Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Taft counts many successes

Governor assesses first two years

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Looking back over two years in office, Gov. Bob Taft sees a list of promises kept along a path cut through the political middle ground.

        Blessed with a strong economy, budgets flush with cash and a legislature run by fellow Republicans, Mr. Taft has had a relatively strong and uncontroversial first half of his first term. The record reveals a moderate leader with a successful agenda, who sometimes has to work to curb the General Assembly's more conservative factions.

[photo] Ohio Gov. Bob Taft talks about his first two years in office during an interview Tuesday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        “I think we've accomplished probably more than 90 percent of the agenda I set forth when I came into office,” Mr. Taft said during an interview Tuesday with The Cincinnati Enquirer.

        The governor has helped pass targeted tax-relief plans for businesses and families, including a reduction in the state's unpopular inheritance tax. He has opposed conservative efforts to pass broad permanent tax cuts, fearing they would threaten the state's fiscal health.

        On education, he has continued to pump up funding for schools while creating a $10 billion fund for school construction. At the same time, he's vowed not to raise taxes to pay for future reform measures.

        He also persuaded voters in November to set aside $400 million for new state parks and environ mental cleanups. His OhioReads program has helped put more than 13,000 volunteer literacy tutors in elementary schools.

        There have been setbacks. Despite a public plea from Mr. Taft, Republican lawmakers trashed a bill early this year that would have required safe storage of guns.

    A look at some of Gov. Bob Taft's promises and what happened to them in his first two years in office:

   Promise: Increase spending for new school construction and renovations.
   Reality: Voters approved a state school construction program that will spend $10 billion over the next 12 years, if schools spend $13 billion.
   Next: State must convince Ohio Supreme Court that it hasnıt done enough.

   Promise: Targeted tax cuts and credits for college tuition and job training, businesses and individuals.
   Reality: Legislature passed several targeted cuts, including a cut in Ohioıs unpopular inheritance tax.
   Next: With tax revenues dwindling, Medicaid costs increasing and schools demanding more funds, Mr. Taft and other legislative leaders have vowed not to raise taxes next year.

Gun safety
   Promise: Pass a law requiring safe storage of firearms.
   Reality: A bill requiring safe storage of guns defeated in committee.
   Next: The governor will try to pass the bill again, though itıs unlikely it will pass.

   Promise: Create a $400 million fund to clean up polluted sites and help create new parks and recreation areas in the state.
   Reality: Voters approved the issue in November.
   Next: The Legislature must pass a bill that will decide how to spend the money.

   Promise: The Legislature must pass a bill that will decide how to spend the money.
   Reality: More than 10,000 such tutors are volunteering.
   Next: Mr. Taft promises to continue promoting the OhioReads program to enlist more volunteers.

        Though Mr. Taft praises the work already done on school funding, Democrats and a coalition of school leaders suing the state say he and legislative leaders have been dragging their feet on more expensive reform measures.

        “The state has fiddled around and skirted the issues,” said Bill Phillis, leader of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

        Mr. Taft also became embroiled in two situations that stretched Ohio's campaign funding laws.

        He used a private box at Ohio State University's football stadium as a fund-raising tool. He also made fund-raising calls on behalf of a group that used undisclosed donations in an effort to defeat Democratic Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick.

        Mr. Taft said he does not regret urging supporters to give money to Citizens for a Strong Ohio. He said he did regret its main commercial, which suggested Justice Resnick ruled in favor of trial lawyers who gave thousands to her campaign war chest.

        “I'm certainly willing to work with legislators to reform our election laws to provide for greater disclosure of the sources of money,” Mr. Taft said. “I think people ought to know about that before they go to vote.”

        On school funding, he said he is not stalling and plans to work with lawmakers on a new state budget that will meet the Ohio Supreme Court's June 15 deadline to enact reforms.

        “We're not trying to push a public relations campaign. We're sitting down and trying to address the issues,” Mr. Taft said. “We're leaving no stone unturned to address all these issues, without increasing the overall tax burden in Ohio.”

        On firearms issues, he faces another stalemate with the legislature.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said he expects to see bills introduced next year that would require safe storage and let Ohioans carry concealed weapons. He offered to work out a compro mise if Mr. Taft wants one.

        “If he's going to veto a bill, he's my governor,” Mr. Finan said. “I'm not prone to embarrassing him or putting him to the wall on those issues.”

        Though his first two years are filled with accomplishments, Mr. Taft also recognizes his toughest political challenges are yet to come.

        In addition to the school funding problem, the state must find a way to deal with skyrocketing Medicaid costs and a growing budget crisis. For months now, budget officials have charted a steady drop in sales tax revenues that only figures to get worse during a slow Christmas shopping season.

        On top of that, term limits will bring 43 new lawmakers to the General Assembly this year. Many of those legislators are strong conservatives who are ready to challenge the governor's moderate stance on taxes and spending.

        And Democrats, who have largely been unable to affect the Republican agenda, say Mr. Taft won't look to them in the future to pass issues Republican leaders would rather ignore. Sen. Mark Mallory said that points to an overall question of leadership.

        “I had hoped there would be times that the governor forged coalitions with Democrats to get what he wanted,” said Mr. Mallory, D-Cincinnati. “There seem to be times when the agenda is set by the legislature as opposed to the governor.”

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