Infrastructure, job training on Senate Democrats' agenda

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Democratic senators said Wednesday they want to raise the state's minimum wage and ensure an expansion of the Medicaid health program remains in place.

The minority party's agenda comes as a new legislative session has begun and as Republican Gov. John Kasich prepares to release his two-year budget proposal early next month.

Other items on the Senate Democrats' to-do list include increasing job training opportunities, providing a tax credit to small businesses that hire veterans, regulating charter schools, improving police-community relations and investing in roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

Senators said at a luncheon event Wednesday they continue to work on many of the specifics of their proposals, such as how much to boost the minimum wage, which increased this year from $7.95 an hour to $8.10 an hour. Senate Republicans expect to discuss their priorities for the session soon, a spokesman said.

Democrats likely will face an uphill battle to accomplish much of their agenda. They hold 10 seats in the 33-member Senate. Republicans also control the House.

But Democratic senators say that, while their numbers are small, they can still be effective and influence change.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, of Boardman, said his caucus first tries to work with the GOP to reach bipartisan consensus.

"When that can't happen, then you have to make a little noise with some of your bills," Schiavoni said, noting that ideas can then get incorporated into the budget or other legislation.

Kasich also has called for tougher rules on charter schools and is expected to continue to push for legislative support of Medicaid expansion.

His administration extended Medicaid eligibility in 2013 to cover thousands of more residents, as allowed under President Barack Obama's health care law. The safety net program provides health care to low-income residents.

But Kasich needs legislative approval to continue to fund it after June. Obama's law calls for Washington to pay the full cost of the expansion through 2016, gradually phasing down to 90 percent.

The expansion's continuance is uncertain in the GOP-dominated Ohio Legislature, which had balked when Kasich sought approval in his prior budget. The state's Controlling Board appropriated the money, not the full Legislature.

Democratic Sen. Capri Cafaro, of Hubbard, said she wants to guarantee in Ohio law that the expansion population must be covered to avoid future legislative complications.

Unlike the legislative debate over whether to expand Medicaid two years ago, Cafaro said, thousands of people are enrolled and relying on the federal-state health program.

"To basically take that away from a sector of the population simply based on an ideological divide, I think, would be irresponsible and heartless," she said.

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