By Nathan Leaf
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft has a secret plan to cut higher education funding in Ohio up to 15 percent if he is re-elected, says his Democratic opponent, Tim Hagan.
The governor's campaign spokesman said there is no such secret plan and called Mr. Hagan's claim a "pathetic political stunt."
The exchange on the volatile subject of higher education funding underscores the sharpness emerging less than two weeks before the election.
Mr. Hagan, the former Cuyahoga County commissioner, released documents he claims came from the governor's Office of Budget and Management (OBM). They outline two possible 9 percent and 15 percent cuts to the higher education budget for fiscal years 2004 and 2005.
Austin Jenkins, Mr. Hagan's campaign spokesman, said an anonymous source, who does not work in Budget and Management, gave him the papers Thursday.
"(Mr. Taft) is cutting higher education by 15 percent, he just doesn't want people to know before Nov. 5," Mr. Jenkins said.
Two photocopied spreadsheets titled "Table A. Continued Funding Level Analysis," shows higher education would lose $189 million from a 9 percent cut and $323 million from a 15.3 percent cut.
The current budget has $2.1 billion for education.
Mr. Taft's campaign spokesman, Orest Holubec, said the governor has never planned to cut funding at Ohio's universities and colleges. He said the documents Mr. Hagan's people are using are not budget plans.
"(The report) is neither secret nor a product of the OBM," he said. "The governor wants to increase funding to higher education."
Mr. Holubec called the documents "a budget exercise" produced by the Board of Regents. He said they were given to the Higher Education Funding Commission at a meeting on Oct. 21.
He called Mr. Hagan's accusations a cheap attempt to narrow a 16-point deficit in a recently released University of Cincinnati Ohio Poll.
Tim Keen, assistant director of Budget and Management, said the papers were not from his office and believes it was a deliberate misrepresentation by Mr. Hagan's campaign.
He also said the papers are used by the Higher Education Funding Commission to develop suggestions for budget priorities.
Rich Petrick, the Board of Regents' vice chancellor for finance, confirmed what Mr. Keen and Mr. Holubec said about the report.
However, Mr. Jenkins said it doesn't matter where the information came from. He said it's proof that the agencies are trying to find ways to meet a secret demand from Mr. Taft to cut funding.
The issue of higher education funding first emerged Wednesday night during the second debate in the governor's race.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Taft said Mr. Hagan's 180-day plan to balance Ohio's budget would cut higher education 15 percent.
Mr. Hagan angrily denied that, saying his plan would not cut 15 percent every state agency and commission.
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