Ohio budget plan targets funding for kids, workforce, water

Efforts to support Ohio's vulnerable children and adults, prepare more skilled workers, and address water-quality concerns would get targeted funding increases under Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's first state operating budget proposal , unveiled Friday.

Officials said the plan for spending $69 billion in state revenue over two years wouldn't raise taxes or affect the state's rainy day fund, instead relying on anticipated slow, steady economic growth from existing revenue sources.

DeWine said Ohio for too long has "tinkered at the margins" rather than investing in "transformational changes" and must take a longer view to benefit future generations.

"Now is the time to tackle our unfinished business," he said.

He proposed nearly doubling state funding for family and children services to $151 million a year and giving schools $550 million over the biennium to support and encourage students through mental health counseling, mentoring, after-school programs and other efforts.

He wants to require public universities to guarantee students the same tuition rate from their freshman through senior years. He's also seeking to provide $30 million to help 20,000 Ohioans attain low-cost industry credentials, or "micro-degrees," in growing fields.

The budget would triple state funding for defending criminal suspects who can't afford lawyers and allot $900 million now for water-quality projects over the next decade, including addressing toxic algae in Lake Erie.

It also calls for raising the minimum age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and alternative nicotine products from 18 to 21.

The proposal would preserve Medicaid expansion in Ohio but eliminate the Office of Health Transformation, which was created by DeWine's predecessor, GOP Gov. John Kasich, to overhaul the Medicaid program and recommend reorganization of state health and human-service agencies.

That office has completed its work, said Kim Murnieks, DeWine's budget director.

The budget covers the two-year period starting July 1. The GOP-led Legislature must debate changes and send it back for DeWine to approve before then.

Democratic lawmakers said they were encouraged by the governor's support for investing in children and families, cleaning up Lake Erie and maintaining access to affordable health care, but questioned how the proposed spending increase of more than $1 billion annually would be funded.

"We can't build a budget on broken economic assumptions or wishful thinking," House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, of Akron, said in a statement.

Murnieks insisted the proposal was realistic and not based on padded estimates about revenue or expenditures.

DeWine noted that his plan doesn't count on any money from sports wagering, though a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened that option for states, and lawmakers are considering a bill to legalize it in Ohio.

The operating budget is separate from the transportation budget, in which DeWine sought an 18-cent gas-tax increase to fund needed road repairs and construction. The Ohio House approved a lesser increase of 10.7 cents per gallon . The Senate will consider it next.