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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Backers of sales tax hike flirt with peril

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - State Rep. Larry Price (D., Columbus) broke with most of his fellow Democrats and helped Republicans pass a temporary penny hike in the state sales tax last year.

In March, he was defeated in the primary election.

Before the primary, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R., Loveland) and Rep. Tom Niehaus (R., New Richmond) battled for a southwestern Ohio Senate seat amid a flurry of nasty television ads about who raised what tax when.

When the recount dust settled, Ms. Schmidt, a "yes" vote for the 20 percent increase in the sales tax in 2003, lost by a scant 22 votes. Mr. Niehaus, a "no" vote, is the Nov. 2 general election favorite in the Senate's heavily Republican 14th District.

"I don't think the sales tax was THE factor, but it made it harder for me to win," Ms. Schmidt said. "There were people who were not happy with me on that vote."

But the vast majority of lawmakers on the general election ballot who voted in the spring of 2003 to temporarily raise the state sales tax from 5 to 6 cents on the dollar are expected to be back in their chairs next year when the decision is made whether to make the hike permanent.

The surcharge, worth about $1.3 billion a year to the state budget, is set to expire with the current two-year budget on June 30, 2005. Because of its heavy reliance on one-time budget-balancing fixes, including temporary taxes, the state is looking at a projected hole of about $4 billion over the next two years just to maintain the current level of spending.

Ohio's tax code contains plenty of temporary taxes that proved to be not so temporary.

"When good things happen, when you do things you told voters you weren't going to do, it could embolden you to do it again, but I think it hurts the party in the long run," said state Sen. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana), who opposed the increase.

"It hurts our chances to maintain the governor's office in 2006," he said. "I don't think it helped the President over the last several weeks."

Both chambers are dominated by Republicans - 22 to 11 in the Senate and 62 to 37 in the House.

On Nov. 2, all 99 seats in the House will be on the ballot. Forty-six of those are defended by candidates who voted for the sales tax hike, either as House members or, in one case, as a term-limited senator now seeking to switch chambers.

Of the 46, 38 are Republicans. Seven are Democrats, all members of the legislative black caucus considered to be in safe districts.

Sixteen of the 33 state Senate seats are on the ballot this year, and half of those are defended by GOP incumbents who voted for the tax or by Republican House "yes" votes seeking a promotion to the upper chamber.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said Democrats are making the vote an issue on the campaign trail.

"People don't mind paying a little more in taxes," he said. "Just don't lie to them. They ran two years ago promising not to raise taxes, and then they did an about-face and did just that. Folks remember that."

But despite this ammunition, House Democrats have seriously targeted just a handful of Republican seats, and only two of those are held by sales-tax "yes" votes.

They are freshmen Reps. Kathleen Walcher (R., Norwalk) in the Republican-leaning 58th District, straddling Seneca, Huron, and Lorain counties, and Earl Martin (R., Avon Lake) in the more competitive neighboring 57th District in Lorain.

"It's a big issue," said Matthew Barrett, Ms. Walcher's Democrat opponent. "She was promising to come down and lower taxes for working families, and then turned around and raised them."

Ms. Walcher did not return calls for comment.

On the Senate side, none of the eight "yes" votes is on the Democrats' hit list.

That means that, of the 54 total legislative "yes" votes on the ballot on Nov. 2, at least 52 are expected to be in place to decide next year whether to allow the tax surcharge to expire as promised.

Ms. Schmidt won't have to worry about making that decision this time but insists she cast the right vote the last time.

"If we tried to find another way to fill the hole, it would have been more brutal, like cutting [aid to local governments] - something that draconian," she said. "The public didn't like it, but we promised it would be temporary."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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