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COLUMBUS Despite a worsening economy and a projected $733 million hole in the state budget, Gov. Ted Strickland yesterday urged Ohio lawmakers to shift into high gear by putting a $1.7 billion jobs package before voters.
But Republican lawmakers immediately questioned his plan to go deeper into debt to pay for it.
[W]e must cast aside fear, cast aside indifference, and summon the spirit and courage that brought the first Ohioans to this land, the governor told a joint gathering of the Republican-controlled House and Senate in his second State of the State Address.
[T]his difficulty is also an opportunity, he said. We can take this moment to commit to a standard. Ohio will be first among its peers and a competitor among all nations.
In his 52-minute speech, the former Methodist minister quoted Scripture and William Shakespeare and invoked the name of former Republican Gov. Jim Rhodes.
Democrats were enthusiastic while, at times, the Republican response was tepid at best.
The governor won a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle when he called for allowing more high-performing students to complete their senior years of high school on college campuses.
You might want to stand up again for this one, Mr. Strickland told legislators. Tuition for the year will be free. He did not explain how he plans to pay for it.
When he proposed relegating the partly elected, partly appointed State Board of Education to an advisory role and giving him and future governors authority to appoint a director of education, Republicans sat on their hands as Democrats rose to their feet.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman, who was selected by the state board, displayed no emotion when Mr. Strickland dropped the surprise. But his budget director, J. Pari Sabety, seated next to her, was all smiles.
Both House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) and Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) were suspicious about giving the governor more authority over education, recalling his unsuccessful attempt last year to kill a statewide school voucher program, a Republican pet program.
The governor likened the proposal to last year s decision to give him appointment authority over the chancellor of higher education and demote the Ohio Board of Regents to an advisory board. That proposal was embraced by lawmakers.
This has been proposed one way, shape, or form for 20 years, said Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), a former teacher. Every year I thought it was a bad idea, and in 2008 I still think it s a bad idea I think the transformation to a chancellor for higher education is very different from telling a majority-elected state school board you are now advisory, which basically disenfranchises voters in Ohio.
Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), also a former teacher, disagreed.
The governor s plan to create a director of education to oversee the Department of Education will add much-needed oversight to our education system, she said.
Some might have expected a governor to keep his powder dry in the wake of the budget cuts he proposed last week to close a $733 million expected gap in the state budget.
Instead, he proposed:
A $1.7 billion borrowing package designed to create 80,000 new jobs by investing in renewable power; tackle local water and sewer projects; improve the state s transportation infrastructure; promote nonpetroleum production of plastics; boost the biomedical industry; invest in redevelopment of Main Street, Ohio; clean up polluted industrial sites, and preserve farmland.
Making four-year degree programs available at a college within 30 miles of every Ohioan, an initiative aimed largely at community colleges that now specialize in two-year associate degrees.
Consolidation of fragmented services for veterans into one new Department of Veterans Affairs.
A ballot issue next year on his long-promised plan to fix what the Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly has said is an unconstitutional state system of funding public education. He gave no hint, however, of what the proposal might be.
Mr. Strickland urged the state to forge full-speed ahead with additional funding for colleges that resulted in a two-year freeze on tuition. The funding already has been approved. The governor also promoted the planned expansion of health-care coverage for children.
All of this occurred within the context of the state s budget problems, which Mr. Strickland has estimated could lead to a budget hole as wide as $1.9 billion by June 30, 2009, if the economy slips into recession.
In the face of this challenge, we cannot simply put a patch on the budget without redoubling our efforts to create good jobs for Ohioans, he said. My friends, the state of the state is resolute. We are challenged, but we will not back down. The people of our state expect a future that lifts us all.
As with his first State of the State address, details of the governor s second were kept under wraps until he delivered it. The results surprised Rep. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), who called the speech bold and courageous.
I expected him to explain the situation we re in and how he planned to pull us out of it, but I did not expect these bold new programs, she said. I m just overjoyed. That s the way to do it. Take the bull by the horns.
Mr. Husted said Republicans will tackle a jobs package this year, but he again questioned the idea of borrowing to pay for it. The House speaker already has questioned a plan backed by the governor and Ohio Senate to borrow $200 million to pay for one-time bonuses for veterans of the Persian Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Are we going to take on long-term debt for what is probably a short-term downturn in the economy? Sen. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta) asked. Do we want to saddle our children and potentially grandchildren with debt for what sounds, at least at first blush today, to be a lot of one-time spending on things like infrastructure and grants for biomed, bioplastics, and whatever else?
The governor plans to take his State of the State address on the road today, including a stop at Perrysburg s First Solar Inc., which makes thin-film solar panels. He cited that corporation s partnership with the University of Toledo and General Motors plans to invest $332 million in its Toledo Powertrain facility as examples of some good news in Ohio s shaky economy.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com, or 614-221-0496.