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Engineer group wants open mind on tax increase

COLUMBUS - Read their lips: No anti-tax pledges.

The County Engineers Association of Ohio sent a letter to candidates for the General Assembly, urging them not to sign pre-election pledges that they won't raise taxes. The letter argues that lawmakers eventually are going to have to make tough decisions about the state's road system.

“At election time, it's relatively easy for people to campaign on a no-new-tax pledge,” said Steve Stolte, Union County engineer and association president. “Once you find yourself in office, you may learn that there may be a need for more taxes, but, because of that pledge, you won't support that need.”

The Ohio Taxpayers Association sent candidates an 11-question survey. The first question was whether they agreed with the statement “I will work and vote against any attempt to increase taxes.”

Of the 91 who responded, 69 checked “yes,” 17 noted that they were undecided, and five checked “no.” More than half of the candidates simply failed to respond to the survey.

Executive Director Scott Pullins said the organization considers an answer of “yes” to the question to be an anti-tax pledge.

“We already pay enough in taxes,” he said.

In addition to federal aid, the largest state sources of revenue for roads, bridges, State Highway Patrol, and the Ohio Department of Transportation administration is the 22-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, which raised $1.37 billion in 1999, and license plate fees, which raised $323 million.

An Ohio Legislative Budget Office study completed in September offered 15 possible alternatives, including raising the gas tax or license fee, allowing counties to enact their own gas tax exclusively for bridges, and rearranging the state's priorities to target more money toward local roads and bridges.

“Local roads in the state of Ohio, county and township roads and bridges, are generally in substantial need of improvement,” said Mr. Stolte. “There are insufficient dollars to deal with those. Roads in some counties may be in good shape, but, if you look at the state as a whole, there are tremendous unmet needs at the county and township level.”

Complicating the picture, however, are significant surpluses in the state's general budget, which Mr. Stolte noted counties can't access.

In the 53rd Ohio House District based in Ottawa County, Republican challenger Joseph Woods checked “yes” next to the anti-tax question on the taxpayers association survey while state Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Port Clinton) checked “undecided.”

“There is plenty of money there already,” Mr. Woods said. “We don't need additional taxes. Where are those [gas tax] dollars going?''

Mr. Redfern said he had schools, not roads, in mind when he checked “undecided.”

“I believe it's irresponsible for any legislator to agree or not agree on the issue of taxes in light of the DeRolph [school funding] decision,” he said. “It is especially irresponsible during an election cycle to allow one's self to be used and manipulated by any group.”

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