Thursday, January 25, 2001

Taft's honeymoon could be over

Problems: Education, economy

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — One of the first things out of the mouth of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on Wednesday as he stood before the Ohio General Assembly to deliver his third State of the State address was that he believes he has “the best job in the world.”

        Check with him in about a year.

        Wednesday's speech marked the turning point of the governor from Cincinnati's first term.

        He has evolved from being a new governor enjoying good economic times and an extended honeymoon to a statehouse veteran facing perilous issues and entering the dangerous waters of a re-election campaign.

        After his 40-minute address in a packed House chamber, Ohio House and Senate Democrats were nearly knocking each other over to get to reporters to talk about what they saw as the inadequacies of Mr. Taft's plans on education funding reform and the looming energy crisis.

        “It seems to me he has tried to avoid the issue,” State Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, said of school funding portion of Mr. Taft's “building blocks” plan to re form Ohio's public education. “I was listening for a bold initiative and I didn't hear one.”

        Mr. Taft may have gotten a free pass on difficult issues in his first two years in office. He focused on mom-and-apple-pie initiatives like his “OhioReads” volunteer program.

        But now, with the state's economic situation worsening and the vexing problem of replacing an unconstitutional school funding formula, everything he says and does will be critiqued by political adversaries among the Democrats and even within his own Republican Party.

        The school funding question, with the state under an Ohio Supreme Court dead line of June 15 to come up with a new school funding plan, is the most immediate political land mine.

        On Wednesday, not only did the governor not present a politically risky plan that would have shifted the burden to tax sources other than property taxes, he seemed to be passing the responsibility for coming up with a funding solution directly to the GOP-controlled legislature.

        Immediately after the speech, Ohio Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, who had been holding off announcing a new school funding plan until the governor offered his version, said he would have to put the Senate Republicans' plan before the Ohio General As sembly.

        When the governor announced “Operation Thaw” — his plan for one-time tax credits and moratorium on utility shutoffs in the face of skyrocketing energy costs — the legislative Democrats called it too little. too late.

        Mr. Taft, in his speech, seemed to be preparing Ohioans for some bad news. In the weeks before George W. Bush took office, Mr. Bush's people were on the talk shows talking about how they believe a recession is coming. It was seen as a political move aimed at creating a climate where a Bush tax cut might pass Congress.

        “Our economy is slowing; revenues are down,” Mr. Taft said. “Ohioans are con cerned about the future.”

        If he is right and the state does plunge into another period of job loss and economic slowdown, it could give some impetus to the Democrats who are mulling over whether they want to take on a sitting Republican governor.

        U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, is thinking about a run for governor, as is the mayor of Columbus, Michael Coleman, and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell.

        Life has been pretty good for Mr. Taft the past two years, but the bucket of cold water may be about to be tossed in his face.

        It is enough to give a Democratic gubernatorial wannabe a reason to live.

State of the State
Excerpts of the State of the State address delivered Wednesday by Gov. Bob Taft.
Grants will help with heating bills
Plan skips funding fix for schools, some say
- Taft's honeymoon could be over
Taft's initiatives

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