COLUMBUS _ Insisting the state already provides school children with an adequate education, Gov. George Voinovich urged lawmakers to let voters approve a penny per dollar increase in the state sales tax to provide a high-quality education.
"A majority of legislators in this hall have said they believe Ohio voters ought to have a chance to debate this issue and make a decision. Let me say strongly: the governor agrees with you. Let's get it done and put it on the May ballot," Voinovich said.
The push for the schools tax drew standing applause from about half the legislators convened in the joint House-Senate session to hear Voinovich's last State of the State address Tuesday. Voinovich's second term ends this year, and he is constitutionality prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term.
Touting the accomplishments in office since 1991, especially the additional dollars devoted to education, Voinovich offered few new initiatives and spent most of the 51-minute address talking about programs for children and families.
During his tenure as governor, Voinovich has been dogged by a lawsuit filed by 500 school districts challenging the constitutionality of the school funding system. That resulted in a 1997 Ohio Supreme Court ruling giving lawmakers until March 24 to overhaul the system.
Voinovich proposed raising the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to pay for reforms and has insisted the new state money infused in education since the suit was originally filed has been enough to meet the court order.
"Together, we have traveled an incredible distance since 1991. Across the education waterfront, from performance to accountability, technology, professional development and school funding, we have acted responsibly and rewritten the history books," he said.
Voinovich is now seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate to replace the retiring Democrat John Glenn. He wished Glenn "Godspeed" as the former astronaut prepares to return to space in a special mission later this year.
The salute to Glenn prompted applause from weary lawmakers who have spent most of the month in extended session trying to hash out a school funding fix. The speech was interrupted by applause 35 times, but the only full standing ovation was granted to a group of children the governor introduced for various accomplishments.
State Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora, said she thought the speech will help get the public to accept a sales tax increase is needed to meet the court order.
"I was very encouraged in his statement supporting the legislative effort to get a sales tax for education on the ballot," the Republican said. "I think the legislature is really trying to do the right thing here and give the public the right to voice its opinion on this very important issue."
Pointing to $8.1 billion in health care and welfare savings during his term, an unemployment rate at a 25-year low, income tax cuts for individuals and $2.4 billion in workers' compensation rates for businesses, Voinovich said the state is well-managed and poised to succeed in the future.
"Ohio is stronger today than it's been in anyone's memory and is well prepared for even greater days ahead," he said.
Of the few initiatives promoted in the speech, Voinovich said the state should set aside another $300 million of its two-year construction budget for repairing and replacing crumbling public schools. Additionally, lawmakers should suspend the income tax rebate fund and dedicate any extra state dollars to further school repairs.
He also advocated three new programs for children from birth to 3 years old by using existing state dollars.
He wants parents of every newborn child to leave the hospital with a copy of the state's "Help Me Grow" parenting guide and the "I Am Your Child" videotape. The state should also ensure new mothers receive a special "welcome home" visit from an early childhood professional.
He asked lawmakers to invest $900,000 a year linking 1,500 child care sites to a new television network that helps develop the teaching and care skills of child care providers.
"I think he made a good faith effort to reinforce the fact that George Voinovich cares about kids. He's been consistent since the day he took office," said Rep. Kevin Coughlin, a Republican, of Cuyahoga Falls.
Republican Rep. Twyla Roman of Springfield Township, said she thought Voinovich did a good job outlining the improvement made in education since 1991.
The speech drew sharp criticism from Democratic legislative leaders and Voinovich's likely Senate opponent, former state representative and county commissioner Mary Boyle.
State Sen. Leigh Herington of Kent, said the governor has been more interested in giving tax breaks to businesses and building prisons than addressing the shortfalls in education spending.
"If we were truly committed to solving the education problem, we would have done it a long time ago and we would not have given business tax deductions last year. We would have been more concerned about educating first-time offenders than putting them in prison," Herington, a Democrat, said.
House Minority Leader Ross Boggs of Andover, said while more Ohioans are working than in the past, incomes are not keeping up with inflation. The Democrat said any new taxes for schools need to be split between businesses and individuals and the state should cut its spending.
"I don't think the working men and women of this state should bear the full load of any tax increase," he said. "The earning power of working men and women of this state are going down not up."
Boyle of Cleveland said Voinovich has shown a lack of leadership on the education issue and the state's financial commitment to schools not been enough.
"He has been missing in action from this debate in the last six months and I don't know if that is going to change despite the words in his speech," she said. "The reality is that his leadership has not produced a solution to the problem of adequate and equitable funding for schools in Ohio."
Herington was also upset that Voinovich offered no new support for higher education and asked the universities to learn to do more with less.
"I am particularly distressed by the governor's unwillingness to understand the importance of higher education," he said. "We need to emphasize a higher level of educational opportunity in the state of Ohio and he just doesn't get it."