COLUMBUS - State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, and state Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, on Friday voted against the two-year state budget citing issues on taxes and a lack of funding for public schools as the reasons for their votes.
According to Gentile, the conference committee made several unprecedented changes that were not properly vetted.
"House Bill 59 passed out of the Senate chambers by a party-line vote of 21 to 11. This budget will raise taxes on seniors, homeowners and small businesses," said Gentile.
"In this budget, communities, public education and job creation were not a top priority for the Senate majority. The new tax plan of the House and Senate Republicans gives the wealthiest in Ohio tax cuts at the expense of everyone else. The burden is being shifted to Ohio's most vulnerable populations and the Republican majority failed to provide the resources our schools and communities desperately need. Instead of fixing the problem, this plan hurts senior citizens, small business owners and is unfair to the working families in Eastern and Southeastern Ohio," said Gentile.
He said the conference committee made last-minute changes concerning a broad tax restructuring package and a handful of education issues.
"The Republican tax plan will award Ohio's most affluent with average annual tax cuts of more than $6,000 a year, while low- and moderate-income Ohioans will pay slightly more. The Republican tax plan will also hurt local communities by making it harder to pass future levies because of the elimination of the property tax rollback," noted Gentile.
"I offered an alternative to this tax plan multiple times during this budget process which would have stimulated the economy and created and saved jobs. During the Senate budget debate I presented amendments several times to restore $396 million to the Local Government Fund to alleviate the funding challenges our struggling communities are facing. There is already a burden on property owners for funding education and basic public services, and I fear that it will be made even more disproportionate by this budget," Gentile said.
Currently, seniors age 65 or older qualify for the homestead exemption, shielding $25,000 of the market value of their home from property taxation. Under the new tax plan, those who are not yet 65 and who earn more than $30,000 annually, will no longer qualify for the homestead exemption. This was the threshold before eligibility was expanded in 2007, said Gentile.
"I'm deeply concerned about how this will impact struggling seniors in my district who are already on a fixed income. As the cost of living increases, the homestead exemption would have provided valuable property tax relief. However, many seniors in my district will no longer be eligible for this exemption," said Gentile.
"Budgets are about priorities. Rather than invest in education, strong communities and health care, this General Assembly chose to cut taxes for very few at the expense of all Ohioans. It is unconscionable that Ohio is sitting on a $2 billion dollar surplus while communities are forced to make layoffs and are struggling to provide basic public," he said.
Gentile expressed concern about the lack of input citizens had in the final budget bill.
"There are complex issues that will have dramatic effects on our state's economy. To make such sweeping changes, in less than a week, with little input from stakeholders is dangerous and undemocratic," said Gentile.
According to Cera, the provisions in the two-year state budget raise the state sales tax, increase property taxes and raise spending without helping public schools and local governments.
"The $61.7 billion budget is the largest in state history and directs more funding away from public schools and leaves our local governments still struggling to fund basic services," said Cera.
"The biennial budget, a 5,300-page document being dissected by the 130th General Assembly, should be the vehicle for finalizing the financial aspect of running programs and agencies across the state. Instead, bills on other issues were dumped into the budget bill at the last hour," said Cera.
"Such proposals," according to Cera, "had no business in the state budget bill and should have remained separate issues. These issues needed to be vetted properly through the committee process, not dumped into a budget bill."
Cera said a new tax package was also inserted at the last few days of deliberation.
"It includes a sales tax hike which disproportionately affects working families and puts our local businesses at a disadvantage with surrounding states. The tax plan also limits property tax relief for senior citizens and eliminates property tax savings for all property owners on any new local levy that is passed. Several other changes in tax policy occurred at the end of the budget process. There was only one week to review the effect of these tax changes on seniors, homeowners, farmers and small businessess. This is not the way to create tax policy,"Cera stated.
Cera added that throughout the lengthy debate on the floor, everyone in the majority party who stood up to speak on the bill prefaced his or her comments with the words, 'this bill isn't great."
"Perhaps a more bi-partisan approach to the whole process would have been a step closer to making it great," said Cera.
Seven House Republicans broke ranks with the majority party to join Democrats in opposing the bill due to its tax policies and increases in spending, giving it a final approval vote of 53 to 44.