Tuesday, May 23, 2000

3-way talk would be Ohio first

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and state legislative leaders may be scratching their heads over an unusual proposal for a summit with the Ohio Supreme Court on school funding, but they haven't slammed the door shut.

        Last week, Justice Alice Robie Resnick suggested that the seven justices sit down with Mr. Taft and legislative leaders to talk about replacing the school funding system that she and a court majority have declared unconstitutional.

        The governor and legislative leaders said they had some concerns about whether such a meeting would blur the constitutional lines between the judicial, executive and legislative branches. But they haven't ruled out the idea.

        “The governor has pledged to meet with anyone to help find a solution to this,” said Taft spokesman Scott Milburn.

        Mr. Milburn said that when the governor first heard about the Resnick proposal last week, “he didn't know quite how to react. This is something that has never been proposed before.”

        A summit among the three branches of state government on what is now a legislative matter — finding a new funding formula — would be unprecedented.

        Ohio Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said that while he thinks such a meeting is “unlikely,” the unusual nature of it shouldn't necessarily prevent it.

        “I've been thinking about the judicial propriety of this, but, really, why should I?” Mr. Finan said. “If it doesn't bother (Justice Resnick), why should it bother me?”

        Justice Resnick could not be reached for comment Monday.

        The Resnick proposal came as the justice continued to take heat from political opponents, who say she and the rest of the court majority are forcing the legislature into raising taxes.

        Andrew Doehrel, Ohio Chamber of Commerce president and a persistent Resnick critic, called the summit proposal “as ridiculous as the ruling itself. It is bizarre. It is blatantly political. The court majority seems to be acting as some kind of super-legislature.”

        Mr. Finan said his concern would be whether it was proper for the court to meet outside the courtroom to discuss a pending case with only one side of the case.

        The Ohio Senate president said that he would likely discuss Justice Resnick's suggestion today with Mr. Taft and Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg.

        William Phillis, director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Ade quacy of School Funding, the organization that brought the original lawsuit challenging Ohio's school funding system, said his group wants to have a part in coming up with a solution to the school funding problem.

        The suggestion by Justice Resnick of a meeting with the governor and legislators, Mr. Phillis said, was “probably born out of frustration. She obviously wants to see something happen.”

        Justice Resnick, a Toledo Democrat who is running for re-election this year, wrote the court's 4-3 majority opinion earlier this month. For the second time, it declared the state's school funding formula unconstitutional because it relies too heavily on property taxes.

        In effect, the court ordered the state to reduce property taxes to narrow the gap between poor and rich districts. While state officials have left the door open to raising sales or income taxes, Mr. Taft and Ms. Davidson have said attempt to increase school funding should begin with the state's surplus money.


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