House OKs sales tax for schools on May ballot

By Dan Trevas Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS _ Expecting a court challenge, the Ohio House passed a bill placing a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase on the May 5 ballot to increase funding for education.

House Bill 697 passed 59-39 Wednesday and invokes an unused 147-year-old provision of the Ohio Constitution that may give lawmakers the right to submit laws regarding education to a statewide vote.

"We must take that first significant step on what has become a very long road for all of us to fund this system," said Rep. Thomas Johnson, the bill's sponsor.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill creating a new school funding formula in an attempt to meet an Ohio Supreme Court order to overhaul the financing of the $12 billion public school system. The House fell two votes short of the required 60 votes to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

The bill required only 50 votes to pass and it now moves to the Ohio Senate, which has scheduled hearings on the bill for today in its finance committee.

Facing criticism that the bill does not do enough to meet the court order and that it unnecessarily increases taxes, Johnson, R-New Concord, said the finely crafted agreement between Democrats and Republicans provides significant benefits to Ohioans.

"This is the best that we have ever had before us," he said of the bill.

The increase is expected to generate $1.1 billion more per year in taxes. Half the new revenue will go to increase funding for schools and the other half will go toward reducing residential property taxes.

The Supreme Court found the current system was deficient because the state did not have a logical formula for determining the appropriate amount of money needed for public schools and because it relied too heavily on local property taxes.

Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, R-Aurora, delivered an overview of the 1851 state constitutional convention where farmers debated inserting the language allowing the legislature to delegate its authority on school issues.

Womer Benjamin said the move was appropriate and voters should have a right to decide whether taxes should be raised.

Rep. Jerry Krupinski, D-Steubenville, said lawmakers get paid "the big bucks" to decide whether to raise or cut taxes and that the legislature should not foist the decision upon the voters.

"In a very short time, there will be fewer elephants and fewer donkeys and quite a few more cowardly lions," he said shortly before the vote on the bill.

A contingent of Democrats and Republicans said raising the sales tax and offering property tax cuts is unfair to poorer Ohioans and those who do not own homes. Rep. William Healy, D-Canton, offered an amendment to use some of the sales tax increase to give income tax rebates to the working poor.

Rep. Robert Netzley, R-Laura, said the Healy proposal would be the only good element of the bill for Ohio's poor. The amendment was soundly defeated after legislative leaders indicated the court wanted property taxes cut.

Rep. Richard Hodges, R-Metamora, voted against the bill saying the state already has enough money to fund the education reforms for at least the next two years. If the state has a recession next century and needs more money to meet funding commitments, it should then seek a tax increase.

"It is a question of credibility and accountability. The state doesn't know if and when we are going to have a recession. If we raise taxes and we do not have the recession, then again we will be flushed with money for no reason," he said.

William Phillis, director of the coalition that sought the court order to change school funding, said the group is examining the move to go to the ballot and may file a challenge.

"This is a tax issue. This is not an education issue. I don't think the law allows them to put a tax issue on the ballot," he said.

David Zanotti, director of the conservative Ohio Roundtable, has said his group opposes the latest move to place the issue on the ballot. He said the group will sue the state if the bill is passed into law.

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