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Ohio Senate approves school, tax policy change

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — State senators passed a package of new tax cuts and adjustments to teachers' performance evaluations on Wednesday as components of Gov. John Kasich's midterm budget plan lurched closer to his desk.

The tax and education ideas were among a slew of policy changes contained in separate midterm budget bills approved by the Senate. The House passed earlier versions of the measures. A joint conference committee would likely be appointed to work out the differences in the legislation, a House spokesman said.

One sweeping budget bill including tax provisions supported by the Republican governor passed on a 24-8 vote. The legislation would accelerate a planned income-tax cut and expand certain exemptions and credits.

The provisions, not included in the House version, would double the earned income tax credit available to low-income Ohioans from 5 percent to 10 percent of the federal credit. It also would increase a small business tax cut from 50 percent to 75 percent on income up to $250,000 for the 2014 tax year and raise personal income tax exemptions for taxpayers making under $80,000 a year.

The administration said stronger state revenue than expected would allow for the cuts, estimated at $402 million.

Senate Finance Chairman Scott Oelslager, a Canton Republican, reminded his colleagues that the state's unemployment rate dropped in April to 5.7 percent, the lowest level in more than six years.

"We need to keep this momentum going," Oelslager said, adding that the tax policy changes would help.

Democrats said the bill was a missed opportunity to invest additional money in schools and communities, not tax cuts. They claimed hefty policy issues keep turning up in budget bills and should be getting more deliberation.

"These provisions deserve longer, deeper consideration because these really are serious policy matters," said Sen. Tom Sawyer, an Akron Democrat.

Sawyer cited one such provision that states college athletes are not employees under state law. The status of full-scholarship football players became an issue in March after a federal labor official ruled Northwestern University players are employees and have a right to unionize.

Democrats sought a number of changes to the tax bill but were largely unsuccessful. An education-related budget bill, however, saw less debate. Senators passed it on a 27-5 vote.

The plan includes adjustments to teachers' performance evaluations. It specifies that in the course of testing, certain student information — such as Social Security numbers, religion and political affiliation — cannot be collected and shared with any entity, including the federal or state governments.

Other pieces of the education proposal were aimed at asserting the role of local school districts in implementing Ohio's new learning standards.

The bill states that a school district board has the authority to determine the curriculum, textbooks and course materials used in Ohio classrooms. It also would require districts to provide parents an opportunity to review the instruction materials.

School districts and teachers would get a one-year reprieve from funding penalties or job sanctions tied to new state learning and teacher-evaluation standards.

"Basically, we are going to act as if this year, from a penalty point of view, does not exist," said Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

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