Sunday, January 28, 2001

Taft schools plan falls flat on floor

        County fair season in Ohio is a good six or seven months away, but it's not too early to get out the old mallet and play our favorite midway game, Whack-a-Mole.

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft is busy giving the old biceps and rotator cuff a workout, trying to smack down all the little moles that are now popping up to bedevil his governorship after two years of relative calm.

        Mr. Taft whacked away furiously Wednesday in his State of the State speech. When it was all over, he didn't walk away with the Kewpie doll.

        Maybe he should have tried the guess-your-weight-and-age booth.

        Legislators from both parties were waiting to hear what the governor had to say about the most immediate problem the state faces — coming up with a new public school funding plan that is less reliant on local property taxes and will meet the test of the Ohio Supreme Court, which declared the present system unconstitutional.

        Mr. Taft came up with a plan that would spend $808 million over the next two years, provide more mon
ey for all-day kindergarten, special education and teacher training.

        Legislative Democrats came away laughing so hard milk would have come out their noses, if they drank milk.

        “Where's the beef?” some said, resurrecting a line that should never have made its way from hamburger commercials to the American political lexicon.

        The two Republican legislative leaders who count the most — Ohio Senate president Richard Finan and House Speaker Larry Householder — both mumbled some generalities about the Taft plan being a starting point and made it clear that they would be introducing their own school funding plans.

        Looks like that mole got away.

        Democrats in the Ohio General Assembly don't really have the numbers to cause much trouble for the governor; he is more fortunate than his good friend George W. Bush in that regard.

        Mr. Bush, with a 50-50 Senate and a small GOP majority in the House, is going to have to work overtime coming up with more chummy nicknames for Democratic legislators to try to win them over.

        Nonetheless, Democrats look at the school funding crisis, rising utility bills, economic uncertainty and think to themselves that there might, indeed, be an opportunity for a smart Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2002, if the governor doesn't get busy with that mole-whacker.

        But one of Mr. Taft's biggest headaches in the statehouse will come from within his own party. Term limits meant a huge turnover in the Ohio General Assembly. Many of the new kids are Republicans of a much more conservative bent than the governor — people like Tom Brinkman, the new state representative from Mount Lookout, for instance.

        With the state's economy slowing down and revenues drying up, if the governor were to even think about new taxes to make up the difference and do all the things he would like to do, there would be trouble.

        The moles might start doing the whacking.

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



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