By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau
COLUMBUS - In the midst of Ohio's worst budget crisis since World War II, state lawmakers are deciding who should shell out billions more in taxes and whether to cut funds to children, drug addicts, poor working moms or other needy Ohioans.
Yet the people who will make these decisions - the 84 Republicans with ironclad control over the 132-member state General Assembly - don't look much like Ohio as a whole.
Republican lawmakers are mostly from farms, small towns and upscale suburbs. Not one Republican leader is from a big city.
They are mostly men. Women make up 51 percent of Ohio's population, but just 13 percent of GOP legislators. In the Senate, not one of the 22 Republicans is a woman. In the House Republican caucus, there are 11 women and 51 men.
They are all white. Blacks, Latinos or other minorities make up 16 percent of the state's population. Not one is a Republican lawmaker.
"The legislature, especially the Senate, is back to the `good ol' boy' days," says Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin, a Democrat and one of just three black women to ever serve in the Ohio Senate. "They (the ruling party) don't have many women and they don't have any minorities. They've gone so far backwards they're almost in the Dark Ages."
Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree that the lack of diversity in the legislature - including the lack of women - affects who gets taxed, which programs get cut and which constituents are given priority.
Some argue that a more diverse General Assembly would fight harder, for example, against Gov. Bob Taft's plans to strip health care from 30,000 poor working parents and to cut child care from 17,000 moms struggling to stay off welfare.
At the very least, says State Sen. C.J. Prentiss, D-Cleveland, such issues would be more heatedly debated if African-Americans and more women were at the table.
"We can't get around the fact that it is all white males in the Senate and the House who are in control," says Prentiss, the only black woman currently serving in the Senate. "The problem is that decisions are made in a huddle and no one is there to bring up any opposition."
State Rep. Patty Clancy, the only GOP woman in leadership in either chamber, agrees that Republicans have to work harder to put more women and minorities into power.
"How many times have you heard the comments, `The only people making the decisions are white males.'? Well, we hear that too and we need to do a better job recruiting people," says Clancy, a suburban Cincinnati Republican.
"The bottom line is this, if we don't, the Republican Party is going to suffer."
Priscilla Mead, a suburban Columbus lawmaker who resigned from the Senate in January, says Ohioans pay a price for the lack of diversity among those in charge.
"When the vote is taken, gender issues don't matter," she says. "You could get all the women and all the Democrats together and you still wouldn't have enough votes to get (those issues) passed."
Mead says she was all too aware of how much she could accomplish as the only Republican woman in the Senate.
So she left.
"I know a lot of hope was invested in me as the last female there," she says. "But I had to look at where I could be effective."
The Republicans Mead left behind in the General Assembly are a conservative breed who have come to power in the past three years as term limits pushed out their more moderate counterparts. For the most part, they oppose taxes, big government and abortion. They favor guns rights and tobacco.
Their views are so conservative, the Republican majority is dubbed by many in Columbus the "Caveman Caucus."
Many of these lawmakers last year fought to let Ohioans carry concealed weapons and pushed through legislation that condemned same-sex unions, required a moment of silence in schools and made it more difficult to ban smoking in public.
Now, they hope to fix Ohio's fiscal mess by cutting more state programs instead of voting for the $3 billion in new tax hikes proposed by Taft.
Their fierce opposition to such taxes was illustrated last week when they voted against Taft's plan to raise taxes on cigarettes by 45 cents per pack and to double the taxes on alcohol.
Taft traveled the state campaigning hard for the tax increases, saying they were urgently needed to balance the current budget crisis before June. He warned lawmakers that if they voted against them, he would cut state aid to schools and colleges and be forced to shut down more prisons and institutions for the mentally retarded.
They still said no.
"I abhor taxes. I just abhor them," says State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr., a Mount Lookout Republican and one of the most conservative lawmakers in the House.
"I relate to the Boston Tea Party, to people willing to stand up to the tyranny of high taxes."
Conservatives like Brinkman say Taft needs to make even deeper cuts in the Department of Education bureaucracy and such programs as Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled.
"For so long, we've heard that we can't touch Medicaid, and we say, `Why not?' " Brinkman says.
Urban vs. suburban
Conservatives in Columbus say the legislature's shift in power and ideology from cities to suburbs and townships reflects the changing population in Ohio. Just 27 percent of Ohioans now live in big cities.
Suburban and rural lawmakers - who voted two years ago to give townships more control over urban sprawl and development - argue that state money and power should follow the people.
"Let's be fair. It's been overwhelmingly pro-city in the legislature and they've gotten too much for too long," Brinkman says. "We're not going to give away everything to those areas anymore. More people live in the suburbs and they have a voice."
And that voice could affect cities such as Cincinnati.
"This legislature is not about a bunch of white guys beating up on cities," Brinkman says. "It's just that we're saying to the cities, `Hey, you've been getting breaks. Now you're going to go on a little diet.' "
State Rep. Bill Seitz,a Republican from Green Township, also says urban areas have reaped too many benefits over the years. The distribution of gas taxes, for example, is heavily skewed in favor of cities and against townships, he says.
State money is doled out to cities based on population but divided among Ohio's 1,200 townships equally, Seitz explains.
"That means Green Township, which has 57,000 people and 110 miles of roads, gets the same amount as a township with 200 people. That's unfair," he says. "I believe we will soon act to rectify these historic problems."
Rep. Tom Raga, a Mason Republican, says legislators controlling the General Assembly do not want to hurt big cities. It's just that they're determined to make sure fast-growing areas - such as Butler, Warren and Clermont counties - are not hurt during the budget crisis.
"I don't think we need to be punitive to urban areas, but we've got to help the areas that now have the population growth," Raga says.
Republican State Rep. Jean Schmidt of Loveland says rural legislators feel the same way. Their constituents have long done without, she says. It's time for cities to do more for themselves.
"I grew up in a farming community in Miami Township, where we didn't have streets that were paved, much less plowed. I always looked over at Hamilton County and their streets were paved," explains Schmidt.
"The cities have always had the luxury of having a strong voice in the legislature that took care of them. Hamilton County got taken care of but Clermont County didn't," she says. "That's changing."
Republicans who lead the General Assembly acknowledge that big cities and their constituencies simply don't have the clout they once did.
Senate President Doug White, who was a Manchester tobacco farmer before his election to the Senate, says, "The pool (representing urban areas) is just getting smaller."
House Speaker Larry Householder is blunt about what that means. He said in December that urban areas might get less state money because the state's biggest cities are led by Democrats who eventually plan to run against Republicans for statewide offices.
`A failure to communicate'
With just 48 members in the General Assembly, Democrats acknowledge they have little power in the Statehouse.
State Rep. Barbara Sykes, a Democrat from Akron and president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, says that as the state's population shifted from big cities to suburbs, so did the political influence.
"The people in power represent rural areas, townships and suburbs, and that's going to be reflected in the budget. It's just that simple," she says.
That attitude and the lack of diversity in the Republican Party means urban areas and their representatives have no voice, Sykes says. The Black Legislative Caucus, for example, wants to decrease Medicaid cuts, increase AIDS awareness among blacks, address the gap in standardized test scores between minorities and whites, and reinstate the state's prison inspection committee.
None of those issues is on the GOP agenda.
"I've never seen a lot of diversity in the Republican Party, but now it's getting ugly," Sykes says.
McLin, who served two terms in the Ohio Senate and once headed up the inspection committee, says it's no surprise GOP lawmakers can't relate to such issues. She says they don't understand the needs of urban areas or blacks, and they don't listen to the people who do.
"A lot of these folks had never even had contact with any blacks until they came to the legislature," McLin says.
"It's not a pretty picture," she says. "What we see in the legislature, to quote Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate."
Tough to recruit
Many women in the Republican Party acknowledge they need to work on making their membership more diverse.
"Men and women look at things from different point of view, and when you want the best ideas, you want different views brought forward," Schmidt says. "To have it be mostly male does a disservice to the state of Ohio."
She notes it is increasingly difficult to recruit women to run for office, in part because term limits require they leave office after eight years. "I wish we had more minorities interested. I really do. Whenever you don't have a mixed group of people, it changes the voice."
State Rep. Clancy looks longingly back to the early 1990s, when Republican Janet Howard, the former black mayor of Forest Park, was elected to the Senate in the early 1990s.
"We were very proud we were able to recruit and elect her. We worked very hard," she says.
So what happened to Howard?
"She was defeated," Clancy says. "We were successful getting her elected one term. But that was all."
White predicts more Republican women will take office next year. But he's not so sure about the Republican Party's ability to recruit more minorities, however.
"I wish we had the key to do it better," he says. "I wish we had more people of ethnicity, whatever race or creed, more in tune with our philosophies."
Not all Republican lawmakers are so worried about recruiting more women and African-Americans to the General Assembly. When told McLin had complained about his party's lack of diversity, Householder just shrugged.
"If she thinks it's a problem," he says, grinning, "she could always change parties and run."
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