Sunday, May 13, 2001

N E W S   A N A L Y S I S

Taft criticized as ineffective

Even fellow Republicans give him low marks

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        When Gov. Bob Taft delivered his State of the State address in January, he promised to make improving public schools his top priority. But as Mr. Taft finished his speech and stood grinning before the packed House chamber, the two legislative leaders at his side showed little enthusiasm for the governor's education plan. In fact, they looked downright grim.

        For Mr. Taft, it was a sign of things to come.

        For five months the governor has been locked in intense debate with Senate President Richard Finan and House Speaker Larry Householder over how to comply with an Ohio Supreme Court order to overhaul Ohio's public school system.

        Lawmakers and others say the school crisis put Mr. Taft through the biggest test of his political career. Yet not even Mr. Taft's fellow Republicans give the governor high marks.

        They say that as the legislature finally prepares to adopt an education plan nearly twice as expensive as the governor proposed, Mr. Taft has lacked the vision of a strong leader, failed to make hard decisions and generally squandered the power of the office.

        “I think the governor's office is adverse to making tough decisions,” says State Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, the No. 2 Republican in the House and top lieutenant of Mr. Householder. “They prefer to have someone else deal with the messy things in government.”

        Mr. Taft's spokesman argues that any criticism of the first-term governor is mis guided, that Mr. Taft displayed strong convictions and political skills in forging an education plan. When it comes to the governor, Kevin Kellems says, “substance is more important than style. A lot of talk (about Mr. Taft) focuses on style.”

        Jim Ruvolo, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, predicts Mr. Taft's handling of the education issue won't play well with voters, especially if the Supreme Court finds the latest funding system unconstitutional.

        “(The court) will throw it back in his face and he'll look like what he is: Someone who doesn't want to lead.”

An unfortunate mix
               Mr. Taft, who grew up in Cincinnati, has never been known for his charm or ability to use the bully pulpit. But for much of his term he coasted along on a strong economy that permitted tax breaks.

        But the last few months have brought tougher times. Faced with a manufacturing slowdown, massive budget shortfalls and a court-ordered June 15 deadline to bring Ohio's poor schools up to par, the governor has been forced to take center stage.

        Under the intense spotlight, says Robert Adams, associate professor of political science at Wright State University, Mr. Taft's lack of political instincts has been magnified.

        “You have an inexperienced governor and a very, very difficult problem. It's an unfortunate mix,” Mr. Adams says. “He really is a weak leader. He was ill-prepared for the challenges he faced.”

        To Mr. Cates, the prime example of Mr. Taft's weak leadership is the way the governor and his administration dealt with the legislature during negotiations over education and the coming two-year budget.

        Mr. Cates says the governor's problems started when his education plan garnered little support from lawmakers. “I think we were under-whelmed the governor's address didn't speak with any more clarity than it did,” he says.

        The governor should have stumped for a plan that had a chance of meeting the high court's mandate to fix schools, Mr. Cates says. Instead, he says, Mr. Taft squandered his political capital pushing Project Thaw, a $50 million heating-bill relief plan.

        Mr. Kellems dismisses such criticism.

        “It is a difficult and challenging budget environment and long hours are being put in so some aspects of what you are hearing may amount to blowing off steam,” Mr. Kellems says. "But I think the fact the governor did provide strong leadership is one reason why some people may take exception to particular aspects of the outcome.”

        Still, Mr. Cates is not the only Republican who took a dim view of Mr. Taft's initial education plan, which set aside an extra $807 million for public schools.

Different GOP plan
               Senate Republican disliked it so much that within an hour after the governor announced it, they said they would move forward with their own school funding plan. The Senate plan, put forth by Mr. Finan, proposed spending nearly twice as much on education.

        The House response was even stronger. Mr. Householder denounced Mr. Taft's proposal, saying it would never meet the high court's muster. His plan, revealed in March, proposed $3 billion for schools - nearly three times as much as the governor.

        The governor and the two legislative leaders met to find a Republican compromise. When they emerged, Mr. Taft at first seemed victorious.

        He had killed the Householder plan by threatening to veto any use of video lottery terminals at racetracks to fund it. And he had held firm on his commitment not to rip apart department budgets in other key areas to find money for schools.

        But while the governor succeeded in taking options off the table, some lawmakers say he failed to offer new ways to fix the schools. Legislators were back where they started.

        To make matters worse, they also learned the $45 billion budget Mr. Taft had presented in January was about $800 million short due to declining revenues.

        “I feel the governor's office had an obligation to come up with solutions once they discovered the $800 million hole, but it didn't, so we had to do the dirty work ourselves,” Mr. Cates says.

        Mr. Kellems responds that Mr. Taft's budget fell short due to rising Medicaid costs and a slowing economy, which he called unforeseeable. He says the governor did show leadership by being the “sole voice” pushing to use more than $100 million of the state's rainy day funds toward the shortfall.

        Although House lawmakers reluctantly agreed to tap the $1 billion savings, Mr. Finan continues to argue Ohio is not having the kind of hard times that justify such actions.

        Despite such disagreements, Mr. Finan says he has no criticisms of Mr. Taft.

        Asked if the governor has been a good leader, Mr. Finan responds, “He has been as helpful or more helpful to our members than I can remember other governors being in this situation. He's been available for bill signings, those kinds of things.”

        Mr. Householder, a forceful personality, says leadership is shown in different ways. “Some of them are visible. Some are not visible.”

        The Speaker acknowledges he didn't believe the governor's initial education plan was constitutional. But he notes Mr. Taft eventually agreed to a $1.4 billion school funding plan.

        Still, he says, the deficits in Mr. Taft's budget made the process strained. “Folks around here tell me they don't remember a time a budget has been handed to somebody and then you lose $800 million dollars,” Mr. Householder says. “We were put in a difficult position.”

Can't say no
               State Rep. Jim Trakas, R-Independence, says Mr. Taft cares so deeply about his constituents he just can't seem to say no to any of them.

        “If anyone would say the governor is tepid, I think it's because he has a larger perspective,” says Mr. Trakas. “The governor has to represent everybody.”

        Still, Mr. Trakas adds, “that makes it difficult for him to set priorities.”

        Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University, agrees that the governor was overshadowed during the budget and education negotiations. He said Mr. Householder, in particular, demonstrated excellent political skills.

        At the same time, Mr. Asher says, "I've heard a number of Republicans say, "where was the governor's leadership?'”


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