By Spencer Hunt and Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
Gov. Bob Taft came to Cincinnati on Wednesday to sell his plan to raise $3.1 billion in new taxes and save more than $1 billion by taking away medical care from the poor, elderly and disabled.
"We've put a plan on the table. I'm out front. I'm catching the flak. It's my plan," he said. Then he added, "It will be a tough sell."
The governor dismissed lawmakers who argue that he hasn't yet cut enough from the next $49.2 billion state budget, which contains a 10 percent increase in spending over the current two-year spending plan.
Taft challenged the legislature to find ways to cut more programs without taking away medical coverage from poor children or cutting spending on elementary schools, high schools or universities. Without his tax increases, he said, the state would have an education crisis and children would be eliminated from the Medicaid rolls.
"I'm trying to balance giving people the services they have to have with what they are willing to pay for," the governor said. "We're about to find out what they are willing to pay for."
Taft plans to travel throughout Ohio this week, making his sales pitch on television, radio stations and to newspapers. He hopes his statewide campaign will convince lawmakers and Ohioans that he has trimmed all the fat from the state budget and that the largest tax increase in state history is necessary.
Taft says the General Assembly must raise taxes on cigarettes by 45 cents per pack and double the taxes on alcohol to fill a $720 million deficit in the current budget by June 30. Then he wants lawmakers to tax new cars, spa services, dry cleaning and a variety of other services to plug a $4 billion deficit in the next two-year budget.
"The first task is to make sure they understand why we have the depth of the problem," Taft said. "We've got to take action here if we don't want to create chaos in public services in Ohio."
Despite his dire warnings, fellow Republicans - who control the General Assembly and must vote on his spending plan - aren't convinced Taft has made enough cuts to justify so many new taxes.
"What I would like to do is look at every department, turn over every stone, before we resort to widespread tax increases," said Rep. Tom Raga, R-Mason. "Today I'm not inclined to vote for tax increases."
Other Republicans suggest the governor could cut $300 million from the Department of Education bureaucracy without hurting schools. And they say he could also cut up to $1.7 billion in Medicaid - $600 million more than Taft is proposing - and make deeper cuts in other areas.
Taft responded that it would a "major mistake" to reduce the money going to the Department of Education because it would hurt school curricula and proficiency test designs.
He also criticized the demand for further Medicaid cuts, saying that would require the state to stop paying for prescription drugs for the elderly, poor and disabled. "Pharmaceuticals are optional services, but is the state going to eliminate them? I don't think so."
The governor said he doesn't see how lawmakers can make more cuts without also hurting basic health and safety, such as shutting down mental hospitals or closing prisons and putting criminals back on the streets.
"Our mental hospitals are full. If we close those, I'm not sure where those people would go," Taft said.
He said people don't realize just how many services the state pays for until they stop. "They don't care about prisons unless we do an early release and someone commits a crime in their community," he said.
Taft also repeated his opposition to a plan to put slot machines at horse racetracks, a move proponents say would bring in up to $500 million a year to the state budget. Taft said the plan would meet so much opposition it would probably have to go to the ballot in November.
That means the expansion wouldn't take place in time for new taxes on gambling to help the state out of its current crisis. "It could be well into 2005 before we collect anything," Taft said.
The governor said he still opposes gambling because it is "socially irresponsible" and an unreliable source of money.
While the governor said he is committed to his plan to raise taxes and cut Medicaid, he said is looking forward to hearing alternatives from the General Assembly.
"The only good thing about this crisis," Taft said, "Is that it forces you to examine everything you're doing."
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