Tuition freeze casualty of Ohio budget cuts

Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Instead of freezing tuition for higher education for a third straight year, Ohio public colleges and universities will now be able to raise tuition by 3.5 percent under the new state budget deal.

For students at Ohio State University in Columbus, this could mean an extra $300 a year in tuition.

A Senate official with knowledge of the budget negotiations told The Associated Press under condition of anonymity Saturday that public colleges will be able to raise tuition over each of the next two years. The official requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to provide details of the agreement ahead of a budget conference committee meeting Monday to negotiate the budget plan.

The Columbus Dispatch first reported the news of removal of the tuition freeze in Saturday editions. The budget deal cuts state funding for higher education by $170 million, while programs such as food banks and libraries will see more funding than they would have under a framework suggested by Gov. Ted Strickland.

A tuition freeze has been in place for the last two years, and lawmakers and Gov. Ted Strickland have repeatedly pointed toward the policy as evidence of their commitment to making higher education more affordable. The freeze for the 2009-2010 school year, proposed by Strickland, made it intact through most of the budget process.

But lawmakers were forced to close a $3.2 billion budget deficit because of lagging tax revenue. Roughly $2.4 billion of the deficit will be erased with cuts, while a deal to put slot machines at Ohio’s race tracks is expected to bring the state $933 million over two years.

Strickland, a Democrat, agreed to issue an executive order establishing the slots, while Senate Republicans agreed to add language to the budget bill clarifying the governor’s authority to do so. The two sides had been engaged in a bitter standoff over the gambling plan.

Lawmakers and Strickland finally reached a budget compromise Friday afternoon.

The state had been working off two temporary weeklong budgets with reduced funding levels. Another temporary budget is possible if budget writers don’t have enough time to finalize details of the cuts by the time the second temporary budget expires June 14.

Libraries, mental health services and food banks were slated to see serious cuts under a budget framework Strickland gave to lawmakers as a plan to get rid of the deficit. Some of the planned reductions for those services will be restored.

Some of the restored funding is a result of the cuts in planned state aid for higher education.

“I think that libraries and mental health (programs) will do considerably better than the governor’s framework,” said state Sen. Dale Miller, a Cleveland Democrat and member of the budget conference committee.

Two-thirds of the $227 million cut proposed for public libraries will be restored, and $65 million of the proposed $179 million hit for mental health services will be returned to the budget, the Senate official told the AP on Saturday. The Plain Dealer first reported news of the restored cuts in Saturday editions.

“That’s something we can live with, but people will still see a drop in services,” said Lynda Murray of the Ohio Library Council. Murray said the library system already faced a 20 percent drop in revenues even before Strickland proposed taking more.