COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio lawmakers on Friday agreed on a final budget that determines the fate of some $190 billion in funds.

Faced with a looming midnight deadline, the General Assembly voted to approve nearly 900 line items in the state’s two-year budget after months of deliberation. The agreement includes a massive expansion to the state’s private school voucher program, a statewide ban on flavored tobacco sales, about $3 billion in tax cuts and a requirement that children under 16 get parental consent for social media accounts.

“This budget is about putting money into the economy, it’s about allowing Ohioans to keep money in their pocket, while also maintaining a social safety net for people in need in our most vulnerable population,” Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), chairman of the House Finance Committee, said. “I think we’ve landed in a good spot.”

Other hotly-debated issues, like an overhaul of Ohio’s higher education institutions and limiting work-from-home for state employees, didn’t make the final cut.

Both the House and Senate voted to approve the biennial budget, largely split down party lines. Sen. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), joined by other Democrats, said the budget favors the wealthiest of Ohioans but leaves out its most vulnerable.

The budget is expected to head to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for review.

K-12 school funding, voucher expansion

Lawmakers agreed to adopt the House’s proposal for K-12 funding, a more generous, $1.97 billion proposal to the Department of Education than the Senate’s iteration.

“The fact that we were able to get back the $550 million dollars that the Senate took out of public schools, I think it’s a big win for Republicans, Democrats and Ohioans all across the state,” Edwards said.

The budget updated the formula lawmakers rely on to determine the per-student base cost, or the amount necessary to provide an “average child with high-quality education. The per-student cost – which lawmakers raised to $8,241 in the final budget iteration – largely drives how many state dollars a school district receives.

The budget also increased funding for eligible K-12 students’ free and reduced meals to $13 million each year and mandates that teacher salaries must exceed $40,000, up from the current $30,000 floor.

Another sticking point in budget negotiations was Ohio’s private school voucher program, most commonly the EdChoice scholarship, that provides students state dollars to offset the cost of attending a nonpublic school of their choice.

Lawmakers’ final budget expands the program’s eligibility to every K-12 student in Ohio, regardless of income level. The largest chunk of change will be awarded to students whose families earn 450% of the federal poverty line — or $135,000 for a family of four. That amounts to about $6,100 for K-8 students and $8,407 for high schoolers.

SB 83 gutted, free speech centers maintained

Lawmakers agreed to strip Senate Bill 83, a controversial higher education overhaul bill, from the state’s final budget. Nicknamed the “Higher Education Enhancement Act,” the legislation would have banned faculty strikes, mandatory diversity training and universities from endorsing or adopting “controversial beliefs.”

Touted as a way to promote intellectual diversity, the bill’s sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) called it a “course-correction” for higher education institutions that are too diversity-minded at the expense of “diversity of opinion.”

The legislation was overwhelmingly opposed by Ohio educators and students, who likened it to “state surveillance of curricula” that stifles freedom of speech and professors’ ability to teach certain topics.

A similar, though not as far-reaching, higher-education bill remained in lawmakers’ final budget iteration. Senate Bill 117 requires five colleges – Cleveland State University, Miami University, Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati and University of Toledo – to develop intellectual diversity centers at their institutions. 

State Board of Education overhaul

Included within the budget is Senate Bill 1, a 2,000-page proposal that strips Ohio’s Board of Education of most of its power, transferring it instead to a newly-created Department of Education and Workforce within the governor’s office. It also relaxes some home-school requirements.

Proponents of the bill, including Senate Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware), said moving functions of the state board under the purview of the governor’s office would streamline policy changes, allowing the state to more quickly implement education-related laws passed in the legislature.

Critics argued that moving the administrative and regulatory body to a cabinet position risks the chance for less transparency and less public accountability for leaders’ decisions about education in Ohio.

Antonio moved to object to the inclusion of SB 1 in the state’s budget, calling it a “politically motivated, partisan takeover of public education” in Ohio. Her objection was overruled.

Tax cuts

Under the legislature’s budget, the number of income tax brackets are reduced from four to two. The income tax rate sits at 2.75% for those earning between $26,050 and $100,000 and at 3.5% for those making more than $100,000.

The budget also provides for a $750 million sales tax holiday in August 2024, allowing Ohioans to purchase goods without the added tax before school starts.

Privacy for opioid settlement fund

The budget includes a provision to declare a state-established nonprofit OneOhio Recovery Foundation tasked with overseeing $440 million in opioid settlement funds as a private entity – allowing it to be shielded from public records requests.

Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin) moved to strip the provision from the budget, citing the public’s right to know how the money is being spent and a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling that ordered the nonprofit to publicize its records. Her objection was overruled.