Monday, January 01, 2001

Ohio Assembly has fresh faces, new priorities

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The latest version of the Ohio General Assembly will feature lots of new faces, and an agenda that would make some veteran politicians cringe.

        Because of Ohio's term-limit law, 42 first-time lawmakers will take their oaths Tuesday in events marking the biggest political turnover in 28 years.

  Nine new state representatives from Southwest Ohio are starting their two-year terms Tuesday in the Ohio House.
  • 32nd: Wayne Coates, D.
  • 33rd: Steve Driehaus, D.
  • 34th: Bill Seitz, R.
  • 36th: Michelle G. Schneider, R.
  • 37th: Tom Brinkman Jr., R.
  • 71st: Jean Schmidt, R.
  • 72nd: Tom Niehaus, R.
  • 60th: Shawn N. Webster, R.
  • 2nd: Tom Raga, R.
        This huge freshman class includes Ohio's youngest representative, 18-year-old Democrat Derrick Seaver of rural Minster, and a host of tough-minded conservatives like Mount Lookout Republican Tom Brinkman Jr.

        Many of the new conservative legislators promised voters they would push for tax cuts, a smaller bureaucracy, abortion restrictions and gun owners' rights.

        A lot has changed since the November election.

        Sluggish sales tax revenues, out-of-control Medicaid bills and a court order to improve school funding pose serious fiscal problems with no easy solutions. That has many of the remaining senior lawmakers, including Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, warning some promises may be hard to keep.

        “It's going to be very difficult to cut taxes across the board until the school funding thing is out of the way,” Mr. Finan said.

        Mr. Brinkman, however, is convinced budget cuts can help reduce state income tax rates at least 5 percent.

        “There's not a person, an association or any entity in the world that cannot handle a 5 percent cut,” Mr. Brinkman said. “You can do it.”

  • Forty-two new lawmakers will take their oaths of office in the Ohio General Assembly. Here is a look at some of the challenges they face:
  • Fewer dollars: Budget officials say sales tax revenues are about $100 million below projections and warn other tax revenues also might drop.
  • Rising costs: Spiraling Medicaid costs forced state agencies to cut $125 million this year to help plug a $648 million spending gap. Those costs are expected to continue to rise over the next two years.
  • School funding: Lawmakers face a June 15 deadline to meet an Ohio Supreme Court order to improve school funding.
  • Proficiency tests: The general assembly will consider a plan to revamp Ohio's controversial high stakes proficiency tests that measure students' and schools' performance.
  • What's next: The 124th Ohio General Assembly officially opens for business Tuesday when 99 representatives and 33 senators take their oaths of office. Republicans continue to hold substantial majorities in both chambers.
        This kind of rhetoric between the GOP-run House and Senate could become common this year. The seeds were planted in 1992 when voters approved a constitutional amendment that put eight-year term limits on all lawmakers.

        The law's impact was felt last year when a regiment of veteran legislators could not run for re-election. Though a few in the House successfully ran for seats in the Senate, the most senior House lawmakers this year were first elected in 1994 or appointed in 1993.

        Forty-two lawmakers have yet to cast their first votes. One cannot legally drink alcohol for another three years.

        At 18, Mr. Seaver is possibly the youngest person in Ohio's history to become a state representative. Mr. Seaver beat Republican David Shiffer by 242 votes in a district that covers Auglaize, Champaign and Shelby counties.

        “I've been interested in politics over the past four years,” Mr. Seaver said.

        The Minster Democrat supports changes to the state's controversial proficiency tests, and favors a plan that would earmark a portion of all new state revenues to fund schools.

        Like many new conservative Republicans, he also supports abortion restrictions and measures intended to protect or expand gun owners' rights. Unlike his GOP colleagues, Mr. Seaver said he didn't promise to cut taxes.

        “I was very careful to stress that over the next two years we could face a situation like this,” he said. “With state agencies already making cuts, I don't think there's any room for tax cuts.”

        Wayne Coates, another new Democrat lawmaker from Forest Park, agrees.

"Catastrophic situation'
               “For every dollar that you cut in taxes you have to have a dollar to give away,” Mr. Coates said. “Otherwise you'll put our state into a catastrophic situation.”

        Both, however, can only guess at how much say they'll have in a GOP-controlled General Assembly.

        The House will be led by a new Speaker in Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford. Over the past four years, Democrats largely have been shut out of the process.

        State Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, who will become the second-ranking party leader in the House, predicts budget issues, school funding and school proficiency tests will dominate the early debates.

        After nearly a decade of billion-dollar surpluses, budget officials are sending out warnings of a slowing economy. Budget Director Tom Johnson said sales tax revenues are about $100 million lower than expected, a sign other tax revenues also could drop.

        Meanwhile, costs linked to Medicaid, the government's medical safety net for low income families, seniors and the disabled, are skyrocketing. Increased caseloads, prescription drug prices and other expenses already have forced state agencies to cut $125 million from their budgets this year to help plug the state's share of a $648 million deficit.

        Lawmakers face a June 15 deadline set by the Ohio Supreme Court to improve school funding. A 4-3 ruling in May declared the state's school funding system inadequate because schools' property taxes supply most of the money.

        Mr. Cates further expects lawmakers to deal with a plan calling for changes in the state's high-stakes proficiency tests.

"First things first'
               That work may not leave much room for tax cuts, abortion changes or another issue conservatives favor, a bill that would let Ohioans carry concealed firearms.

        “We've got to take care of first things first,” Mr. Cates said.

        Despite that, Mr. Cates and other lawmakers said a concealed-weapons bill could emerge and pass the House this year. If so, it's not clear Senate Republicans or Gov. Bob Taft will support it.

        All agree, however, that the General Assembly's biggest test lies within the budget.

        “All the freshmen (lawmakers) are going to be in for quite an education when they see the budget proposals come out in January,” Mr. Cates said.

        Mr. Taft agrees.

        “It will be a very conservative, almost austere budget, that we are facing,” the governor predicted.

        Though he expects the growing conservative factions of the House and Senate to challenge his moderate positions on tax cuts and gun issues, Mr. Taft points to the budget as an opportunity to work with the new legislature on solutions.


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