Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Taft targets high-tech jobs


He wants $1.6B over 10 years

By Kim Siegel and Leo Shane III
Gannett Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Hoping to lead Ohio into what he calls the “third frontier,” Gov. Bob Taft on Tuesday proposed investing $1.6 billion over the next 10 years to develop high-tech, high-paying jobs.

        “We're not moving fast enough to keep pace with our competitors or replace jobs lost to productivity,” Mr. Taft said in an election-year State of the State speech to a joint session of the Ohio General Assembly.

        But to make his plan a reality, Mr. Taft must get cooperation from lawmakers and Ohio voters.

        The plan counts on $50 million per year from the state capital budget, approved by the General Assembly every two years. This money would finance building and equipment purchases to create technology research centers.

        Voters also will be asked in 2003 to approve $500 million in bonds. The proceeds of the bond issue would be used for high-tech operations and recruitment of top researchers.

        “As companies become more efficient to compete in the global market, they make products with fewer, but higher-skilled workers,” Mr. Taft said. “That's why we need to do more to grow and attract the knowledge jobs of the 21st century.”

        Addressing the state during an economic recession and in the long shadow of Sept. 11, Mr. Taft departed from previous initiative-laden State of the State addresses.

        “When I took office, the economy was strong, employment was plentiful, the state budget was stable, and we were a nation at peace,” Mr. Taft said. “How times have changed.”

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, described the speech as fitting the occasion.

        “He didn't raise the expectations beyond doability, and I think that's very important when you come to the State of the State, that you put ideas on the table that are doable,” Mr. Finan said.

        Tim Hagan, the Democratic candidate for governor, ridiculed Mr. Taft's economic development proposals.

        “Right now Ohio is in a battle for jobs and progress and we're losing that battle,” he said. “If this is a battle worth fighting, and I think it is, we need to fight it now — not two, four, six or even 10 years from now.”

        Mr. Taft's speech also turned to issues of terrorism and homeland security. He proposed a $5 million low-interest loan fund to help with protection of water supplies. He also announced that Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor will soon unveil a program to collect information on suspected terrorists and share it with law enforcement through a statewide database.

        Mr. Taft also talked about some of Ohio's education accomplishments, including the fact that three of four school districts improved on their report cards last year.

        He avoided discussing the ongoing school-funding lawsuit, currently in court-ordered negotiations.

        Mr. Taft set a new goal for higher education — to increase college enrollment by 5,000 students in the next five years. To help, he wants to add $2 million to the Ohio College Access Network, which encourages high school students to go to college.

        Democrats blasted Mr. Taft for lauding himself on higher education improvements, while at the same time cutting those institutions' funds in the recent state budget.

        “He fails to lead and won't follow through (on) many of his initiatives,” said House Minority Leader Dean DePiero, D-Parma. “A lot of these things have been talked about in the past by Democrats. Are these just more words now?”

        Mr. Taft urged the Ohio Senate to pass a bill this month that would help provide prescription drug discounts for seniors. The bill passed the House last year but has stalled in the Senate.

        “I'm disappointed the drug discount program I announced last year has not been enacted,” Mr. Taft said. “No senior should be forced to choose between food and medicine.”

        Mr. Finan said he still has concerns about the bill, which might pass by the end of the year, but not this month.

        Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, said the governor's speech was a major disappointment. “Nothing daring, nothing exciting, nothing bold: Just Bob Taft,” he said.

        Plans to encourage new research and technology are several years late, despite Democratic efforts to fund those programs, he said. As recently as December, Republicans ignored similar proposals to spur the job market, but now Mr. Taft is claiming the ideas as his own, Mr. Mallory said.

        But Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, called Mr. Taft's plan “visionary” and said it could be a direct benefit to the relocation of Middletown Hospital to a new medical technology campus in Butler County.

        “Middletown Hospital wants to be a pioneer in new medical technology,” he said. “If we can get the cooperation of the Taft administration to make that happen, we've got things ready to go and help make the third frontier a reality.”

       



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