the percentage of the district's students that are economically disadvantaged, the district's average success rate on the first round of graduation tests, and the average score on reading readiness tests for students entering kindergarten.

"There comes a point where we have to make a decision as a state on whether or not we are going to do what it takes to invest the money in a way that benefits this state and this nation for generation to come," Turner told reporters at a news conference.

Republicans overwhelmingly control the Senate, and any changes would need their support. Democratic amendments are often sidelined by GOP leadership.

John McClelland, a spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus, said GOP leaders would comment on them when the updated bill is unveiled next week. He said all amendments, including those from Republicans, continue to be reviewed.

The Senate's budget-writing committee met later Wednesday to hear reports from its subpanels on education, Medicaid and general government.

Other Democratic amendments were focused on expanding the Medicaid program to provide for more low-income Ohioans under President Barack Obama's health care law.

State Sen. Capri Cafaro, of Hubbard, said a general theme emerged in committee hearings on Medicaid: There would be "a pervasive, negative impact" on health care delivery, health costs, and the physical and behavioral health of potential enrollees should the Legislature fail to act.

Republican Gov. John Kasich proposed the Medicaid expansion in his state budget plan, but GOP leaders in the Ohio House dropped it from the spending blueprint last month before sending it to the Senate.

Republican Senate President Keith Faber has said his chamber's version of the budget won't include expansion, but he says the idea of changing Medicaid is not dead.

Roughly 366,000 low-income residents would be eligible for Medicaid coverage beginning in 2014, should the state decide to expand the program under the federal law. Ohio would get $13 billion from the federal government to cover program costs over the next seven years, according to the Kasich administration.

Democratic senators also want to remove a House-added provision that Cafaro said would keep the state from covering those who could be newly eligible for health coverage under the federal law.

Other amendments would:

—Boost money for local governments by $396 million over the two years.

—Give an additional $2.5 million per year to the state's food banks.

—Bring the state's laws in line with federal laws on the illegal dumping of oil and gas drilling waste.

—Delete a provision that sends Planned Parenthood to the back of the line for public family planning money.

—Use a tax hike on oil and gas drillers to provide job training money.

—Eliminate a provision requiring universities to give out-of-state students in-state tuition rates if they get university documents to prove residency for voting purposes.