COLUMBUS - Republican leaders have never made much of a secret of their distaste for Kenneth Blackwell's pet constitutional amendment restricting state spending.
But now that the secretary of state is the party's only hope for holding on to the governor's mansion, Republicans are looking for a way of attacking the Tax Expenditure Limitation ballot issue without bruising the candidate inextricably linked to it.
"It's a good wedge issue for Republicans, but it's misdrafted," said Dale Osterle, an Ohio State University law professor with expertise on initiative and referendums. "The trouble becomes whether the language means what they thought it meant," he said. "Now they're worried that this could be used as a political issue against Blackwell."
Opponents still hope to kick the issue off the Nov. 7 ballot via the courts. A hearing is set for June 9 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court on challenges filed in 26 counties to the petitions that placed the TEL on the ballot.
Critics contend the question could endanger the state's bond rating when it comes to borrowing, could make it even more difficult for schools and local governments to pass tax levies, hamper economic development efforts, and endanger social-service programs.
Polls have shown that the concept is popular with voters. That has prompted talk of lawmakers pulling the same maneuver as in 2005 when polls showed a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the casting of no-fault absentee ballots to be the most popular of several election-related constitutional amendments that some Republicans vehemently opposed. After resisting the issue, lawmakers enacted their own absentee-ballot law and then successfully argued to voters that the ballot issue was no longer necessary.
The TEL would restrict annual growth in state spending to 3.5 percent, or to the rate of inflation adjusted for population growth. Attorney General Jim Petro, who was Mr. Blackwell's opponent in Tuesday's primary, continues to pursue his Citizens Amendment for Prosperity, or CAP, a competing constitutional amendment limiting government spending to 5.5 percent of the statewide personal income the prior year.
Sen. Gary Cates (R., West Chester) has drafted a bill that would largely mirror Mr. Petro's plan. He's also offered a joint resolution that would put the same question to voters on the ballot in direct competition with the TEL. If both amendments were to win, the one with the larger vote would prevail.
"Most people are of the belief that a constitutional amendment cannot be withdrawn with the exception of a court ruling of legal insufficiency," said Mr. Cates. "Barring that, the TEL could be on the ballot by itself or with the CAP. There are concerns this could have a boomerang effect on Blackwell," he said. "It could undermine his whole campaign."
Mr. Blackwell was making a speech yesterday in Washington and was unavailable for comment, campaign spokesman Carlo LoParo said.
"The principles of the TEL, the fact that we need to control government spending so that we can cut taxes and create jobs, was Ken Blackwell's core message through the primary and it will be his core message in the general election."
He said Mr. Blackwell is not involved in any talks to come up with some alternative.
"He's not a member of the legislature," said Mr. LoParo. "If they want to try to come up with something, they have a right to try."
Mr. Blackwell had originally planned to put the TEL on the November, 2005, ballot, but, at the urging of the Ohio Republican Party, delayed it a year so that the GOP could instead concentrate last year on defeating the election-reform issues.
But the petitions have since been certified for November, and it appears doubtful they could be decertified without a court order. The Ohio Ballot Board, on which Mr. Blackwell sits, could make pivotal decisions about ballot language and even divide the question, but Mr. LoParo said he does not believe the board could remove the question from the ballot.
House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) said House Republicans have no intention of initiating an alternative to the TEL in the House but said the chamber would consider something the Senate might send it. "I am not involved in anything at this time that would change the path," he said. "I do believe that opponents of the TEL are going to pursue ways to get it kicked off the ballot, if that is possible. But whether it's on the ballot or not, we are going to govern Ohio in a fiscally responsible manner."
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