COLUMBUS - Halfway through his four-year term as governor, Republican Bob Taft has stuck to the issue that he carried to victory in 1998.
From tutoring a fourth-grader to embracing a bold plan to overhaul Ohio's proficiency tests, Mr. Taft has replaced longtime Governor Jim Rhodes' mantra of jobs, jobs, jobs with education, education, education.
“He is one of those guys who had a game plan, campaigned on it, and he actually is fulfilling it,” said Bob Clegg, a Columbus-based political consultant and Taft supporter. “It's kind of rare with politicians.”
But Mr. Taft's emphasis on education - which has set him apart from his predecessor, Republican George Voinovich - also carries risks, some say.
With the national economy showing signs of a slow down, Mr. Taft may need to shift more of his attention toward economic development and efforts to attract high-tech firms, said Herb Asher, a political-science professor at Ohio State University.
Don Jakeway, who was development director for Mr. Voinovich, gives Mr. Taft high marks at mid-term. But he said Mr. Taft should give the jobs issue a higher profile over the next two years, especially as DaimlerChrysler makes decisions about the Jeep plants in Toledo and General Motors and Ford ponder the future of auto plants in Ohio.
“If I had to say there's a disappointment, I really would like to see more economic development initiatives,” said Mr. Jakeway, who is president of the Toledo area's leading jobs effort, the Regional Growth Partnership.
“Do I wish he was walking through more factories? Yes, I do. What he has done is set himself apart a little from his predecessors,” Mr. Jakeway added.
Last year, a national group gave Ohio a grade of C because of the state's low rate of long-term job growth. Ohio received B's for a low rate of business closings and strong financial resources for businesses.
“States making strong investments in education and research are creating high-quality jobs and these states are faring the best economically,” said William Schweke, senior program director for the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
In a recent interview, Mr. Taft said his administration made progress last year on the jobs front.
Voters approved Mr. Taft's proposal to let the state issue bonds to help clean up polluted urban land - referred to as “brownfields.”
At the governor's urging, the legislature merged the state welfare department with the Bureau of Employment Services. Mr. Taft predicts the result will be more effective programs to train workers.
Even Democrats say Mr. Taft is off to a good start.
“I think the development department has done a much better job of focusing on technology issues,” said state Sen. Linda Furney (D., Toledo). “He is probably doing more both in education and economic development that will have a long-term impact than George Voinovich ever did.”
Even though conservatives have pushed Mr. Taft to focus more on tax cuts, they acknowledge the link between Ohio's public school system and the state's economic future.
“Ohio is clearly lagging behind other states in economic development, personal income growth, and entrepreneurship,” said Scott Pullins, director of the Ohio Taxpayers Association.
“But if you make the wrong moves on education, it could hurt economic development for the future.”
Mr. Taft inherited the school-funding issue from Mr. Voinovich. It was in 1997 that a 4-3 majority of the state Supreme Court declared that Ohio's system, which relies on local and state tax dollars, was unconstitutional.
The high court based its decision on a section of the Ohio Constitution that mandates a “thorough and efficient system” of public schools.
The legislature responded by revising the complex school-funding formula, sharply increasing state spending on the K-12 system, and putting a statewide sales tax on the May, 1998, ballot.
Mr. Taft, who was then the state's chief elections officer, supported the tax increase. After voters rejected it by a 4-1 margin, Mr. Taft switched course and avoided the school-funding issue. Instead, he repeatedly talked about the need to recruit reading volunteers, a program he dubbed OhioReads.
After defeating Democrat Lee Fisher and taking office in January, 1999, Mr. Taft continued that strategy.
In March, 2000, he signed into law the state's plan to spend most of its $10.1 billion tobacco settlement on school construction and repairs, and health programs. A big chunk is reserved for biomedical research and technology programs.
He used his 1999 State of the State address to announce he would form a commission to study the state's proficiency testing program and education standards. Last month, Mr. Taft embraced the group's recommendations, which include lowering the number of state-mandated tests from 95 to 63 and spread out the fourth-grade proficiency tests over three grades.
But in May, 2000, the Supreme Court said the legislature had failed to comply with its 1997 decision. The same 4-3 majority gave the legislature until June 15 to craft a new system that relies less on local real-estate taxes.
Twice, the high court has sided with the coalition of public schools that sued the state in 1991, saying the system created deep inequities between property-rich and poor districts.
Mr. Taft is expected to outline his plan on Jan. 24 in the State of the State address.
Susan Tave Zelman, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction, said Mr. Taft is in a tough spot.
“We need to get out of the court case. We need to put these debates behind us and begin to focus on a high-quality education for every boy and girl in Ohio,” she said.
Bill Phillis, executive director of the coalition of public schools, said a solution will require Mr. Taft to “muster some real leadership.”
“Many in the legislature don't believe there is a problem. Many believe the court has no business to be involved. Some in the legislature still want to stonewall the decision,” he said.
Former Governor John Gilligan, a member of the Cincinnati school board, said he believes a tax increase is needed to comply with the Supreme Court's decision.
Mr. Gilligan, a Democrat, compared Mr. Taft's plight to 1971, when Mr. Gilligan supported Ohio's first personal income tax.
GOP legislative leaders, including House Speaker Charles Kurfess of Bowling Green, agonized over the issue before supporting the tax. Mr. Gilligan said legislators now have painted themselves into a corner with “no new taxes” pledges, even as signs show that revenue growth is slowing.
“I don't envy Mr. Taft,” Mr. Gilligan said.
But others believe Mr. Taft will resist those calling for pouring more money into the K-12 system, without making changes to the funding formula that sends state tax dollars to the 612 school districts.
“His reputation as a problem solver is holding true,” said David Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable, a Solon-based conservative group. “We don't think the economy is going to get real, real rugged, but the days when they didn't know how to spend all of that tax money coming in are over.”
Mr. Jakeway, the leader of the Toledo area jobs effort, said he hopes the school-funding issue is resolved so the state can focus more on savings jobs and attracting new ones. He called on the Taft administration to fine tune the state's incentives programs and perhaps tailor them to high-tech investment.
“All of the states will be going after a more limited number of projects, and we need that kind of edge,” he said.
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