Herington memo spurs charges of school funding politics

By Dan Trevas Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

Republicans are pointing to a memo between two Ohio Senate Democratic leaders

suggesting the minority party keep secret the details of their plan to revamp

education until after Republican leaders succeed in their effort to raise

the state sales tax and businesses taxes through a Nov. 4 statewide vote.

``It is imperative that we distinguish our program from that of the Republicans,

and that we not give up our political advantage by agreeing to their program

nor by being maneuvered into a position which compromises the differences

that we must articulate,'' said Sen. Leigh Herington, D-Kent, in his June

29 memo to Minority Leader Ben Espy.

As assistant minority whip, Herington is the No. 4 ranking Democrat in the

Senate. He wrote the memo after Espy, D-Columbus, asked for suggestions

from his caucus about school funding while serving on Gov. George Voinovich's

school funding task force.

The task force was charged with drafting a plan to respond to a March Ohio

Supreme Court ruling that the state's school financing system was unconstitutional.

Espy and House Minority Leader Ross Boggs complained that politics by the

majority Republicans was controlling the task force's efforts, and the two

refused to sign onto the plan presented by the GOP leaders to raise the

sales tax, cigarette tax and business property taxes.

Mike Dawson, Voinovich's spokesman, said the GOP released the memo to demonstrate

the Democrats were playing politics with the situation by not offering specific

funding proposals to task force Chairman Gregory Browning, who is director

of Voinovich's Office of Budget and Management.

``Greg Browning repeatedly asked Senator Espy to give us his input, give

us his ideas,'' Dawson said. ``He said he would but he never got them to

us.''

Espy said he read Herington's memo, but the suggestions were not discussed

by the 12-member caucus or used as part of their strategy.

Herington presents three goals in the memo. He said the Democrats should

present a proposal that will meet the needs of the children of Ohio; satisfy

the court's ruling; and significantly enhance the chances of Democrats recapturing

the governor's office, all the statewide offices and control of the House

and Senate.

On Wednesday Herington described the memo as random thoughts he put together

after hearing the Republicans were crafting a school funding plan without

the input of Espy. He said the GOP must have obtained the unsigned memo

by taking it off desk of the Senate Finance and Financial Institution Committee,

which is conducting hearings on the funding plan.

Herington said the administration held the memo about a week and timed its

release for the day after he launched a series of tough questions to Browning

during a hearing about shortcomings of the resolution.

``Their reasons for releasing it are political,'' he said.

Herington's memo advises the Democrats to work on a `Plan B' in case voters

reject the sales tax increase and reform package. He outlines 11 components

of a Democratic plan, and how it would differ from the GOP's including a

requirement that the state cut the budgets of non-educational agencies to

help fund school reform.

Dawson said the suggestion is hypocrisy because Herington as a senator and

a finance committee member offered no amendments to cut any state agency

budgets in order to put money into schools when the Senate passed the state's

two-year budget bill in June.

Espy said the charge of politicizing the debate is absurd. He said when

the court gives 132 politicians an issue as big as education to resolve,

obviously politics is going to come into play.

Meanwhile, a conservative citizen advocate claims the entire effort to place

a school funding plan on the ballot is a politically motivated move to help

Voinovich's 1998 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Richard Vedder, chairman of the National Taxpayers Union of Ohio advisory

council, told House members that they ought to take several more months

to come up with a solid education reform plan that does not call for increased

taxes.

``I think the people of Ohio are more important than the governor's election,''

Vedder said.

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