Thursday, June 07, 2001

Taft vetoes lawmaker immunity

Finan rips governor

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Saying he doesn't want to be “convicted in the press as an aider and abettor,” Gov. Bob Taft on Wednesday vetoed a provision in the state budget that would have made key government documents secret.

        The governor signed off on most of the rest of the $44.9 billion budget, but he vetoed language that said Ohio lawmakers and their staff could not be sued, forced to testify about their work or give up internal documents to a court.

Gov. Taft
        In a handwritten letter to Senate President Richard Finan, the governor explained he couldn't sign off on the measure — passed by his fellow Republicans — because the language “goes too far.” He acknowledged that he also is worried about his re-election bid in 2002.

        The media “is on a tear, as you know, against the "secrecy' of "one-party rule,'” Mr. Taft wrote, adding, “I ask that you understand that I, too, have a "tough district' to run in next year.”

        The budget gives public schools an extra $1.4 billion over the next two years while virtually eliminating new spending at Ohio universities and state agencies. Mr. Taft did veto a few other line-item measures.

        Mr. Taft's decision to veto immunity language in the bill drew fire from Mr. Finan and other Republicans, further illustrating the widening rift between the governor and rest of his party. Already this year some Republican lawmakers have called Mr. Taft a weak leader who has failed the make the tough decisions needed to shape this budget.

        Mr. Taft seemed to put even more distance between himself and his colleagues in the budget process, subtly noting that the final funding plan for schools was not his idea.

        “I have sought to meet you more than halfway in supporting your school funding plan,” the letter said.

        Mr. Finan, a Republican from Evendale, distributed copies of the letter after a Senate session and blasted the governor's decision.

        “I am saddened that the governor could not withstand the pressure of countless newspaper articles and editorials that mischaracterized this as a "secrecy provision,'” Mr. Finan said. “Being the hero for a day to the newspapers may help the governor in the short term, but by doing this there will be serious long-term consequences for the legislature.”

        The immunity language was added to the budget bill a week after the Ohio Supreme Court ordered legislative leaders to hand over reams of documents to lawyers suing over the state's education funding system.

        The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which sued the state and won, argued it had a right to the documents because lawmakers used them to help craft a plan to spend an extra $1.4 billion to get poor schools up to par.

        Republicans, however, argued that the General Assembly should be immune from such scrutiny. Mr. Finan said Wednesday the legislature risks losing the best and brightest politicians because they won't enter public service if they can be subject to subpoena at “any lawyer's whim.”

        After signing the two-year budget, the governor said the legislature should consider the secrery provisions, if at all, in a separate bill after public hearings.

        Bill Phillis, the coalition's executive director, said the secrecy provisions were attempts by lawmakers to legalize their own suppression of evidence.

        “We had anticipated Gov. Taft would veto this provision because it's an egregious, Dark Ages kind of public policy,” Mr. Phillis said.

        Newspapers across the state also criticized the measure. Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the best way Ohioans can hold lawmakers accountable is to insist on an open government with open records.

        “This sends a clear signal to Ohioans that government access is paramount,” Mr. Deaner said of the governor's veto.

        A 1999 decision by lawmakers already shields certain Legislative Research Commission records from public view.


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