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Published: Saturday, 10/20/2001

A variation on the usual budget `crisis' script

COLUMBUS - Government budget woes often follow predictable scripts.

Last Wednesday, Reginald Wilkinson, director of Ohio's prison system, briefed reporters on the state's plans to close one to three prisons - and parts of eight to 10 others - in response to spending cuts ordered by Gov. Bob Taft.

Mr. Wilkinson's tone appropriately was neutral and wonkish. As a veteran cabinet member who also worked for George Voinovich, Mr. Wilkinson didn't gripe. He also didn't wave his budget scalpel with glee.

How, some observers asked, could the state close a prison?

State Rep. Jeffrey Manning (R., North Ridgeville) was among them.

In a letter to Mr. Taft, Mr. Manning wrote: “I have strong concerns that a prison closure or widespread layoffs could adversely impact the safety of our communities and create a more dangerous working environment for those who work in our prisons,” wrote Mr. Manning, a former city law director and prosecutor.

“Beyond public safety, the three prisons in Lorain County - Lorain Correctional, Grafton, and North Coast Correctional - employ several hundred people in our region, residents of my district and neighboring districts who pay taxes, buy goods and services, and work hard to provide for their families. These are my constituents,” Mr. Manning wrote.

Mr. Manning's plea came as the state union representing prison employees urged Mr. Taft to close at least one of the two prisons that private companies run for the state.

“Closing one or both prisons would save the state millions of dollars,” said Irwin Scharfield, executive director of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “Closing the one in Grafton alone would save over $10 million annually. Although we don't like stuffing more inmates into other prisons, it would be cheaper than continuing to pay these companies.”

One Statehouse observer, however, deviated from the usual budget “crisis” script.

Noting that the number of prison inmates has declined from about 49,000 to 45,000 over the past three years, this observer asked the following question: “Shouldn't the state be closing at least one prison - even if there was not a budget problem?”

Sept. 11 hasn't altered the rules of partisanship at the Statehouse.

A week after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by state Rep. Tom Lendrum (R., Huron) to express support for emergency officials and sympathy for the families and friends of those killed.

A few days later, state Rep. Ray Miller (D., Columbus) introduced a bill to send $1 million from a crime-victims fund to assist those who survived the terrorist attacks. Good idea, wrong political party. Mr. Miller's bill is gathering dust.

Last week, Mr. Taft urged the General Assembly to approve a bill to ensure that state employees who are on active duty suffer no loss in pay.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Larry Mumper (R., Marion), proposed to pay the full monthly differential between military pay and allowances and the employees' monthly state wages.

“Our guardsmen and reservists should not suffer an undue financial hardship when our nation calls them to serve,” Mr. Taft said. “A state compensation plan that ensures no loss of pay to our employees who are activated is the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform.”

Of course, no mention of the identical bill sponsored by state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). Good idea, wrong political party.

And finally, a warning to Osama bin Laden.

State Sen. Robert Spada (R., Parma Heights) has introduced a bill to establish criminal penalties at the state level for those who commit terrorist acts, make terrorist threats, or help terrorists.

“I was surprised to learn that our statutes contain only four references to terrorism and those references do not address terrorism as we know it. Our world has changed in the last month and our policies and laws regarding terrorism and violence must change with it,” Mr. Spada said.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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