By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Ohioans would pay an additional $113 million over the next seven years to send thousands of nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison if they pass Issue 1 next week.
That's the bottom line in an analysis of the Nov. 5 ballot initiative that Ohio Department of Taxation officials quietly released Monday.
The constitutional amendment would require the state to spend $247 million in treatment expenses over seven years on people accused of using or possessing drugs.
The key question has been: How much of those expenses would be offset by savings in prison and jail costs?
In its analysis, the taxation department places the savings at $134 million, meaning the net impact to state taxpayers is an additional $113 million.
Supporters of the drug treatment proposal dismissed the state's numbers, saying they were cooked to please Gov. Bob Taft, a big Issue 1 opponent. They stand by their own estimate, which shows Ohioans saving a net $108 million over seven years.
"Do we think these guys would ever come up with an analysis that shows Issue 1 saves money?" said Scott Ehlers, the Issue 1 campaign research director.
Ohio Tax Commissioner Tom Zaino, a member of Mr. Taft's cabinet, said the governor's office did not alter or otherwise influence the agency's findings.
While those findings show it will cost taxpayers, Issue 1 opponents said they won't use Mr. Zaino's report. They will instead continue to push the $247 million cost figure at voters.
"That (cost) is what's absolutely clear," said Jenny Camper, spokeswoman for Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws. "Anyone who looks at the ballot language can see that for him or herself."
Issue 1 supporters believe Ohioans would save millions in the long run if nonviolent drug offenders got treatment instead of jail cells.
The mandated treatment costs - $19 million upfront to expand addiction programs and $38 million a year for six years - have driven down voter support in recent public opinion polls.
The taxation department's analysis assumes Issue 1 would keep 4,076 drug offenders out of Ohio's prison and jails. That would in turn save $22.4 million per year in incarceration costs - $15.6 million less than the annual cost of treatment.
Issue 1 supporters believe a similar number of offenders, 4,133, will be kept out of prison. They estimate the state will save a much higher $59.3 million per year.
The difference is in the assumptions that have to be made to come up with a figure. Those assumptions make any prediction of future costs or savings, at best, an educated guess.
Issue 1 supporters, for example, base their estimates in part on the average $63 a day it costs to house each Ohio inmate.
Taxation officials believe that can be counted only if enough offenders are diverted to close a prison. That's why they think the state would save only clothing and food costs for up to 1,000 offenders - about $13 a day.
"Their assumptions are skewed," said Dave Fratello, political director for the Issue 1 campaign.
Mr. Zaino disagreed.
"We tried to be balanced. We tried not to make guesses," he said.
Mr. Zaino said he communicated with the governor's office only to link up with other state agencies for information.
"I've never talked to the governor about this. I kept them informed of the timing," he said. "They did not tell me what to do." Mr. Zaino acknowledged the estimate was a guess, writing that his staff was "hampered" by a general lack of good data in a letter to Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, whose office was required by state law to request the analysis.
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