COLUMBUS - The lines have been drawn for a battle in courtrooms and at the ballot box this fall with the control of Ohio government potentially at stake.
Conservative Republicans felt the threat was strong enough to sacrifice their cause - a constitutional amendment to rein in government spending - to concentrate instead on defeating proposed election reforms pushed by labor and other Democrat-leaning groups in the wake of a statewide scandal that began with rare coins and is now threatening the GOP's hold on Ohio government.
"I guess we get some credit for getting the Tax Expenditure Limitation off the ballot, so Reform Ohio Now can claim its first public policy success," said Herb Asher, political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University and spokesman for the election reform effort.
The reform movement - a coalition that includes such groups as the AFL-CIO, Ohio Federation of Teachers, and Common Cause - yesterday filed petitions containing 521,000 signatures with the secretary of state's office. It needs at least 323,000 valid signatures of registered voters to put its proposals, including one to take the once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts out of the hands of politicians, on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Bob Bennett, Ohio Republican Party chairman, suggested moving the spending-cap ballot initiative from this November to the next so his party can make the 2006 statewide elections a debate on taxes and spending when the GOP is hoping to keep its control over the governor's seat and other state offices. "I think this is a good issue for Republicans to run on and to frame the debate, regardless of who our candidate is," he said.
But Democrats charge that Republicans are hoping to use the spending-cap vote to divert attention from current pay-to-play scandals enveloping Gov. Bob Taft and the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.
"We worked our way through gay marriage [in 2004]," said House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island). "I always figured illegal immigration would be the next thing they'd use to take attention away from significant economic issues and the failure of one-party leadership.
"It's the classic bait and switch," Mr. Redfern said. "It's a typical political reaction. Rather than show courage and leadership, they're trying to divert the attention of the voters."
John Green, who is the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, suggested that Republicans may view the spending-cap vote as the 2006 equivalent of the 2004 gay-marriage amendment.
"There's genuine worry about Republican chances next year," Mr. Green said. "Some believe [the gay marriage issue] brought out conservative voters" for President Bush.
Gabrielle Williamson, Ohio Democratic Party spokesman, said the maneuver won't work.
"The only thing that can help Republicans is a little honesty, a lot better financial management, and a healthy dose of ethics," Ms. Williamson said.
"If Bob Bennett has a crystal ball, it's awfully murky right about now. The fate of Republicans lies in the hands of federal and state investigators. Gimmicks like these are not going to cut it."
Thirteen separate investigations are under way - including two federal grand juries and a state grand jury - into Ohio's failed $50 million rare-coin investment with Tom Noe, as well as into ethics violations in the governor's office involving gifts from Mr. Noe and others to Mr. Taft and top aides.
GOP Chairman Bennett said he worked for a month to convince Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican candidate for governor in 2006, to put off the constitutional amendment he is backing to limited state spending.
Mr. Blackwell agreed on Monday, just two days before the deadline for Citizens for Tax Reform to file petitions to get the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.
"I had numerous conversations with him," Mr. Bennett said.
"He had a lot of people involved in this. He had the signatures to put it on the ballot, and the timing was right.
"My persuasive argument was, if he was going to be the candidate for governor next year, this would be a great issue to frame the debate," he said. "That would be true regardless of who the nominee is."
Mr. Blackwell was on vacation and unavailable for comment, said his spokesman, Carlo LoParo.
The spending-cap proposal would limit annual increases in state spending at the rate of inflation adjusted for population growth, or 3.5 percent, whichever is greater.
Gene Pierce, spokesman for both Mr. Blackwell's gubernatorial campaign and Citizens for Tax Reform, said Mr. Blackwell ultimately agreed that 2006, when higher-profile statewide races would be on the battle, would be a better forum for the tax-and-spend debate.
"Ken would be talking about taxes, spending, and jobs even if the [spending cap] wasn't on the ballot," Mr. Pierce said.
"This is the heart and soul of Ken's campaign, but I can guarantee this isn't the only thing he will be talking about."
The rare-coin and ethics scandals are the reasons why Jan Fleming, a public school teacher in Columbus, volunteered to gather signatures for the Reform Ohio Now election-reform amendments.
"Pay-to-play politics not only exists, it's out of control," she said.
"Wealthy people have special access to politicians that I don't have. I can't play because I can't pay. The average citizen is not able to compete when we have campaign contribution limits of $10,000."
The proposal drawing the most attention would take the authority to redraw congressional and state legislative districts after each U.S. Census out of the hands of politicians and place it with a new five-member panel on which no elected official could sit.
Other changes would take election oversight away from the secretary of state and place it with a statewide election board, allow voters to cast absentee ballots without having to state a reason, and roll back limits on campaign contributions that lawmakers recently quadrupled.
The reform group won the first skirmish yesterday. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a suit designed to invalidate the petitions before they could reach the ballot.
"All of the scandals that we've seen coming out of Columbus in recent months start with one man, Tom Noe, who received state contracts and unfettered access to political leaders because he gave [contributions] to prominent Ohio Republicans," said Mr. Redfern, a supporter of the Reform Ohio Now amendments.
Moving the spending-cap vote to 2006 would also allow Republicans to concentrate on promoting a three-pronged $2 billion "jobs" bond issue, including $500 million for Mr. Taft's Third Frontier investment in high-tech research, without fear it would clash with Mr. Blackwell's anti-spending initiative.
The money that would repay the borrowed money over time with interest would come from the same state general fund budget spending that the TEL would target.
Mr. Green of the University of Akron said there are reasons why postponing the vote might have appealed to Mr. Blackwell.
"This would restore some degree of peace with other elements of the Republican Party with whom he's had a great deal of tension," he said.
Contact Jim Provance at:
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