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The Associated Press May 26, 2011, 8:01PM ET

Ohio senators prepare changes to state budget plan

Ohio senators are closely scrutinizing the accountability of charter schools, changes to public employee pensions and plans to privatize certain state assets as they prepare to put their mark on the $55.6 billion state budget.

Senate Finance Chairman Chris Widener said lawmakers have not yet decided what changes will be made to the two-year state spending plan.

Amendments were due to his committee by Thursday evening. Republican leaders planned to review the ideas over the coming Memorial Day weekend. They hope to craft a revised budget proposal next week.

One GOP change being proposed would allow cities, counties and school districts to get an infusion of cash from the privatizing of Ohio's state liquor sales.

Gov. John Kasich wants to use the state's liquor sales business to provide a permanent funding stream to JobsOhio, a semi-private economic development entity that will provide grants to fuel business growth.

Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, said his amendment would assure taxpayers get a fair price on the liquor monopoly, and he also wants to change wording in the bill to make sure the transfer would be allowed under the state constitution.

"We cannot undersell an asset of the state to make a private business," he said.

Estimates of the liquor sales have been as high as $2.5 billion, but the budget currently relies on just $500 million, Grendell said.

His proposal would send any added revenue to local governments and school districts to reduce cuts imposed under in the state budget.

Another Republican senator is pushing to strip a provision from the House-passed bill that specifically applied a state business tax to all casino wagers without deducting winnings and payouts.

Casinos say the provision would cost them tens of millions of extra dollars. They argue the 2009 constitutional amendment that legalized their facilities says they would be taxed on money that remained after payouts.

But Sen. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati said he wants it out of the bill because it's already current law.

"The fact of matter is the House language undercuts our legal position," he said. "Putting an affirmative statute in now is tantamount to admitting that the law wasn't clear before."

Widener said Thursday lawyers are still analyzing whether that provision passed by the House is needed in the bill, and no decision has been made yet whether to remove it.

Also up in the air is the governor's plan to shift 2 percent of pension contributions from employers to employees. The House-passed budget stripped the idea from the legislation.

Senate Democrats say they have submitted more than 300 of their own amendments, though Democrats are far outnumbered by Republicans in the chamber. The GOP holds a 23-10 majority.

Democrats want to get rid of a proposed repeal of Ohio's estate tax, ban drilling in state parks and put more money toward mental health services.

"We should not balance the budget on the backs of the vulnerable or local governments," said Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro of Hubbard. "Unfortunately, that's what will happen if we don't make considerable changes to the current budget plan."

Altering oversight of charter schools seems to be a target for both parties.

Widener said fellow members and charter school communities at-large want underperforming charter schools to be dealt with by either not receiving state support or not taking students.

The House version of the bill would allow operators to set up additional charter schools, even if some were failing.

A Senate Finance Committee vote and full Senate vote could come as soon as the first full week of June.

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