Ohio Senate Oks tax increase plan

By Dan Trevas Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS _ Voter approval of a penny-per-dollar increase in the state sales tax for education does not mean the end of levy campaigns by local school districts, cautioned state lawmakers.

The Ohio Senate voted 23-10 Tuesday to place before voters May 5 a proposal to raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and devote half the revenues to education and half to reducing residential real estate taxes.

Two Democrats, Sen. Leigh Herington of Kent, and Sen. Judy Sheerer of Shaker Heights, joined Republicans in approving the bill.

Even though the new money is part of the state's overhaul of the school funding system, legislators warned that local tax dollars raised through property and income taxes will still play a significant role in bankrolling the $12 billion system.

"If voters never vote to approve a property tax again, that would be wrong," said Sen. Eugene Watts, R-Galloway. "This system will remain a shared system."

Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, said lawmakers will organize a campaign to promote the sales tax increase. While they will highlight its intent to improve schools and offer property rebates, the message will be clear that local districts will have to continue to rely on support from residents.

"We are not going to become the sole funder of education in the state of Ohio," he said.

Before dispatching House Bill 697 to Gov. George Voinovich's desk, the Senate raged in debate for nearly four hours. The Republican-controlled Senate rejected eight Democratic amendments mostly along party lines.

The legislation is part of lawmakers' attempt to comply with a March 1997 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court declaring the current funding system for the 1.8 million-student public school system unconstitutional. Lawmakers were given a year to develop a solution.

Herington offered, but failed to secure, an amendment ensuring none of the projected $1.1 billion raised by the tax increase would be used for private schools. Ohio leads the nation in its financial support of private education, he said. He warned that using more voter-approved money for private education could force a serious legal challenge.

"First of all, there are huge problems with this bill," he said. "I do not believe this does enough, but I believe we ought to let the voters decide whether this is good enough," he said.

To get the measure on the ballot, lawmakers are relying on an unused 147-year-old provision of the Ohio Constitution to delegate its authority to the voters on a school issue. Before it gets to the ballot, the proposal may face a legal challenge by the conservative Ohio Roundtable.

Additionally, the Coalition of Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, the group that sued to overturn the current system, is pondering legal action or a campaign against the ballot issue.

The group will announce its plans Friday.

The National Taxpayer Union of Ohio is wasting no time in organizing opposition. It established, "Ohioans Against a 20% Tax Increase," a committee that will campaign against the sales tax.

"We can solve the school funding problem without raising taxes," said Scott Pullins, the group's campaign director. "We could raise the money by only redirecting three percent of our $36 billion state budget."

Senators that voted to put the issue on the ballot are among the ranks that will vote against at the polls or refuse to campaign for it.

Watts said the state has done enough to meet the court order through other education reforms enacted this year and the tax would only help future legislatures in financing the plan.

Sen. Ben Gaeth, R-Defiance, said he would vote against it, but thinks the voters ought to have a right to decide.

"I think everybody is just trying to get this issue behind them," he said. "But I am a firm believer that the voters ought to have a chance to make a decision on this."

Sen. Richard Schafrath, R-Loudonville, was not warm to a tax increase proposal on the ballot when the issue was raised last August. He said since then new laws that make schools more accountable for how they spend money have passed and the state also has clearer direction in how it intends to spend taxpayer money.

"I think we now have good accountability, and good standards," he said. "I still think there is a lot of room for improvement," he said.

Sen. Greg DiDonato, D-Dennison, said the public is being suckered into believing a vote for the sales tax increase will be a cure-all for public education's financial woes. He said Ohioans are angered the state lottery has not be able to provide the financial support for education that voters believed it would.

"This smells like the lottery again," he said. "I think this is false hope."

Sen. Grace Drake, R-Solon, said she will support the bill not only because school benefits, but the court required the system be less reliant on property taxes. She said the relief given to homeowners would draw a lot of support.

"I think this is going to help fix the schools," she said.

"We are reducing property taxes and that is what the court wanted us to do."

To meet the deadline for getting on the ballot, the bill must be signed by Voinovich and filed with Secretary of State Bob Taft by Thursday.

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