Casino ballot issue petitions are loaded into the conference room of the Secretary of State Jenner Brunner's office after being delivered, Thursday, June 25, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. A coalition of powerful business groups threw its support Thursday behind Gov. Ted Strickland's embattled plan to expand gambling, as opponents intensified their crusade to stop it. (AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Kellie Manier)
Casino ballot issue petitions are loaded into the conference room of the Secretary of State Jenner Brunner's office after being delivered, Thursday, June 25, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. A coalition of powerful business groups threw its support Thursday behind Gov. Ted Strickland's embattled plan to expand gambling, as opponents intensified their crusade to stop it. (AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Kellie Manier)
By STEPHEN MAJORS

Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - From Cleveland to the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, library workers, mental health advocates and others are berating Gov. Ted Strickland over more than $2 billion in cuts he has proposed to balance the state budget.

The final days of negotiations over how to erase a $3.2 billion hole in the two-year, $54 billion spending plan have been marked by hordes of angry activists who say their favored programs are shouldering an unfair share of the cutting burden.

Some advocates are supporting a tax increase, or floating other ideas on how to raise money to avoid cuts to their programs. Others just say their programs aren't the places to cut.

The complaints began Friday when the Democratic governor released a plan detailing specific cuts totaling $2.4 billion and announced his support for putting slot machines at Ohio's seven horse racing tracks to raise an estimated $933 million.

Strickland broke with tradition by giving lawmakers negotiating the final budget plan a spending blueprint instead of leaving it to the Legislature to come up with the final plan.

"The governor has been very clear that the balanced budget framework is a starting point, not an ending point," Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said Wednesday. "These are very difficult times. It would be extraordinary if interest groups were not advocating on behalf of their constituencies."

Strickland's announcement gave advocacy groups plenty of time to hone in on specific cuts, which usually aren't clear until details emerge at the end of negotiations. Strickland is now hearing criticism from unusual quarters - including from Democratic-aligned state employees and unions upset about his proposal to cut $162 million out of the state share toward public employee pensions.

"This is a shortsighted proposal which jeopardizes the long-term retirement security of thousands of Ohioans," Service Employees International Union District 1199 President Becky Williams said in a statement. "Any reduction in pension fund resources, inevitably, increases Ohio's Medicaid and social service costs."

In Cleveland, several hundred Cleveland Public Library employees and patrons staged a noisy sidewalk rally outside the main library to protest Strickland's plan to cut nearly 50 percent, or $227 million, in funding for libraries. The library closed for 45 minutes while the protest was held.

People held signs reading "Strickland slasher to slice libraries" and, "We love our libraries."

Yusef Isaac, 30, of Cleveland, an unemployed pipe fitter, said he uses the library to check online job postings and his job-search e-mail.

"I don't own a computer myself," Isaac said as he made his way through the crowd. "A lot of people can't afford Internet resources" provided by the library.

In a midday rally on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, behavioral health advocates sizzled with disbelief that cuts of 28 percent for drug and alcohol addiction services, and 34 percent for community-based mental health services, had been proposed. The cuts would amount to $111 million compared with the current fiscal year.

"We are talking about human beings and families that can have productive lives with the right health care," said Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, in a statement. "These are our family members, neighbors, and friends who need help - they are the most vulnerable citizens."

It's unclear whether lawmakers will accept Strickland's gambling proposal or his specific cuts. The GOP-controlled Senate has previously said it wants to cut its way out of the $3.2 billion deficit, while the Democratic-controlled House has voiced general support for the idea of expanding gambling.

Senate President Bill Harris said Wednesday that Senate Republicans are unlikely to go along with the gambling expansion unless it is put before voters. He also said he believed Strickland could establish the slot machines without the Legislature's approval.

But Strickland's office said legislative approval would put the slot machines on more solid legal ground and would prevent future governors from either expanding slots, or getting rid of them, according to their own whims.

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Associated Press Writer Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.