Lawmakers in Ohio spent the week grappling with issues ranging from state agency mergers to education vouchers, while New Hampshire legislators confronted a funding crisis after the state's highest court deemed a new method of funding public schools unconstitutional.
In Ohio, the General Assembly approved a merger of the Department of Human Services and the Bureau of Employment Services into a new Department of Job and Family Services, as of July 1, 2000. The bill passed both the House and Senate this week by large margins, despite opposition from minority Democrats.
Consolidation of the Human Services and Employment Services agencies was a goal of Republican Gov. Robert Taft's administration, which sought to cut costs and streamline job-training and job-search programs throughout the state.
The merger will combine 30 workforce development programs in an effort to eliminate duplication, and lets local governments design work-related programs to suit their needs. Rep. Bill Harris, who shepherded the merger proposal for Taft's administration, said the new department can also spend more matching federal funds by providing one-stop shopping for job-training and job-search programs.
Ohio unemployment insurance, Medicaid, child support, and child welfare programs will remain unaltered.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, representing about 3,600 of 3,900 state and local employees affected by the merger, refused to take a position on the proposal. Taft's administration has announced that state workers whose positions are eliminated will be offered other state jobs.
Senators also worked on legislation to allocate Ohio's $10.1 billion share of a national tobacco settlement. Despite a lengthy GOP caucus on Tuesday, Republicans couldn't agree how to apportion the money and over what time frame. Taft's proposal seeks to distribute the money over 25 years as agreed upon by the Ohio Tobacco Task Force.
However, some lawmakers worry that some future payments may not materialize, and propose an eight-year distribution involving $3 billion.
Also to be determined is where the money should be distributed. The tobacco task force recommends that schools, anti-smoking programs, biomedical research and other health-related programs benefit. But some legislators would like to use the money to cut taxes.
Observers say that passage of a tobacco bill appears unlikely.
On Wednesday, Democratic legislative leaders unveiled an education plan that would give Ohio greater control over charter and voucher schools. The initiative requires local education boards to sponsor charter schools.
The Democratic proposal also requires that ninth-grade students pass a proficiency test to graduate, and would license teachers in private schools receiving vouchers. Ohio currently has 45 charter schools.
The New Hampshire Senate will convene today to debate school-funding proposals. The deliberations follow last week's state Supreme Court's ruling that a property tax enacted in June is unconstitutional, because it gave breaks to affluent towns.
The ruling left $500 million in educational funding unaccounted for.
On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen proposed a solution: A new statewide property tax, along with a 4.5 percent capital-gains tax that would exclude sales of primary residences worth up to $500,000. The outlook for the plan is uncertain at best, as the legislature has not looked favorably on a capital-gains tax in the past.
Senate President Beverly Hollingworth proposed a temporary property tax that would eventually be replaced by a 4 percent income tax. However, Shaheen has promised to veto any measure including an income tax.
There was strong support within the Republican-dominated House for a constitutional amendment shifting control over education from the courts to the Legislature. The House Finance Committee voted 13-7 to back the amendment on Tuesday.
New Hampshire lawmakers are under pressure to act quickly. The state must pay schools $416 million on January 15.