Strickland proposes tax cuts, increases in financial aid

Rachel Abbey

COLUMBUS — Gov. Ted Strickland wants to put more money in the pockets of Ohio students and taxpayers.

Just whose wallets that would make thinner stands to be seen in his proposed budget, which was originally expected today but could be delayed for up to a week.

Strickland gave his first State of the State address yesterday in Columbus, often focusing on improving Ohio’s economy by strengthening education programs from birth through higher education. More than two minutes of applause, interspersed with cheers and whistles, greeted the governor as he took the podium.

“The state of our state is resilient,” he said. “The state of our state is full of promise. The people of our state are ready to reject the status quo.”

Strickland proposed sweeping revisions to the state’s education system, starting right at the beginning with early childhood education.

“Those early years affect everything,” Strickland said. “Research shows a better start for our children ultimately means that there will be less crime and more college, less teen pregnancy and more home ownership, less welfare and more health.”

Strickland’s plan starts by expanding the Help Me Grow program, aimed at educating parents of newborns and toddlers, and the general public pre-school programs.

While he said SAT, ACT and proficiency scores are high, and graduation rates have been rising, Ohio’s schools will be watched carefully. He wants to create a reporting system to monitor school spending — and he wants to increase how many of those funds come from the government.

Currently, less than half of school funding comes from the state, but Strickland would like to see that increase to about 54 percent by 2009, by elevating funding for each student, focusing aid on meeting student need and raising poverty-based aid by 22 percent.

These proposals, Strickland hopes, would strengthen Ohio’s public school system — one which often finds itself at odds with private and charter schools in the state. Strickland is proposing an end to charter schools and the school voucher program, except in Cleveland.

For students in higher education, Strickland is proposing a tuition freeze next year, with a 3 percent cap the year after, in exchange for documented increased efficiency.

Strickland also wants to put Ohio’s tobacco settlement funds toward elementary, middle and high schools, which would give him enough resources to enact a major tax cut for one in every four Ohio homeowners.

The Homestead Property Tax Exemption, given to individuals above 65 or individuals with disabilities, would be expanded, eliminating property tax on the first $25,000 of each individual’s home.

This measure seems at odds with the rest of Strickland’s proposals, as property taxes usually go to their local school district. However, Strickland promised that the state would replace the lost funds, further increasing state support of Ohio schools, rather than forcing them to rely on the wealth of their community.

“Where you grow up in Ohio should not affect where you end up in life,” he said.

Strickland said creating jobs and keeping workers in Ohio is the priority of his administration.

“Our greatest strength will always be our people,” Strickland said, as cheers and applause cut him off. When the crowd let him resume, he explained his plan to expand job training in Ohio, using federal funds from the Workforce Investment Act in conjunction with the Department of Job and Family Services to create a grant program encouraging training and creating jobs for young adults in low income areas. This would not only raise employment, he said, but it would also instill a strong work ethic.

“Let’s be candid: It’s difficult to develop a good work ethic without work,” Strickland said.

Strickland also wants to make health care affordable for all young people — up to age 21 — in Ohio. He wants to raise the minimum income needed by families to participate in special programs and offer families above those levels the opportunity to buy into Medicaid.

Medicaid coverage would also be expanded for working parents, pregnant women and working individuals with disabilities. Strickland is also seeking permission to let people use Medicaid funds for private health insurance assistance.

Also addressing environmental innovation, accountability in the state government and the sales tax, many in attendance seemed impressed by Strickland’s speech.

“It’s very ambitious,” said Democratic Rep. Robert Hagan, “and I thought it should be ambitious to turn this state around.”

Strickland’s focus on education from birth through college sends a clear message of its importance, Hagan said. He wants to bring people from the bottom up, as opposed to the last administration’s tendency to start at the top and wait for benefits to “trickle” down, he added.

“The only trickle we heard was people leaving Ohio,” Hagan said.

Republican Speaker of the House Jon Husted agreed Strickland’s speech addressed issues important to all Ohioans, and said that he sought the same outcomes as the governor; he is just waiting to see the budget before he can comment on the feasibility of Strickland’s plans.

He’s not sure how the fiscal challenges Strickland said the state is facing and the spending programs he proposed can balance.

Strickland plans to create savings in the state budget by cutting from programs and departments that can make do without additional funds. In his administration, two of the cabinet departments will face cuts, nine will remain at their current funding level and seven will receive “reasonable” increases.

“Wastefulness and giveaways can no longer be tolerated,” he said.

The 2.2 percent annual budget increase, if approved by the Ohio Congress, would have the lowest growth rate in the last 42 years, Strickland said.

“The failure to fix what is broken, the failure to strengthen what is working, the failure to imagine what is possible — that would be our failure,” Strickland said.

Contact public affairs reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].