What are the big issues facing the Conference Committee?

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The conference committee in charge of reconciling the Senate and House versions of the state budget met for the first time today. As my colleague pointed out on Monday, this meeting will probably be the only public meeting of the committee before they retreat to do all of the work behind closed doors. Of course, the Senate and the House won’t be the only parties in these meetings. The Governor’s office will play a large role in the process by giving signals on what exactly the Governor would accept in this budget and what he would not.

These budget bills are huge documents though so there is no reason to believe that the six members on the conference committee will be able to speak to every signal difference between the two bills with much confidence. Instead the vast majority of technical work is done between other members of each caucus who either have experience in the various policy areas or who may have submitted the policy change in the first place. While this process can reach consensus on about three-quarters of budget issues the remaining 25% will be negotiated between the big three, the Governor, Speaker of the House, and President of the Senate.

In honor of this being the first, and most likely last conference committee meeting before they meet to formally accept on the changes, I wanted to highlight some of the larger issues that we are bound to hear about over the next seven to ten days.

Increased Revenue – There were reports today that the Committee heard testimony regarding how much, if any, additional revenue the committee will be able to have to play with. Governor Kasich has been a little unclear on the matter, but as of last week it sounded like he favored putting the extra revenue in the rainy day fun while the House and Senate were looking to give it back to the nursing homes.

Teacher Merit Pay – This issue has been all over the place. It was originally in the Governor’s as introduced version, tweaked in the House version , and removed in the Senate. Something tells me we won’t be seeing this put back in based on Kasich’s comments last week, but if the House fights for this hard enough, who knows.

Charter School Changes – Probably one of the more controversial issues we have covered so far. It will be interesting to see who has the most sway at the state house on the issue. The House included sweeping changes that would have removed all oversight of charter schools in Ohio and was essentially just a massive transfer of state revenue to private businesses, most of it favoring Republican uber-donor David Brennan. The Senate, had to step in and be the adult in the room and removed all the changes that the House made. Since then Kasich has been very vague on this issue so seeing how this one ends up will be telling about who has more power, David Brennan, or the moderate Republican heads in the Senate.

All things Casino/Gaming – What is the committee going to do with the “agreement” reached between Kasich and one of the Casino developers? Should the conference committee agree to the merits of the agreement even though, as we pointed out today, the agreement is a bad deal for education in this state? What are they going to do about VLTs at horse tracks and what are the tax rates going to be for these games? Ugggg.

Liquor Enterprise – I find it kind of funny that several issues that the committee will be dealing with all have to do with John Kasich’s horrible ability to negotiate. Just like the casino agreement, the deal put forth for the sale of the liquor enterprise to JobsOhio is a huge loss to the state over the life of the deal. There is at least one Republican Senator who feels that the Governor could have gotten a much better deal for this asset. Maybe there should be a small budget earmark requiring staff in the Governor’s office to complete a certain many hours of negotiating classes each year. It could only help.

Oil and Gas Drilling in State Parks – What was simply a massive give away to big oil in the Governor’s as introduced version of the budget when he recommended expanding drilling to all state lands including state parks is not a little bit unclear. After mounting pressure from supporters all over the State the Senate decided to remove the parks portion of the provision, but kept the part allowing drilling on all other state lands. Personally, I would be surprised to see the parks issues reinserted into the budget, but once again, depending on how crazy the House Republicans want to be, they might just push this one through.

This is only a handful of the issues that the conference committee members will be wrestling with. Seeing how this process is one of the most backwards, nontransparent processes in State Government we really won’t see how these issues will be worked out until either someone on the committee leaks something to the press or until the committee meets to accept the changes. Democracy at its best.

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