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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2011

Break the cycle

A destructive cycle determines much of what state government does these days: (1) Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly enact a nakedly partisan law without the pretense of input by the Democratic minority; (2) Democrats seek to block the law by placing it before voters for repeal; (3) policy making on vital state issues is thus afflicted by delay, public confusion, and political polarization.

That has happened with Issue 2, the proposal on next month's ballot that will determine the fate of a new law restricting collective-bargaining rights of Ohio public employees. It's happening to a Republican election "reform" bill that appears aimed largely at discouraging non-Republicans from voting.

And now the cycle is affecting the grotesquely gerrymandered GOP plan to redraw Ohio's U.S. House districts. State Democratic chairman Chris Redfern says his party is prepared to drop its pursuit of a referendum next year on the new plan, if Republican leaders agree to negotiate a fairer, more representative map.

Mr. Kasich and legislative leaders should accept Mr. Redfern's offer -- to break the vicious cycle, to prevent the 2012 election calendar from descending into chaos, and to show that bipartisan compromise aimed at good, fair public policy remains possible in Columbus.

GOP lawmakers tried to use a legislative trick to keep the reapportionment plan from becoming subject to a popular vote. But the Ohio Supreme Court -- six of whose seven members are Republicans -- last week unanimously rejected that transparent maneuver and ruled the referendum could proceed.

It's easy to see why Republicans want to avoid popular review of their plan. On one of the nation's most closely contested political battlegrounds, the new Ohio map effectively reserves 12 of the state's 16 U.S. House seats for Republicans.

Toledo Democrat Marcy Kaptur's district would stretch all the way to Cleveland. Meanwhile, one Toledo City Council district would be represented by three U.S. House members. That is a caricature of effective, representative government.

But even if Democrats collect enough petition signatures to force a popular vote on the redistricting plan, it could not occur before November, 2012. That timetable likely would lead to lawsuits over whether the plan can take effect in the meantime; one seriously proposed alternative would elect all U.S. House members statewide. It also would create confusion about next year's Ohio primary, now scheduled for March (candidates must file by early December).

The signs aren't promising. Republican lawmakers plan to vote this week on moving the primary to May, opting for further delay rather than action.

Surely it would be better for the parties to work together to produce a fair and rational congressional map, with compact, genuinely competitive districts that preserve local communities of interest and protect minority voters. Such districts would require candidates of both parties to seek broad support, not merely votes of extremists in "the base." Examples of such maps abound.

But this outcome assumes that Columbus politicians are more interested in achieving good policy -- of overcoming differences to serve the best interests of the state -- than in squeezing every last drop of partisan advantage.

Governor Kasich, who was elected last year with a minority of votes cast, and Republican state lawmakers, who themselves benefit from gerrymandering, evidently need to be reminded that their mandate is not absolute. Ohioans who did not vote for them also deserve a voice in what their government does.

What the governor and legislative leaders do about the reapportionment plan will make clear whom they represent.

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