House Finance Hears Broad Array of Budget Requests in Human Services, Education, Local Government

The House Finance Committee heard a broad array of budget requests at its Thursday hearing on biennial budget bill HB110 (Oelslager) from groups in the areas of human services, education and local government.

Human Services

Human services groups that testified before the committee included the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the Ohio Nurses Association, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, the Ohio Provider Resources Association, the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and a number of county children services agencies.

Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt emphasized the increased demand for food services since the onset of the pandemic, saying the demand has nearly doubled. She said one in five Ohioans sought food from a foodbank in 2020.

Hamler-Fugitt thanked Gov. Mike DeWine for deploying 500 Ohio National Guard soldiers to staff foodbanks around the state after the foodbanks' elderly and corporate volunteers were no longer able to volunteer due to pandemic safety concerns.

She said the current HB110 allocates $24.5 million each fiscal year supporting the Ohio Food and Agricultural Clearance Programs and a one-time investment of $7 million of CARES Act funding in the first six months of the budget. Hamler-Fugitt additionally requested:

- An additional $5 million in CARES Act funding for the purchase and distribution of emergency foods, including Ohio-grown fruits and vegetables, Ohio-raised protein, and Ohio-produced dairy, as well as shelf-stable items and essential non-food items such as personal care and personal hygiene products, household paper goods, and household cleaning items.

- An additional $20 million per year primarily funded through pass-through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars, to bolster operations of the Ohio Food Program and Agricultural Clearance Program, for transportation and logistics, and to support local nutrition organizations.

Hamler-Fugitt said of the state's support, "These food programs are a direct lifeline that provides over 20 percent of all the food we have to distribute to Ohio’s hungry citizens."

The committee also heard from Ohio Nurses Association Director of Health Policy Tiffany Bukoffsky, who focused her testimony on a budget provision that would create a licensure system for the state's hospitals, with Bukoffsky supporting the idea.

Though she said the state's hospitals are currently accredited through the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), she added, "The first line of defense for Ohio hospital accountability should not be the federal government. … Ohio loses out on the opportunity to tailor its standards appropriately and set its own high-quality indicators by giving up that authority to federal regulators."

Bukoffsky also in her testimony said hospitals should have "Certificates of Need" similar to those currently used by long-term care facilities, which she said should include a method for a hospital to report a reduction in services. She connected the "Certificate of Need" idea to the state's 84 maternity ward closures over the past 20 years, saying that those wards might not have closed and the state's infant mortality rates might be improved if a mechanism like a Certificate of Need for hospitals was in place.

Public Children Services Association of Ohio Executive Director Angela Sausser thanked the governor and the General Assembly for their "historic" investment in the state's children's services system in the last budget, and for maintaining most of those investments in the current budget.

However, she said the underlying addiction epidemic has not gone away, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated demand for children's services.

Sausser drew attention to the federal Family First Act, which she said aims to avoid children entering the foster system in the first place by targeting supports to families, such as mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and parenting skills education. She said the program offers a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform how families and children are supported," but currently counties won't receive funds to facilitate the implementation of that program, adding that implementation could cost as much as $20 million.

She also voiced concerns with funding for the state's Kinship Support Program implemented in last year's lame duck session, saying, "While the executive budget includes new dollars to cover the costs of the state portion of the program, it does not include new dollars to cover the increased cost to counties. If only half of the kinship caregivers become licensed foster parents, the estimated cost to counties will be an additional $37 million per year."

Sausser asked for an additional $50 million per year to be allocated to the State Child Protection Allocation. "Without this new investment, our county public children's services agencies will not be able to begin transforming the children services system," she said.

Also in the children's services arena, the committee heard from Danny Brenneman, executive director of Coshocton County Job and Family Services, Chip Spinning, executive director for Franklin County Children Services, and Sarah Lynn Hayden, a peer supporter at Warren County Children Services.

Brenneman began saying, "Financially in our child welfare area, we are broke, to use blunt terms."

Since 2014, he said, Coshocton County's children's services expenses have risen about 400 percent, or $2.3 million over six years. In a given month the county had an average 62 kids in agency custody in 2020, compared to 18 in 2013.

He connected the increase in cases to addiction, stating, "In a recent sample, nearly 80 percent of new cases had substance abuse as a deciding or influencing factor. … Members of this committee, I simply ask for your full consideration and support for additional investment to the child welfare system at the local level. Federal and state changes and mandates are upon us, and your investment will assure our ability to prevent incidence of child abuse and neglect as well as meet the needs of unfortunate but ongoing costs. My testimony only represents one small county but speaks for many similar in our state."

Spinning meanwhile said of his county's child welfare efforts, "We received Kinship Caregiver Program TANF Grants of over $2.8 million through collaboration with the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services. This has allowed our agency to aid 1,168 families (2,040 children) with basic needs including rent and mortgage payments, utilities, clothing, food, school event fees and uniforms. Unfortunately, the $15 million per year TANF earmark for the Kinship Caregiver Program has been cut from the current budget proposal, removing $1.5 million in annual grant funding from our agency."

He added that the increased focus on prevention services has resulted in 50 percent of cases now receiving in-home prevention services "to stabilize the family and prevent the trauma that comes from removal."

In summarizing his agency's current financial situation, Spinning said, "Despite strong community support through our levy, our agency is facing the largest budget deficit that I have experienced in my time here. That is before the loss of the Kinship Caregiver Program Grant funding, the increased cost for kinship families becoming certified foster homes, and the loss of federal revenue due to non-compliance with qualified residential treatment program requirements." He further urged the committee's support for children's services investments.

Hayden told her personal story of being born into the foster care system because of her mother's drug addiction, and her subsequent sexual abuse by a family member, followed by habits of drug abuse in her teens, and being incarcerated shortly after the birth of her first child in her early 20s.

Since then, Hayden has channeled her experience into her career, in which she works as a peer support specialist with Warren County Children Services. She said, "I work alongside caseworkers to support families. Every day, I use my labels -- addict, inmate, foster child, mother, victim, survivor -- my scars, and my strength to help families see recovery is possible. I walk hand in hand with the families, their hurt, their obstacles, and their successes. My favorite quote is, 'A closed mouth doesn't get fed.' When I wasn’t advocating for myself, nothing I needed or wanted was being heard. So today, I am speaking for others who don’t have a voice. … As you make decisions about funding for children services in the state budget, I ask you to remember my journey. Consider the impact children services agencies can make on someone like me as a child and as an adult."

Asked by Rep. Thomas West (D-Canton) if she had an "ask" for the committee, Hayden said every caseworker should be paired with a peer support specialist, adding, "We hold each other accountable, have each other's back, and we're there for each other. It helps relieve the stress."

Also testifying were representatives of the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, including Executive Director Tracy Najera and Senior Health Policy Associate Kelly Vyzral. Among the key points of their testimony were to ensure that the governor's Wellness and Success Funds for school be used for their intended purpose of targeting student mental and behavioral health needs, and to include funding for an ombudsman's office for children's services.

Committee members also heard from aging groups, many of whom said the state should prioritize funding for home- and community-based services (HCBS), saying that they are cheaper to the state than providing nursing home care through a Medicaid waiver, and they are preferred by residents for their increased independence.

Peter Moore, president and CEO of the Ohio Provider Resource Association, delivered testimony on behalf of his own organization, as well as on behalf of the Ohio Healthcare Association, the Ohio Association of County Boards of Developmental Disabilities, and the Arc of Ohio.

He offered specific items he would like to see increased, including 5 percent increases in each year of the biennium to homemaker and personal care including on-site/on-call and transportation, day and vocational services, nonmedical transportation waiver services, shared living, and respite services.

"These increases will provide the funds needed for direct support professional (DSP) wages, support other front-line professionals and sustain the infrastructure needed to support the front-line workforce," Moore said, noting that the DSP industry is having trouble attracting workforce due to low wages. He further asked for a workforce taskforce to be established to further investigate aging workforce issues.

He also commented on funding for intermediate care facilities (IFCs), saying, "After years of work, we were able to establish an ICF formula that has worked for providers. We would like to continue to implement that formula. We are asking for a 1.5 percent increase in the first year of the biennium and 3.5 percent increase in the second year. Given the challenges that the global pandemic presented when it came to budgeting in 2020, we are recommending a budget amendment that would allow us to establish two reimbursement paths that would minimize the negative impact of the virus on ICF rates."

The committee additionally heard from Gary Cook, representing the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging, who echoed much of Moore's remarks in saying that HCBS will save the state money by keeping Ohioans out of nursing homes, but it needs an influx of cash for professionals to provide adequate care. He also asked for a 5 percent increase to aging line items in each year of the biennium to attract workforce.

In a comment from Rep. Bill Roemer (R-Richfield), who is chairman of the House Finance Health and Human Services Subcommittee, he said that home health care reimbursement rates have not increased since 1998, and Cook said that was correct.

Also testifying was Dave Cocagne, chairman of Silver Birch Living, a company that operates "affordable assisted living facilities," with Cocagne saying that the model offers HCBS to low-income adults. He said local housing tax credits are used to restrict rents at his facilities, and rents are tied to what seniors receive for their Social Security payments. If a senior runs out of money, the affordable assisted living facility will continue to provide care for the resident through a Medicaid waiver -- but at about half the cost of a nursing home Medicaid waiver.

Responding to a question from Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo), Cocagne further explained that the model is designed for people who can still live independently, but would otherwise be forced into a nursing home because that's the only place they can receive care in a congregate setting. He said that in Indiana, about 15 to 20 percent of Silver Birch Living's residents come from nursing homes.

The committee also heard from Shannon Isom, president and CEO of YWCA Dayton and president of the Ohio Council of YWCAs, who asked for $3.5 million to organizations who provide services and shelter to women who are victims of domestic violence.

She said in 2020, her organization provided shelter to 264 women and children, answered 5,558 crisis calls, and provided more than 16,000 hours of advocacy, counseling and crisis support.

Education

Testifying to a number of budget provisions was the Fordham Institute's Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy, who asked the committee to incorporate the "Fair School Funding Plan" HB1 (Callender-Sweeney) into the HB110 budget bill before passage, though with changes.

Commenting on other provisions, Aldis said the Quality Community School Support Fund should be increased from $30 million per year to $54 million per year; he offered support for the bill's changes to community and private school transportation; he opposed changes to graduation requirements that would modify the state's citizenship and science "graduation seals" such that a student would only need to receive a "B" letter grade in a corresponding class to earn the seal; and he supported a provision making completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) a graduation requirement, with an opt-out for families who choose to keep their finances private.

Shawn Lenney, executive director of the Greater Ohio Virtual School, said he manages the dropout prevention and recovery e-school located in Lebanon, Ohio currently serving about 500 students, and he asked the committee to extend the Dropout Prevention and Recovery E-School Pilot Program created in the last budget for an additional two years.

"Since its inception, our school has graduated over 1,700 students, including a school-record 170 students during the 2019-2020 school year," he said.

However, he added that funding has been a major issue because it's calculated on "seat time," so the school is penalized when students complete classes early.

"Those students sometimes don’t need 920 hours to earn five credits for the year or a few credits to get them back on track. In this scenario, those high achieving students who have made progress without the requirement of 920 hours hurt the Greater Ohio Virtual School financially because we only receive funding based on their seat time. I want to emphasize that our best and most highly performing students hurt us financially," Lenny said.

Also testifying was Lisa Gray, president of Ohio Excels, who offered support for many existing budget provisions, including increasing eligibility for low-income early childhood education, investing $20 million in the state's Step Up To Quality child care program, providing additional funds to quality charter and community schools, and targeting Wellness and Success Funds to providing wraparound services in schools.

Local Government

Kent Scarrett, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, offered support for a number of budget provisions, including $200 million for local infrastructure projects, $250 million to expand broadband Internet access across the state, and around $25 million to support law enforcement.

In his requests to the committee, he said a dedicated funding source should be provided for the Law Enforcement Assistance Fund; municipalities should be authorized to participate in the Treasury Offset Program in order to withhold certain taxpayer debts from a taxpayer's federal tax return; the tax commissioner of the Ohio Department of Taxation should be required to share full taxpayer returns with municipal tax administrators; and municipal ordinances should no longer need to be published in a local newspaper due to the advent of the Internet.

In addition, Scarrett asked the committee to fully restore the Local Government Fund (LGF), saying, "Most cities and villages rely on the income tax as their primary source of revenue due to the elimination of the estate tax and the tangible personal property tax. Even more impactful was the 50 percent cut to the LFG in 2011, which equated to $550 million lost over the biennium. This has only made it harder for municipalities to fund the delivery of essential services and invest in economic development and infrastructure. Now, many municipalities are experiencing further revenue loss resulting from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced tax collections. To avoid passing financial burden down to taxpayer, the League is requesting the full restoration of the LGF to its original funding level of 3.68 percent of the General Revenue Fund."

Rep. Dan Troy (D-Willowick) noted the state's aging water and sewer lines, saying maintenance on the underground infrastructure could amount to "billions of dollars" worth of repairs, and he asked whether the state should look at a bond issue to use as matching funds with municipalities to address some of that backlog. Scarrett replied, "We absolutely would be willing to explore other funding mechanisms."

Rep. Michael O'Brien (D-Warren) asked if there's been any discussion surrounding the need for infrastructure repair equipment, saying the price of such equipment sometimes stretches into the seven figures, and adding that Warren has had over 60 water main breaks this past winter. Scarrett said his organization has not yet touched on the need for equipment, although he said that could be part of municipalities' enhanced partnership with the state. He added that municipalities continue to look at where they can share equipment.

Asked by Hicks-Hudson about his stance on the issue of taxing someone who's working from home where he or she lives instead of at the address of employment, Scarrett said he recently testified in opposition to HB157 (Jordan-Edwards). He advocated for an extension of the current law until at least January 2022.

Also testifying was Ohio Mayors Alliance Executive Director Keary McCarthy, who echoed many of the same comments and concerns as Scarrett.

Responding to a question from Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati), he said the temporary remote work taxation provisions in 133-HB197 (Powell-Merrin) were "incredibly helpful."

The committee additionally received several dozen written testimony submissions. All bill testimony is available in full on the Hannah News HB110 bill page.


Story originally published in The Hannah Report on March 11, 2021.  Copyright 2021 Hannah News Service, Inc.