Feinting may be OK for
generals, stage magicians...

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

School funding plans do disappearing act

Warfare, parlor magic and politics.

What do you think these three have in common?

For one thing, they all depend heavily on a maneuver known as the feint, a flurry of activity aimed at diverting attention elsewhere.

Robert E. Lee did it at Chancellorsville, when, outnumbered by the Union army, he left a relatively small number of his troops on the Union left to divert attention while Stonewall Jackson swung his corps around the Union right and caught the federal troops napping.

Magicians do it all the time, feinting with their left hands to hide what their right hands are doing.

Politicians do it, too, particularly when treading on the soggy ground of issues like the ongoing debate in Columbus over how to fund Ohio's public schools, a quagmire with no end of sinkholes for politicians to disappear into.

In recent weeks, Ohio lawmakers had been working overtime under an Ohio Supreme Court order to come up with a new plan for funding public schools to replace the system declared unconstitutional last year by a Perry County judge.

The Ohio General Assembly had until Wednesday to pass a new plan in order to get it on the November ballot for voter approval, but failed to meet the deadline. The principal proposal scuttled by the legislature was the $1.1 billion increase in the state sales tax offered by Gov. George Voinovich, a lame-duck governor who will be a candidate for the U.S. Senate next year.

With Mr. Voinovich unable to run for a third consecutive term as governor and the Supreme Court's March 24, 1998, deadline for a new plan falling right in the middle of a gubernatorial primary season, one might reasonably assume that those who say they want to take Mr. Voinovich's place as governor would have some ideas on the most important issue facing state government.

Well, they did. Sort of.

Former Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher, the likely Democratic candidate for governor, endorsed the Voinovich sales tax increase, but added that half of it should be paid by Ohio businesses, a caveat that was seen as Mr. Fisher's way of keeping his friends in organized labor happy.

Ohio Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell, who has been hinting strongly that he will be a candidate for governor next year, came out with a plan that would not raise taxes but create a statewide voucher system, where every child would receive a grant to be used at a public or private school.

Legislative leaders like Ohio Senate President Richard Finan hooted at Mr. Blackwell's idea, calling it unrealistic and ''fiscally irresponsible.'' The Blackwell plan went nowhere in a hurry, but, Mr. Blackwell's defenders said, at least it was a plan.

That was more than could be said for Ohio Secretary of State Bob Taft, the presumptive front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Mr. Taft went into feint mode and started offering opinions on everything but the Voinovich sales tax increase, a politically sensitive issue for any statewide candidate. The statehouse press corps tried, but getting Mr. Taft to take a position on the Voinovich plan was like trying to nail down Jello.

He came out four-square for reducing property taxes, but never said what taxes, if any, should be raised in their place. He then said he was against any increase in the state income tax, something that no one but a handful of legislative Democrats had suggested and was never really on the table.

The Taft campaign staff promised that, any day now, the candidate would come out with his own four-star plan for solving Ohio's school funding crisis.

But the statehouse crowd is still waiting for Mr. Taft to pull that rabbit out of his hat.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for The Enquirer. His column appears Sundays.