Voinovich's pitch for sales tax could be curveball in Senate race

Sunday, April 19, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The next time you see Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, ask him if he really fished a penny out of a urinal and stuck it in his tuxedo pocket at his inaugural ball seven years ago.

Go ahead. Ask him. He won't bite you. In fact, he'll say, yes, I did. Then he'll wag his finger at you and tell you that if you save your pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

Then you can walk away wondering what the man would do for a quarter. Parsimonious is the polite word to describe the governor's personal style when it comes to money. Tightwad is the impolite word. George Voinovich can squeeze a nickel so hard that Tom Jefferson will scream in agony.

But this is the same governor - and now, Republican U.S. Senate candidate - who is pushing hard for a penny-on-a-dollar sales tax increase on the May 5 primary ballot. Issue 2 would raise about $1 billion a year, with half of the money going to Ohio's public schools and the other half to property tax relief.

It is an idea born in his own office, after the Ohio Supreme Court put the Voinovich administration and the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly under the gun to come up with a new funding formula for Ohio public schools, one that is less dependent on property taxes.

Even the supporters of Issue 2 in the legislature will tell you that it is not the ultimate solution to the problems of inequity in Ohio's public school funding, and they will go to great lengths to tell you that this is merely a first step in a long process.

Last fall, when Mr. Voinovich and the legislative Republicans were trying, without success, to persuade Ohio voters to pass a package of workers' compensation reforms, Mr. Voinovich's visage was prominent in the TV advertising.

Not so in this campaign, where proponents have spent about $1.7 million trying to sell Issue 2 so far. This time, there are no Voinovich commercials touting the tax increase.

This time, Mr. Voinovich is not just governor, but a Senate candidate as well. He, quite clearly, does not want to run for the U.S. Senate this fall with a ''Voinovich tax increase'' around his neck, particularly if, on May 5, the voters say thanks but no thanks to Issue 2.

And that could well happen. The latest Ohio Poll, sponsored by the Enquirer and the University of Cincinnati, showed 51 percent opposed to Issue 2 and 37 percent in favor. Two weeks ago, the Ohio Poll showed the electorate dead even on the subject. Things are not looking good.

What is worse for Mr. Voinovich is that he has his Democratic opponent, former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Mary Boyle, nipping at his heels like a Jack Russell terrier, telling voters what a bad idea Mr. Voinovich has come up with and how unfair sales taxes are. Voters might well ask Ms. Boyle whether, in her previous life as a legislator, she has ever voted for a sales tax increase (she has) or whether she has her own idea on how schools should be funded (she doesn't).

Good questions, but it won't matter much if Mr. Voinovich gets tagged as the father of a highly unpopular tax increase that is rejected by the voters.

At this point it seems that Ohio voters are beginning to think it curious that Mr. Voinovich and the Issue 2 campaign are asking them to raise $1 billion in taxes for the schools at a time when the state is sitting on about $1 billion in its ''rainy day fund.''

No, no, no, say the Voinovich administration and the Republican legislature, that is money we need to save for when the economy goes south and it's really raining out there.

They may well be right, but it will be a hard sell given the state of public education in Ohio. The voters might well ask if this is not a rainy day, what is it? A monsoon? A regular tsunami?

It may be apples and oranges, but it is what a lot of people will think when they see the state swimming in money and they are asked to cough up another penny-on-a-dollar every time the cash register rings.

They might prefer not to go fishing around urinals for the extra cash.

Howard Wilkinson's column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388 or send him e-mail at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.