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Published: Tuesday, 5/9/2006

Nov. 7 ballot could have lots of issues

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Casino gambling. Smoking bans. Government spending restraints. A higher minimum wage.

Voters may want to pack a lunch when they go to the voting booth on Nov. 7 as they face the potential of a ballot laden with issues designed to do what lawmakers have refused to do or to undo what they have done.

As voters entered and left their polling places May 2, many were confronted with volunteer and professional petition circulators seeking hundreds of thousands of signatures for their causes as Ohio looks more and more like California when it comes to government by referenda.

"It's very clear that when you have people going into the polls that they are not only registered, but they also live in the county, so you have a high validity rate. We did 15,000 signatures on primary day alone [in 2005]," said Tracy Sabetta, spokesman for SmokeFreeOhio.

A coalition of health organizations is behind the stricter of two potential ballot issues seeking bans on indoor public smoking.

As of yesterday, only one question, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell's pet constitutional amendment to restrict growth in state spending, had qualified and been certified for the ballot by the Ohio secretary of state, who also happens to be Mr. Blackwell.

Attorney General Jim Petro, however, has certified the summary language for seven other petitions that may or may not meet the signature threshold.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering jumping into the fray with their own proposed constitutional amendment changing how Ohio redraws congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts.

"When I was circulating [the smoking ban petition] last summer, there were others there circulating for the [Tax Expenditure Limitation] and school funding [reform] that was never filed," said Ms. Sabetta. "I had people come up to me and say, 'I'll sign yours if you'll sign mine.'‚óŹ"

Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said she has mixed feelings about Ohio's growing reliance on direct-to-ballot lawmaking.

"The reason for [initiative and referendum] was to give people an option when the legislature refuses to act," she said. "The problem in practice is that it is so difficult to do that it isn't the ordinary people who do it. You can't do it with volunteer signature gatherers.

"The people who use it now are people with a lot of money - corporations or what we call special interests when we don't agree with them," she said. "I'm not sure that's fulfilling the function that we had in mind in 1912 [with the Ohio Constitutional Convention]," she said.

Dale Osterle, law professor at Ohio State University and an expert in initiative and referendum, said Ohio still has a long way to go to catch up to the likes of California and Colorado in terms of sheer volume of ballot issues.

"What's kind of new, where Ohio may be ahead of California, is that the political parties have started using initiatives to aid candidates to get elected," he said. The gay marriage [amendment of 2005] is arguably an example of that. There's a lot of speculation that this Tax Expenditure Limitation is on the ballot because Blackwell is running."

The General Assembly recently raised the referenda bar by requiring those circulating petitions to be residents of Ohio, a direct response to last year's package of failed election-law changes that had heavy involvement from out-of-state interests.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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