Support grows for amendment to limit state spending

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 11, 2005

An idea first publicly voiced by Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, to place constitutional limits on the state's ability to raise money or enact new taxes, is quickly gaining ground among other lawmakers.

At stake for Ohioans is a limit on what the state could spend, tied to inflation and other factors, that could affect how lawmakers fund everything from health care to parks to schools.

Blackwell, a Republican running for governor next year, proposed his plan last year and is already gathering signatures for a petition to place it on the November ballot.

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Lawmakers working on their own plan say it can stand on its own, independent of Blackwell's proposal. But Senate President Bill Harris acknowledged that Blackwell got the ball rolling.

''I give the Secretary of State credit to raising the issue to the point where it's forcing everybody to think more deeply in relationship to that subject,'' Harris said.

Last week, Gov. Bob Taft announced that he too was considering a plan that could curb what lawmakers can spend. He acknowledged that Blackwell's announcement ''may be a factor'' in his decision to study the idea.

''But just as important is the fact we're also working on a comprehensive tax reform proposal,'' Taft added.

Blackwell says he won't guess at anyone's motive for talking about the idea.

''I'm just delighted that they're open to the concept that we have at least a conceptual understanding that government spending needs to be restrained,'' Blackwell said.

Two years ago, Taft repeatedly said the budget would be the tightest in history, then to some lawmakers' dismay introduced a budget that proposed raising total state spending 4.9 percent in 2004 and 4.2 percent this year.

This year, Taft must decide whether to keep a temporary one penny sales tax. He also faces other deficits that could give him a $4 billion to $5 billion hole to fill.

When the budget was passed in June 2003, it included a record $18.1 billion in spending on social services for poor Ohioans. That drew warnings from Republicans that growth in spending on social services must be slowed.

Twenty-eight other states have some limit on state spending, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Historically, there's more interest in such proposals after an economic downturn, such as in the late 1970s or early 1990s, and again in recent years, said Bert Waisenan, an NCSL senior fiscal analyst.

Public policy aside, Democrats and Republicans alike know that backing a popular initiative is also a smart political move, said Caroline Tolbert, a Kent State University professor who studies petition initiatives.

She notes that President Bush was helped by his support for a proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a version of which was passed by several states in November, including Ohio.

''They know if they sponsor a salient, controversial ballot initiative, it can help them with the election,'' Tolbert said.

Auditor Betty Montgomery, who is working on her own plan to limit spending, said there's no question that support for the idea is growing.

''I've been in 88 counties, and if it wasn't Secretary Blackwell there would be somebody else out there,'' said Montgomery, also a Republican. ''There is a strong grassroots sentiment not only among the corporate world but among the public about our expenditures and the tax burdens on the public.''

Though Blackwell says he isn't assigning motive, he also points out his success gathering signatures for other issues, including the gay marriage ban.

His point: he's got a strong organization in place that will get his plan on the ballot one way or the other.

''Our goal is not to get into a running debate with the Legislature,'' Blackwell said. ''Our goal is to get this passed. If they can save us resources and time by putting this on the ballot themselves, then we can focus our resources on passing the measure this November.''

Andrew-Welsh Huggins is

the statehouse correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press.