Sunday, May 14, 2000


Judges, elections and bloodletting

        Back in 1803, when Ohio became the 17th state in the union, it probably looked like a pretty good idea to have a state supreme court that was elected and not appointed.

        Treating bilious fever with leeches looked pretty good in 1803 too.

        This may come as a surprise to Ohio's political establishment, but 1803 passed some time ago.

        Those who need a compelling argument to convince them that judges — particularly high-on-the-food-chain appellate judges like Ohio Supreme Court justices — should not run for election should take a look at what happened Thursday after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the legislature had not done enough to ensure an equitable school funding system in Ohio.

        That 4-3 decision was written by Justice Alice Robie Resnick, a Toledo Demo crat who is a candidate for re-election this year.

        The upshot of the ruling was that “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. And while the Ohio General Assembly gave it a shot, it came up short of ending Ohio's over-reliance on property taxes to fund public schools.

        The idea behind closing the gap between poor and wealthy school districts is simple. The quality of any child's education should not depend on the size of the property tax base where he or she lives. The kid in, say, the Sycamore school district has no more right to a good education than the kid who lives on a gravel road in Vinton County and goes to a school built when William Howard Taft was president.

        That's all there is to it. But, politically, it is much dicier than that.

        The only obvious alternative to relying too heavily on property taxes is to rely more on other taxes, such as income taxes or sales taxes.

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who will presumably run for re-election two years from now, and pretty much the entire Republican majority in the Ohio General Assembly do a group shudder whenever this subject comes up.

        Two years ago, Ohioans voted 4-1 against a penny-on-a-dollar sales tax increase, half of which would have gone to schools and the other have to property tax relief.

        So a massive case of the heebie-jeebies fell over the statehouse Thursday when Ms. Resnick's opinion came out.

        What came out of Ohio Republican Party headquarters was quite different. The party, under the name of party Chairman Bob Bennett, came out with a press release slamming Ms. Resnick's opinion, saying it “crystalizes” the need to replace her with the Republican candidate, Terrence O'Donnell.

        The press release rolled out a phrase that you can expect to hear often this fall, should the winds continue blowing in the direction of a sales or income tax increase: “The Resnick School Tax.”

        The Republican Party blast made it clear that if a Republican governor and a Republican legislature decide to raise your income tax or hit you with a new sales tax, it's only because some nasty Democratic judge twisted their arms and made them yell uncle.

        Now, if all this political game-playing with your children's educations makes your head spin and your stomach churn, relax. Lie down.

        Try a leech.

        Howard Wilkinson covers politics. He can be reached at 768-8388 or at


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