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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

Budget woes rain on GOP parade

It goes against every political instinct, but barely a year before the election Ohio Republicans are actually muttering the T-word. Deep down in their tax-cutting souls, they know a tax increase is necessary to balance the state's precarious budget.

No two ways about it, sooner than later a Republican governor, along with his fervently anti-tax colleagues in the General Assembly, must do the unthinkable - repair the dry revenue-producing spigot with a major tax increase.

The financial shortfall in state coffers is no flash bulletin. Leaders may blame the acute drop-off in tax revenues on the day the world stopped, but Ohio's economy, along with the rest of the nation, was sputtering to a crawl before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now financial portfolios are coming apart at the seams and it's all happening on the Republicans' watch. Theirs is not an enviable position.

The last thing a hard-pressed citizenry needs in belt-tightening times is a tax hike. Ohio GOP leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don't raise taxes.

Might as well bite the bullet and spread the misery fairly among all Ohioans with an across-the-board-tax increase. Of course, those with a Pollyanna bent would rather try closing every tax loophole on the books that, combined, eat away billions in “forgone revenue.” Neither option is politically popular, but you can't get blood from a turnip and many state departments can't afford another round of budget cuts.

They'll go down kicking and screaming - as they should - declaring that the state is working against itself by cutting funds to the very agencies and services it needs most. Even state leaders with half a brain understand the fiscal seeds they sow in budget- making compromises produce corresponding yields. In other words, you get what you pay for.

For years few paid attention to the state's K-12 public school system and the problems piled up along with the price tag to fix both capital and academic failings.

Ditto higher education. The best and the brightest leave Ohio for lots of reasons, not the least of which is opportunity. The correlation between the state's pennywise and pound foolish philosophy toward higher education budgets and Ohio's notable lack of college graduates obviously hasn't registered with budget cutters, or worse, doesn't matter.

They may talk the talk with rhetoric backing education and other high-profile departments from welfare to corrections, but the goals they espouse often fall short of the government's ability or inclination to fund them. When times are good, political promises like not leaving any child behind, or making post-secondary education a funding priority, or building unlimited prison capacity for every three-times-you're-out thug, or investing in welfare-to-work candidates, or whatever passes as the political flavor of the day, go largely unchallenged.

When tax revenues bulge into more surplus than lawmakers can immediately spend, promises have the luxury of bounty. But a house with a hole in its roof is only OK as long as it doesn't rain. Ohio has been ignoring the gaping hole in its education funding dome for over a decade. Then it rained.

A sharp economic downturn - read recession - sent spendthrift politicians in Columbus scrambling for an easy way out of their shortsightedness.

They vowed to cut corners. But there were no more corners to cut. Try a $1 billion projected shortfall over the next 21 months. Time for fancy footwork. Tap dancing to “Stormy Weather,” state leaders will attempt to rationalize a tax increase due to circumstances beyond their control. But rain was clearly in the forecast.

Eventually the political spin will paint higher taxes as the lesser of several fiscal evils. The alternative of enacting further budget cutbacks to already hard-hit state agencies or raiding the state's $1 billion “rainy day” fund - anathema to the previous Republican administration - or gambling on a multi-state lottery or electronic slot machines at race tracks, are revenue enhancements fraught with controversy.

In Ohio a tax increase is not a question of if but when and where. The timing couldn't be worse but neither could the state's budget predicament compounded by a court order to spend more money on public schools.

A fiscal nightmare has finally come to roost with state Republicans flush with power and majority status, and it threatens to rain on their 2002 parade.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at mjohanek@theblade.com.



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