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Published: Thursday, 9/29/2005

Democrats' reform bill gets little response


COLUMBUS - The latest series of ethics and campaign-finance reforms proposed by Democratic lawmakers met with an indifferent response from the Republican majority whose votes would make the legislation a reality.

Yesterday, state Rep. William Healy II (D., Canton) introduced a plan that reduces limits on political contributions from people seeking no-bid state contracts and exacts harsher punishments against "those who choose to ignore" campaign-finance rules.

"Having seen the developments surrounding the 'Coingate' scandal that included several of Ohio's officials and public trustees, it had become increasingly obvious that Ohio's government officials were quickly heading down the wrong track," said Mr. Healy during a Statehouse news conference.

The bill would drop restrictions on a state contractor's campaign donations to $250 from $1,000. Unlike the current law, these restrictions would also apply to the life of the contract, instead of the two years prior to the contract's approval.

The limits would extend to a company's key employees, their spouses, and their children under 18 years old.

Firms that violate the laws would be fined in excess of $1,000 or 2 percent of the contract's value, whichever is greater. First-time offenders cannot seek a no-bid contract for five years. Contractors with multiple violations are permanently banned from receiving future state contracts.

Democrats have proposed several reforms, including the establishment of racketeering charges, after recent investment scandals at the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation and other practices at state agencies that hint at a "pay-to-play" system.

"There's a real inability, it appears, on the part of the contracting executive agencies in the state to know the difference between right and wrong, to balance the responsibilities of office to the demands of campaign fund-raising," said state Sen. Marc Dann (D., Warren), a sponsor of the bill who wrote many of the other proposals.

State Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said Republicans would consider possible reforms after two U.S. district attorneys, two state prosecutors from Franklin and Lucas counties, and the Ohio inspector general finish their inquiries about the investment scandals.

"As we wait for the results of the investigation, I am encouraging all members of the General Assembly to focus their energies on the issues we can address right now," Mr. Harris wrote to the media yesterday. Included with his message were letters from law-enforcement officials asking for the delay.

The issues he plans to resolve in the interim are unemployment, education, and Medicaid reform, subjects that resonate with voters listening to stump speeches by GOP candidates.

"Everywhere Betty Montgomery goes to speak she hears the same two things: We need more jobs. We need better schools," said Mark Weaver, a gubernatorial campaign spokesman for the state auditor.

Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio GOP, said Mr. Healy's proposal would likely cause major donors to funnel large amounts of cash to 527 organizations, political nonprofits that lack the transparency of committees formed directly by a candidate.

"They're going to use other vehicles and avenues to promote the candidacy of an individual," he said. "It's like squeezing a balloon. We squeeze it on one side and it bulges on the other."

Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said limits on campaign donations seldom have the desired effect. It would be better to eliminate gerrymandering, the centuries-old practice of sculpting noncompetitive legislative districts, he said.

"It's basically a coronation rather than a competition for most incumbents who seek re-election," Mr. Basham said.

Ohio State University political science professor Herb Asher, who hopes to establish competitive legislative districts with the Reform Ohio Now amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot, said voters will support campaign-finance reform if they can understand it.

"If they can explain it that simply, that contracts should be awarded on the basis of merit and not campaign contributions and political connections, that proposal would be supported by most Ohioans, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans," he said.

Contact Joshua Boak at: jboak@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.

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