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Published: Thursday, 10/6/2005

Democrats pursue Ohio reforms now; but GOP prefers to wait until Noe probe is finished

BY JOSHUA BOAK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS Flanked by 25 colleagues, House Minority Leader Chris Redfern unveiled the Democrats legislative agenda, saying that restoring honesty and integrity to Ohio was their main priority.

We ve gone through a scandal over the course of the last several months that will really change the profile of state government for a generation to come, said Mr. Redfern (D., Catawba Island).

While the General Assembly s Republican leadership has stated it intends to wait until criminal investigations into the state s $50 million rare-coin investment with GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe are complete, Democrats have offered a variety of reforms.

Many of those reforms are offshoots of reporting by The Blade into the government s relationship with campaign donors who often doubled as state contractors.

In a packet of information explaining their legislative initiatives, Democrats cited The Blade s recent series on the Ohio Department of Transportation as evidence of a pay-to-play system in state government.

Mr. Redfern introduced a proposal yesterday as a floor amendment that would have brought Ohio s corrupt-activity law in line with federal standards.

The amendment would allow for the forfeiture of assets held by a defendant when a crime is committed, instead of when the defendant is indicted.

The GOP-controlled House tabled the amendment by a vote of 50-43.

This proposal could actually help prosecutors recover public money, state Rep. Jennifer Garrison (D., Marietta) said. I m disappointed to see a common-sense idea rejected just because it was put forward by a Democrat.

State Rep. William Healy II (D., Canton) last week proposed capping donations by employees of firms with no-bid contracts at $250 each to statewide candidates during the length of the contract, closing an existing loophole that only limits contributions during the two years before receiving a contract.

Karen Tabor, a spokesman for Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), said that Republicans intend to enact reforms once all of the details about Mr. Noe s relationship with the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, which funded the rare-coin venture, are brought to light.

It would be remiss for us to act without all of the facts of the case before us, Ms. Tabor said. As we do move forward, we want to be careful and deliberate in how we approach things, and not fan the flames.

Mr. Redfern has encouraged the speaker and state Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) to form a commission immediately, even if that commission postpones hearings to avoid interfering with any criminal inquiries.

The Democrats said that once meaningful ethics reform is in place, the legislature should focus on reinvigorating a stagnant job market and improving access to education.

In an effort to jump-start part of the economy, they have proposed tax cuts that range from excluding food sales from the new Commercial Activities Tax to reinstating state income tax deductions for higher education.

But, with the U.S. Department of Energy estimating Midwest gas bills will jump 71 percent this year, state Rep. Steve Driehaus (D., Cincinnati) said he will propose the state income tax cut be revamped to offer immediate aid for people facing overwhelming heating bills this winter.

According to the budget signed by Gov. Bob Taft this summer, the state income tax will be cut 21 percent during the next five years. Mr. Driehaus said he is working on a bill to accelerate the cut for families earning less than $80,000 and delay the cut for those earning more.

This is simply a way of changing the rate schedule such that it provides relief in the short term.

Besides outlining the Democrats priorities, Mr. Redfern attacked the initiatives set by Mr. Husted last month as shortsighted and hypocritical.

My colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle would have some of you believe that by drilling under our natural parks or Lake Erie, we could somehow solve the energy crisis, Mr. Redfern said.

It s ridiculous. It s fantasy talk, he continued. Starting a process of drilling under the Great Lakes, under Lake Erie, under state parks is a decade-long process that certainly will not have any impact on the cost of energy tomorrow.

Mr. Husted has said that making college education affordable will be one of the General Assembly s main priorities during the next year.

His rival, Mr. Redfern, said Republicans have a credibility gap when it comes to helping Ohioans earn degrees. Since fiscal year 1990, higher education s share of the state budget has decreased steadily from 15.5 percent to 11.5 percent in fiscal year 2006, he said.

When you think about numbers, they oftentimes get in the way of the truth.

But raw numbers do not necessarily work in the Democrats favor. Of 99 seats in the Ohio House of Representatives, the Democrats hold 39. They are also a minority in the state Senate.

And while Mr. Redfern bragged that Democratic lawmakers introduced 122 bills last year, he admitted only two passed.

Ms. Tabor invited Democrats to cooperate with the Republican majority.

I would like to hope that the members of the Democratic caucus could come forward and work with us, she said. Unfortunately, we didn t see that with the budget, but there s always an opportunity to come to the table.

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



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