Sunday, February 18, 2001

Statehouse delegation finds common ground

Group fiscally conservative with eye on technological growth

        Southwestern Ohio's 19-member delegation to the General Assembly in Columbus includes some influential lawmakers — the Senate president and two top House leaders, among others. But they haven't worked much together as a group on issues of regional interest. That may soon change. Our discussions with Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, House speaker pro tem, led to an Enquirer Editorial Board roundtable discussion Feb. 2 with 12 of the 14 House members from Southwestern Ohio. The lawmakers discussed plans to meet regularly as a regional caucus. Here are excerpts from that session:

        Q. Because of term limits, most of you are new to the legislature. Some believe an inexperienced legislature will be easily controlled by lobbyists, bureaucrats and other outside forces. What do you think?

        Tom Niehaus: As a new legislator, I would disagree with that notion. We come from different backgrounds. We have our own strengths and experiences. We are each able to evaluate the information we get. We're not afraid to say yes or no. We're looking from a fresh persepective, which is a plus. We look at all sides, and form an opinion from there.

        And we're working very, very hard. None of us realized how much time this job would take. They told us it was three days a week, but they didn't say it was from 7 in the morning to 11 at night. Plus meeting with groups in our districts, and meetings like this on Fridays.

        Tom Raga: A lot of lobbyists built up relationships over 20 years with legislators who are now gone because of term limits. Now we're relying on those lobbyists for information. But the pressure is more on them to be upfront and accurate, because they haven't built up those relationships with us.

        Wayne Coates: Don't forget, we also have the Legislative Service Commission, which evaluates bills and gives us information on issues. Lobbyists are just one source of information. Our priority is that we represent the people back home.

        Shawn Webster: There's a wrong perception here. A legislator who's been there a long time doesn't necessarily understand history better than a new legislator. Remember the double dipping issue. Clearly what the legislature wanted to do in 1993 was get rid of it. But years later, sure enough, the loophole is back in. They forgot their own history.

        Patricia Clancy: It's not only lobbyists who are an influence, but bureaucrats in state agencies who have their agendas. As with double dipping, allowing the loophole to open up again. My understanding was that this was a recommendation from PERS (Public Employees Retirement System). That can be a pitfall. We should be taking their information very carefully. The concern (about influences on legislators) is a healthy one.

        Samuel Britton: Lobbyists don't really deserve the bad name they have gotten. Do they have undue influence? Not actually. They can be a source of good information, but that information has to be put into context.

        Jean Schmidt: Don't forget, state agencies have their own registered lobbyists, too. These are people who have certain perspectives.

        Q. This delegation is more bipartisan in makeup and spirit than before, but the General Assembly as a whole seems more conservative Republican this term. How will that affect your caus' ability to work together and get things done for Southwest Ohio?

        Jean Schmidt: I've only been here a few weeks, but everybody's been good. There's a spirit of cooperation. The speaker (Larry Householder) is working in a bipartisan manner.

        Sam Britton: Most of us on fiscal matters have a conservative bent. Where we have differences are on social issues. But we're not dealing with those so far. We're working on areas of agreement. Just because we don't agree on some things does not mean that we do not work together.

        Tom Brinkman: It's a case where term limits can bury lot of bad feelings and resentments. New people get in, and they can work together.

        Catherine Barrett: We need to make sure we concentrate on issues we agree on.

        Shawn Webster: My experience in government, and the experience of many people here, has been mostly non-partisan. It's not always about partisan politics.

        Q. What can your caucus do to overcome the political fragmentation identified in the Gallis report and unite on regional goals?

        Steve Driehaus: Myron Orfield has identified problems common to older urban areas. We need to invest in technology and in redeveloping brownfields. We have so many elected officials here, so we have to make sure we're all working on common goals.

        Wayne Coates: There was a vacuum in the Gallis report. There was nothing there for us. It didn't involve municipalities and townships.

        Jean Schmidt: We are the afterthought in the report.

        Wayne Coates: The Gallis study seemed more corporate. We have a great technological heritage, but there was no discussion of creating a Museum of Science and Industry and other attractions.

        Catherine Barrett: We are funding our universities and they are doing a tremendous job. We will continue to ask the controlling board to give lots of dollars to UC. The Governor's task force is trying to develop a technology niche here. But you can't be an island. It has to be a collaborative effort.

        Bill Seitz: Sen. Stan Aronoff as Ohio Senate president always used to say: You'll do a better job on the state's capital funding list if you speak with a single voice, if you are speaking with one regional voice. We have a tremendous opportunity to make Ohio more competitive in light of the energy problems in California. It's going to be difficult for California to maintain its business support. We are so blessed here with a better program of deregulation. We can capitalize on California's problems.

        Tom Brinkman: This region has set poor priorities on the stadiums, light rail, convention center expansion, the Olympics. It's ridiculous. We need to get together and decide what should be our No. 1 priority.

        Jean Schmidt: Cincinnati used to be the No. 1 downtown in Ohio. Do you find downtown retail outstanding? What's the main attraction? What would it take to bring the housewife into the city. We have nothing to offer her now. The city hasn't focused on one thing that will make us No. 1.

        Catherine Barrett: Most successful cities have strong mayors. A stronger mayor will make a difference.

        Tom Raga: This is our legislative collaborative. We are ready for those ideas to bubble up.

        Patricia Clancy: It's not helpful if we all pushing different ideas. If the region speaks with one voice, it will be more beneficial for the entire state.

        Gary Cates: The mayors need to interact with us and the county commissioners. We as individuals are not going to be here forever. Our state lost a congressman, but the population growth is down here at this end of the state. We could pick up a state representative in the next election cycle. Our clout could increase in the state. This apparatus (caucus) needs to continue.

        Steve Driehaus: The challenge to us is to be leaders. They should come to us. We should be leading that conversation. We shouldn't wait for them to come to us.

        Q. With a state Supreme Court order looming, will any of you predict what you'll do about school funding?

Gary Cates: No one can do that, but note that the first two bills at the top of our agenda — House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 — both deal with education. HB1 deals with standards and proficiency tests and HB2 is the school funding one. Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2 are companion bills. But the only thing sure right now are some deadlines we have. We know June 20 is the date for oral arguments at the Supreme Court on our solutions. We have bipartisan work groups working on the seven points the court says we have to address. We've set April 5 to make our statements on proposed budgets and education is the biggest one.

        Q. What else do you see as big issues facing the legislature?

        Sam Britton: I'm from an urban district in a slowing economy with tens of thousands of people reciving public assistance. After welfare reform, those people who has just gotten into jobs probably will be the first ones fired. I'm concerned about how we will address this real problem ahead of us.

        Steve Driehaus: Another big issue is government accountability — restoring faith in government. The double dipping issue is one example. Another is restricting the secretary of state from engaging in partisan political activity. Faith in the systtem is important, especially for young people.

        On campaign finance, there's real concern about it. Republicans outspend Democrats 10 to 1. People expect fair treatment.

        Jean Schmidt: The problem is, every time you change the campaign finance system there are new loopholes. One of those huge imbalances is the unions' ability to force workers to put money into their PACs. Until paycheck protection comes to Ohio, campaign finance reform will not work.

        Bill Seitz: Everybody has a different definition of what is fair. But we have several other issues — annexation reform, correcting the elections process, brownfields, redistricting. We are going to clarify some of the standards in the counting of ballots.

        Patricia Clancy: Our plate is quite full. This is a lot of information to absorb.

        Gary Cates: For example, 49 bills were filed this week alone in the House. We're focused. We have to be. We have hard deadlines ahead on school finance, the budget. We're going to have a full session.

        On campaign finance reform, we need to wait and see what happens at federal level. We need to do more on protecting vote integrity.

        Tom Brinkman: The tax cut movement is alive and well in Columbus, but it is aware what the agenda is. It would be foolhardy to put tax cuts on the table right now. We'll roll them out in March or April, and enact them this session. We want a comprehensive plan that saves money for all Ohioans.

        Samuel Britton: We need to enact true deregulation of natural gas. There's a crisis in northern Ohio, which has higher rates. PUCO (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) should have clear oversight over gas. We hope in long run it will drive prices down. It certainly means there should be improvement.

        Bill Seitz: That bill is bipartisan. It's the same concept as electric deregulation. Aggreagate puying power; PUCO certifies marketers.

        But we should tell people what the real core of tthe problem is. Federal energy policy last 10 years had discouraged natural gas, but through the EPA spiked demand for natural gas. It's Econ 101: Demand goes up, supply is restricted, prices go up.

        Steve Driehaus: It's unfair to pin the blame solely on tthe federal government. Let's also look at the industry. There are a lot of capped wells because their economic models looked at how to maximize profits for their companies. There's plenty of blame to go around.

        Wayne Coates: Prescription drug coverage is another big issue. Many people in my district are not covered. They need help. This was discussed before the election. We need to address that. Prices are going way up. We need to find relief.

        Tom Niehaus: We need to address child support issues and the dismal performance of the state in dealing with it. The money disappears. Sometimes it never gets to the proper party.

        Tom Brinkman: Legislation by litigation is a problem in Ohio. The state Supreme Court is at fault. They did DeRolph (the school funding case). They threw out tort reform. They threw out worker's comp reform. We now have three houses in our legislative branch — the House, the Senate and the SuperLegislature (the Supreme Court). Is it better if these seven people decide things, or if the 99 members of House and 33 members of the Senate decide?

        Bill Seitz: Now, all those other agencies that are screaming for money are rattling their swords, saying they will be the next DeRolph. We will have real problems with separation of powers in this state when they all line up to sue.

        Catherine Barrett: Let's get back to our region. What are our goals? What is our agenda? I'm looking at charter schools. Why aren't we using our TANF (federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) dollars? Ohio gets $750 million a year from TANF. If we don't spend these dollars, they will be cut. And we're looking at the next round of allocations.

        Bill Seitz: Catherine is right. This is a major issue in Ohio. I support charter schools, but she is correct that Ohio has spent far less than its allocation of TANF money. Why aren't we spending these dollars? Are there creative ways to use dollars?

        Shawn Webster: Remember, the “T” stands for “Temporary.” We can't build programs on temporary money.

        Steve Driehaus: Yes, but we can be creative in investing in families.

        Q. What are the top two or three things that you all can agree on?

        Sam Britton: Implementing brownfields programs.

        Tom Brinkman: We in this region are in trouble with brownfields. We need to come together. Cleveland hired a former EPA director to get every penny it could. Our port authority is concentrating on The Banks, but it shouldn't ignore brownfields. We need to correct that.

        Steve Driehaus: Creating regional priorities. We could take a lead role in creating a regional agenda, working with the existing boards.

        Shawn Webster: I hope we agree on one general philosophy — that we maintain our openness to local input and remember who we are representing.

        Bill Seitz: Most of us come from local government background. We're not far enough away from it to have forgotten it.

        Wayne Coates: Being fiscally responsible — we can agree on that.

        Steve Driehaus: High-tech initiatives — biotech, nanotechnology, etc. Clearly we have the potential to lead the area and the state in this.

        Jean Schmidt: We have the mechanism to do it, looking at economic development as a region. High-tech is something they're screaming for to attract better job opportunities.


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