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Published: Friday, 10/1/2004

Ohio House foes focus on finances

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bill Farrell Bill Farrell
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After 26 years as Sandusky County auditor, Bill Farrell has found a job he'd like to have instead.

The Fremont Democrat, who is in the middle of his seventh term in the auditor's office, said he's challenging freshman Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore) for the 81st District Ohio House seat because he thinks his financial acumen is needed in Columbus.

"I've earned the trust of the people here in Sandusky County, not having any opponent for the last 18 years," Mr. Farrell said. "We need someone with a financial background, and I think Ohio is going in the wrong direction."

Mr. Farrell, 48, said the state needs to change its tax code to help promote job creation and make employee health coverage more affordable for small businesses. He also accuses the legislature's Republican majority of failing to solve the state's school-funding crisis.

Jeff Wagner Jeff Wagner
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"We basically have one-party rule, which I think is crippling the state," he said.

Mr. Wagner, 44, a former Seneca County commissioner, said he has done everything he can to make the state more business-friendly during his first two years in the legislature.

"I have a 100 percent vote rating with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and those are the people that care about job creation," he said. "And the No. 1 thing they're telling me they need is tort reform. Businesses just can't operate under the constant threat of being sued."

Mr. Wagner said his concern about the state's business climate also led him to break with Gov. Bob Taft and GOP legislative leaders and oppose the temporary 1-cent sales tax increase enacted last year.

"You do have to have a tax system that does not discourage business," he said.

Mr. Farrell said he agrees that the sales tax increase was a bad idea, but he faults Mr. Wagner for voting last year for a 2-cent boost in the state gasoline tax.

"Because of the economy, we needed to not pass the increase at that particular point in time," Mr. Farrell said.

Mr. Wagner said he supported the tax because local officials in his district told him they needed the revenue to fix roads.

"In Seneca County, I got a resolution from every township in the county asking me to vote for it," he said.

Both think the state budget needs to be smaller. Mr. Wagner said he'd like to see spending restrained and noted that the current biennial budget, which runs through June, 2005, increases spending more than 10 percent.

Mr. Farrell said spending could be reduced by doing performance audits of state agencies, and he supports legislation before the House to mandate that. Mr. Wagner said state agencies that think they need such a review can request it, and that a law isn't needed.

"Another mandate, another cost," he said, "I'm not sure it's a good idea to mandate it for everybody."

Mr. Wagner and his challenger also differ on how to tackle the state's school funding crisis, which has led to an ever-growing number of local tax requests.

Mr. Farrell said he supports establishing a separate budget for education, and funding it before allocating money for the general fund. "That signifies our priorities on properly educating our children," he said.

Mr. Wagner said he thinks a solution lies with Governor Taft's blue-ribbon task force on school funding, which is supposed to recommend a new financial formula next month.

He said he has agreed to co-sponsor a House bill that would have the state fund all classroom expenses, at a starting rate of $3,195 per student per year.

That proposal includes removing the 20-mill floor for district property taxes, allowing those levies to decline, but does not specify how the state would fund its share.

"If this is a plan everyone can agree on, then we can find the funding source," he said.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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