Sunday, January 16, 2000

'Honeymoon' over, Taft stays the course

Education tops 2nd-year agenda

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft heads into his second year in office promising to improve public education, a volatile issue that could abruptly end his extended political honeymoon.

        Mr. Taft's second annual State of the State address will be viewed Wednesday by a throng of legislators and dignitaries gathered for a joint session of the General Assembly. But the Cincinnati native's intended audience is much smaller: the seven justices on the Ohio Supreme Court.

        The state's high court is expected to decide early this year whether the governor and legislators have done enough to overhaul the way Ohio pays for public schools. If the court rules against the state again, as it did in 1997, Mr. Taft has warned that the decision could affect other state government programs and lead to tax increases for individuals and businesses.

        Although Mr. Taft wants the court to maintain limited jurisdiction over school funding, he is expected to use his speech to outline again why he thinks the state has met the constitutional mandate for a “thorough and efficient” system of schools.

        “I don't think the governor really has been tested yet,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of

        Akron. “School funding could be that test, but I'm more optimistic he will be able to handle it now that he's had a year in office.”

        The $40 billion, two-year state budget Mr. Taft signed last spring pumped more money into a new school-funding formula, which was intended to provide more money for poor schools, improve academic performance and fix decaying school buildings.

        More than $13 billion — including nearly 50 cents of every new dollar in state spending — is earmarked for school operations during the next two years. Mr. Taft also angered conservatives in his own party by proposing that most of the state's budget surplus be spent on school construction and technology instead of tax cuts.

        He bolstered his idea with a $23 billion, 12-year plan to repair and replace schools, some of which he described as being in worse shape than schools he saw in Africa during a Peace Corps stint in the 1960s. (A 1996 federal report declared Ohio's school buildings the worst in the 50 states.)

Moderate and cautious
        Beyond the ambitious construction plan, more than half of which would be funded by local schools, critics and admirers said the governor's education policies reflected his overall management style: moderate and cautious, with occasional label-busting flourishes.

        “We have our differences, but overall I think he's done exceptionally well,” said Michael Billirakis, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teacher union.

        Mindful that Ohioans are wary of higher taxes (voters rejected a proposed 1998 sales-tax increase for schools and property-tax relief by a 4-to-1 margin), Mr. Taft attempted to boost a less politically painful form of school funding by securing a 41 percent increase in the Ohio Lottery's advertising budget. Lottery profits are directed to schools.

        The centerpiece of his first year in office was laying the groundwork for OhioReads, a volunteer tutoring program to help youngsters learn how to read.

        Virtually every public appearance Mr. Taft makes starts with a plea for volunteers. He notes that starting with this year's second-graders, most youngsters must pass the reading portion of Ohio's fourth-grade proficiency test to advance. And he usually ends the pitch with a quip about his own experiences tutoring a Columbus boy once a week.

        “He better pass that test, or I'm going to be in big trouble,” Mr. Taft says. The line always gets a laugh, at least from people hearing the story for the first time.

        After Mr. Taft called for the budget surplus to be spent on schools, conservative anti-tax groups accused him of advocating a tax increase, because individual taxpayers got smaller tax breaks than they otherwise would have.

        With a big assist from Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, Mr. Taft beat back an attempt by conservative Republicans to secure a permanent, 5 percent reduction in state income tax rates.

        The move left taxpayers with the less-sweeping method of granting temporary rate reductions each year based on the amount of surplus funds left in the state budget.

        “It wasn't a good year for taxpayers,” groused Scott Pullins, executive director of the Ohio Taxpayers Association. “First they spent too much of the surplus, then they passed the first $40 billion state budget, something (former Democratic Gov.) Dick Celeste only dreamed about.”

        On other issues, Mr. Taft was willing (some would say forced) to bend his campaign promises to match political realities.

        During the 1998 campaign, he promised to give Ohioans a law that would allow them to sue their health maintenance organizations if denied payment for medical treatments.

        Business and insurance interests, two of the top contributors to Republican campaigns, vehemently opposed the idea. They persuaded leaders of the GOP-controlled General Assembly to torpedo a bill backed by Mr. Taft, a decision he mildly protested.

        “He's on the same page with us on HMOs, though we wish he would have fought harder for that bill,” said William Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

        Mr. Taft shocked his fellow Republicans — and Mr. Burga — when he showed up at an AFL-CIO event in early 1999 and declared that he wouldn't do anything to undermine “the union tradition that has built the industrial foundation of this state.”

        Republican lawmakers promptly sent him a bill prohibiting contractors from requiring union membership or the payment of union dues by workers on publicly financed construction projects. But Mr. Taft managed to assuage both sides by letting the bill become law without his signature. (A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge later declared the law unconstitutional.)

Guns, tobacco on agenda
        During his second year in office, Mr. Taft is pushing to fulfill another campaign promise: a law requiring gun owners to safely store their weapons away from children. Violators would face fines and prison terms if unsecured weapons were used to commit a crime.

        Other items expected to pop up during the governor's speech Wednesday include urban renewal, legislation that toughens regulations of mega- farms and a spending blueprint for the state's $10.1 billion share of the national tobacco settlement.

        He faces an uphill battle on both the gun bill and the tobacco settlement.

        Gun advocates want to amend the safe storage bill to authorize Ohioans to carry concealed weapons, an idea Mr. Taft opposes. And Senate Republicans last week gutted the governor's plan to spend the tobacco windfall.

        “I would have to say his record is incomplete,” said Senate Minority Leader Ben Espy, D-Columbus. “Issues that would have a great impact on people, such as the tobacco settlement and safe storage bill, have yet to be resolved and appear to be stalling.”

        Mr. Taft maintains a more rosy outlook.

        “It's been a great year,” he said in a recent interview. “I think we've set the right tone, established good relations with the legislature and accomplished a great deal of our agenda. I'm excited about the future.”


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