CHICAGO — With an estimated $153 million surplus heading into fiscal 2013, top Republican lawmakers in Ohio are debating whether to spend it or save it.
The House last week passed a mid-biennium budget bill that cuts spending by $3 million this year and $69 million in fiscal 2013.
On the bond side, the House bill blocks the state from issuing any of the remaining $94 million of general obligation bonds authorized by voters in 2008 as part of the Clean Ohio conservation program.
The legislation also requires lawmakers’ approval before any surplus funds are automatically deposited into Ohio’s rainy-day fund, as required under current law.
That provision, as well as a handful of others, angered Gov. John Kasich. “Now there’s going to be a debate over whether we should spend the surplus,” Kasich was quoted in a local media report as saying during a talk at the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce. “They can pass whatever they want to in the legislature, we’re not spending the surplus.”
The estimated size of the surplus varies, but the Office of Budget and Management pegged it at around $153 million as of last month, according to a budget spokesman.
The House’s legislative package also failed to include a 4% oil and gas-production tax that Kasich proposed as part of his mid-budget period review plan. The Senate Finance Committee will begin consideration of HB 487 on Tuesday.
Complicating the budget debate is a lawsuit filed last year blocking the state’s $1.4 billion plan to lease its liquor distribution system for 25 years to a private, not-for-profit entity called JobsOhio. The new entity would use the revenue, estimated at $200 million annually, for job creation efforts across the state.
The plan is key to balancing the current two-year budget, as JobsOhio will give the state an up-front cash payment of $500 million to the general fund. The lawsuit has halted JobsOhio’s plan to issue bonds to generate money for the payment, as well as to pay off outstanding bonds backed by liquor profits.
Top budget officials warned lawmakers that the lawsuit could gobble up any expected surplus if the case is not resolved by the end of the fiscal year.
The case is currently before the Court of Appeals after the state successfully fought the case on issue of standing, saying the opponents had not suffered sufficient harm to bring the lawsuit.
“We think we have a good chance on the appellate level,” said Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, which filed the suit with a pair of Democratic legislators. “There’s a constitutional prohibition about the state investing in private funds that goes back to 1842.”