Monday, September 02, 2002

Ohio's troubles pose little threat to Taft


Democrats can't afford campaign tying him to state's problems

By Spencer Hunt shunt@enquirer.com
and Debra Jasper djasper@enquirer.com

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS - With Republicans in charge the past four years, Ohio's economy has slumped, taxes have increased, college tuition has soared and scandals have plagued state government. But disorganized and underfunded Democrats will have a hard time pointing this out to voters this year.

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Gov. Bob Taft reads a letter from fifth-graders at Franklin-Woods School in Columbus last week.
(AP photo)
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        Raising money for a makeshift state ticket is a problem for the Democrats, who installed a new party chairman in June. Democratic candidates for statewide office have raised just $1 for every $14 raised by their Republican opponents.

        The greatest imbalance is between Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who as of Aug. 5 had raised $8 million, compared with about $375,000 for Democrat Tim Hagan.

        Early polls suggest that most statewide GOP candidates will coast to victories in November. One of the newest governor's race polls, conducted Aug. 23 through Friday by a Columbus newspaper, found Mr. Hagan trailing Mr. Taft by 8 percentage points.

        Whether Republican leaders, including Mr. Taft, deserve an easy ride is another matter. Republicans say they've done a good job under tough economic circumstances.

        “I really believe we've risen to the occasion,” Mr. Taft said. “We have a balanced budget that preserves the priorities we have in Ohio, our schools, economic development, our ability to compete for jobs and investments.”

        Mr. Hagan argues that Mr. Taft has failed to properly fund education, was wrong to cut aid to colleges and has been shortsighted in developing new jobs.

        Robert Adams, associate professor of political science at Wright State University, says voters aren't as comfortable as they were four years ago, when Mr. Taft won a first term. Still, he doubts Democrats can afford to launch credible campaigns that highlight the issues and offer new leadership.

        “Democrats could make the argument that Ohio is becoming a second-class state, that it's not supporting higher education, that Republicans haven't been fiscally conservative,” Mr. Adams said. “There's plenty of stuff out there that, with lots of money and the right marketing people, you could make something out of.”

        Mr. Hagan says he won't have enough cash to put his message on TV. He'll be using the Internet.

        “People say if you don't have $10 million to compete, you're dead,” said Mr. Hagan. “I'm not going to sell my soul to the special interests of this state so I can run a lot of 30-second spots on television.”

        That could keep Mr. Hagan from reaching voters who've never heard of the former Cuyahoga County commissioner.

        “I don't know what he looks like,” said Kelly Burdge, who came to a Democratic rally in Columbus last week to hear what he had to say.

        “I was checking to see if that was him,” she added, pointing to a speaker who was not Tim Hagan.

        Ms. Burdge said she wants to know what the candidates plan to do about education, the economy, and health care. She doubts Mr. Hagan can tell her without TV commercials. Mr. Adams agrees.

        “Democrats are so weak right now they've become almost charity cases,” Mr. Adams said. “It's a downward spiral.”

For Democrats, deja vu

        Democratic Party Chairman Denny White acknowledges the party has failed to raise enough money for statewide candidates. He's only been chairman for a few months and has already criticized Mr. Hagan for not trying to run TV spots. He also suggested possible tax increases, which Mr. Hagan dismissed.

        The scenario is reminiscent of what happened in 1994. A well-funded GOP incumbent, Gov. George Voinovich, trampled an underfunded Democrat, Robert Burch, beating him with 72 percent of the vote. Voters that year also swept Republican candidates into every major statewide office and put the party in control of the Ohio House for the first time in over 22 years.

        Republican dominance in Ohio was cemented in 1998 by Mr. Taft's close and expensive victory over former Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher.

        Mr. Taft coasted in the first two years of his term. The economy was strong. Tax revenues were healthy. Budget forecasts were so rosy that lawmakers gave back $1.6 billion in tax refunds from 1999 through 2001 and still spent millions more on services. It was a free spending time, with the budget increasing an average of 8 percent each year, more than twice the rate of inflation.

        By 2001, the good times were gone. The governor and lawmakers found themselves struggling to balance the state's checkbook while searching for hundreds of millions more to adequately fund schools.

        As the tax dollars dwindled, so did the goodwill between the governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Politicians from Mr. Taft's party said the governor lacked vision and often squandered the power of his office.

        The squabbling continued through most of this year as the national economic slump hit Ohio hard, torpedoing a two-year, $44 billion state budget that relied heavily on a strong economy.

        The downturn also forced Republicans to do what every politician wants to avoid. To balance the state budget, they had to cut services to constituents while raising their taxes.

        Mr. Taft and Republican lawmakers raised cigarette taxes 31 cents a pack this spring to help eliminate a $1.9 billion budget deficit. Lawmakers also created a new state tax on income from trust funds and voted to let Ohio join the Mega Millions multi-state lottery in hopes of generating more money.

        Mr. Taft said such actions made him vulnerable to criticism, even from those within his own party.

        “People say all kinds of things in the heat of the battle,” he said. “You're talking about going to the legislature in the heat of an election year and asking them to raise revenues, which we did in terms of closing tax loopholes on trust income and raising the cigarette tax.”

        Republicans also, in effect, increased taxpayers' income taxes by 7 percent this year. That's because the once plentiful surplus budget funds lawmakers used to reduce personal income tax rates in 2001 were erased by budget deficits.

        Democrats say those increases pale in comparison to what has happened to Ohioans' property taxes, which have risen over the past decade at more than twice the rate of inflation. Farm and residential property taxes rose $2.5 billion from 1990 through 2000. That's an increase of 98 percent, according to a February study released by the fiscal watchdog group, the Ohio Public Expenditures Council.

        Because they have little or no money for television commercials, Mr. Hagan's campaign has launched a Web site called Firetaft.com that gives viewers his top 10 reasons for getting rid of the governor.

        “He's a nice guy but a lousy governor,” the site proclaims. Mr. Hagan himself adds the governor “has run this state similar to a corporation like Enron.”

        “Their major strategy seems to be negative, attacking us without putting forward any ideas for Ohio's future,” Mr. Taft said. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett says the governor has demonstrated his ability to tackle tough issues affecting Ohio by his handling of the budget crisis and other tough issues. He said Mr. Taft was hamstrung in those dealings by a legislature dominated by first-term lawmakers.

        “The process, due to the rookie legislature, is ugly sometimes but Taft has been patient,” he said. “They were criticizing him for attempting to balance the budget by closing tax loopholes, but all they wanted to do was go home.”

Taft: Buck stops here

        The tax increases, tuition hikes and infighting over the budget aren't the only weapons Democrats hope to wield this year. They are already laying management scandals in state government squarely at Republicans' feet.

        They note the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, under the Taft administration, illegally withheld $38 million in child support payments to thousands of families. Mr. Taft promised to give the money back and the state so far has spent $18 million just trying to figure out who is owed.

        The department, responsible for state health and welfare programs, has come under fire repeatedly for its practice of awarding questionable no-bid contracts to private companies.

        Problems at the Ohio School Facilities Commission, the agency responsible for the state's $23 billion school construction program, also cost Director Randall A. Fischer his job. Mr. Fischer resigned in July after a Franklin County Judge called the commission's competitive bidding process a sham and news reports showed he accepted gifts from companies that won construction contracts.

        Ohio Turnpike Commission officials also accepted free meals, golf outings and professional sports tickets from 18 construction companies, banks and law firms that did $173 million worth of business with the state agency. Turnpike Director Gino Zomparelli resigned in August after Mr. Taft essentially told him to either leave or be fired.

        Mr. Taft said he's taken a strong stand in dealing with those problems. “Where there have been challenges, and you expect those to happen, we've addressed it,” he said.

        Mr. Hagan says there are 60,000 state employees and voters should hold the governor accountable for every one of them, especially leaders of state agencies and commissions.

        “You are responsible for your cabinet,” he said. “Otherwise, what's the point of democracy?”

        Mr. Adams, the Wright State political professor, said the inability of the Democrats to be competitive will allow Republicans to ignore tough questions about how they've been running the state.

        “The issues dogging Republicans, taxes, education problems, the arrogance that comes with being in power and with one party rule, are all still hanging out there.”

       



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