Mike Hunter discusses the states budget shortfall


Athens News, July 6, 2010 


Candidates give 2 cents on $8 billion budget shortfall


By David DeWitt 

With state lawmakers facing a $6 billion to $8 billion shortfall in Ohio’s next biennial budget, the candidates for state representative in this area, as well as those for county commissioner, laid out their ideas of how they would address this issue if voters select them this November.

To get a handle on what $8 billion means in terms of the state budget, the Columbus Dispatch ran an article June 27 that laid out the savings that would occur from various actions.

For example, if the state cut its main funding for higher education by 40 percent, the article said, the state would save $1.36 billion. Cutting funding for grades K-12 by 10 percent would save $1.3 billion. Releasing about 25,000 inmates from the state’s prison system (and cutting its budget by 50 percent) would save $1.8 billion. Cutting 50 percent of local-government and library funds would save $1.05 billion, the Dispatch reported, while slashing all tax funding for the Department of Natural Resources would save $210 million.

Incumbent state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D- Athens, is facing Republican Mike Hunter of Athens in this year’s election. While Phillips said she is paying close attention to the work of a bi-cameral, bi-partisan committee working to address the issue, Hunter said he wants to return the state’s budget to where it was 10 years ago.

Green Party candidate Ty Collinsworth is also in the race, but did not return calls seeking comment. He has not been available for comment since March.

At the county level, incumbent Commissioner Lenny Eliason, D-Athens, and realty agent Matt Gaiser, an Athens Republican, each outlined the efforts he will undertake to mitigate any impacts on Athens County.

Phillips said Monday that state leaders need to get a handle on the extent of the shortfall, which could range from $6 billion to $8 billion.

One factor that will be important is whether the state will continue to see Medicaid funds that were approved as a part of last year’s federal stimulus package, she said. The new federal health-care legislation could also impact the state’s Medicaid caseload, and both of these issues could swing either way, she said.

“We had a very difficult budget this last time around and worked very hard to protect the most vulnerable people while still living within our means,” Phillips said. “We’ve had to make tough budgeting decisions, and we know that we’ll have to make those tough decisions again next year.”

Eighty-five percent of the budget is spent in five areas, including K-12 education, higher education, Medicaid, prisons and property tax relief for businesses and homeowners.

Phillips said the goal is to look for efficiencies in these areas while protecting services for individuals. When confronted with the possibility of increasing the sales tax, Phillips said that such a move affects lower-income people the most so it is not a good option.

Hunter, a former Ohio State Highway Patrol Athens branch commander, said he would oppose any tax increase whatsoever, while cuts to any and all services are on the table.

“All of the possibilities are going to be not fun for somebody, or not fun for a lot of people,” he said.

The state has lost more than 200,000 taxpayers over the last 15 years, he said, yet has increased spending beyond the rate of inflation. He suggested dropping the state budget back to its level of 10 years ago, which he said would create a surplus with today’s rate of taxation. In 2005, the majority-Republican state Legislature passed a five-year income tax cut of 21 percent. The last year of that cut has been delayed. He said evaluation would have to be done to protect whatever essential services have been enacted over the interim.

“We have to stop spending so much money,” he said. This can be done piecemeal or in a structured way where every entity loses some money, he said. “It’s probably to the point where almost nothing can be sacred.”

He said that lawmakers are going to have to take a look at every single aspect of the state budget, and that all areas are on the table for cuts.

“The biggest thing is that we have to stop spending the money,” he said. “We certainly don’t need to increase the taxes.”

In Athens County, Commissioner Eliason said that as the state goes through its budget process, county officials have to be on the lookout so that costs aren’t shifted down to them.

“That’s what we have to look out for,” he said. “They’ve done that in the past.”

He pointed to the state previously moving inmates from state facilities to county jails. The county had to absorb that cost. Athens County, he said, sees around $1.2 million in funds from the state.

Eliason said he will keep in close contact with this area’s state lawmakers, as well as with the governor’s office.

“I would say we could see about a 10 percent loss in our budget,” he said, “which means we would have to take some hard looks at our services.”

If cuts come along, then it’s time for the county to prioritize, he said. The county currently takes 1.25 percent of the sales tax, and can only raise it another 0.25 percent if it chooses to. This is an option that Eliason said he does not support but this ultimately will depend on what the state does.

Gaiser said Sunday that any increase in taxes is something that should be looked at as a last resort.

“Before a tax increase is considered, the people of Athens County need to be comfortable that the money that they are currently giving in taxes is being used wisely, and responsibly,” he said.

He said that whatever cuts might have to be made should be spread out and that he would want each of the directors of county agencies to review their budgets for places where trimming would be possible.

“The first step in protecting the county’s budget is to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible at a local level,” Gaiser said.

“No one likes budget cuts, but the reality is that we can probably all find areas were we can be better stewards of the money that we do have.”

He said he will also work to help small businesses and local entrepreneurs to promote economic development in Athens County.

“The commissioners are responsible for economic development, and as such they need to be aggressive in creating jobs and helping current local businesses to thrive,” he said. “Too many local businesses have to fight local government and go through battle just to open their doors.”