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Taft, lawmakers hold the line as advocates fight cuts

Hounded by advocates for the poor on one side and business lobbyists on the other, Gov. Bob Taft and legislative leaders continue to hold the line against changes to their sweeping tax plan.

The House will vote next month on the governor's $51 billion two-year budget that cuts income and business taxes while freezing funding for universities and reducing the budgets of many schools.

Lawmakers have concluded weeks of hearings that saw emotional testimony from people fearing cuts in social services and pointed criticism by corporate groups about what they call flaws in Taft's tax proposal.

Taft has good news and bad news to consider as he promotes his plan, which would eliminate the current business tax in favor of a new, low tax spread over more businesses.

On the one hand, Ohioans are telling lawmakers they want lower taxes, a boon to Taft. His plan reduces taxes $833 million over two years, including a 21 percent cut in personal income taxes.

That's exactly what social service advocates like Lisa Hamler-Fugitt don't want to hear, since it makes fighting Taft's tight budget more difficult.

''The legislators are saying overwhelmingly that the calls and correspondence they're getting are from constituents who want their taxes reduced,'' said Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

And while the Ohio Chamber of Commerce opposes the business tax, many other corporate groups back it, also a plus for the governor.

The bad news is that Taft must fend off a potential challenge to his budget plan from Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

The governor knows that in order for his tax plan to survive, he must slow state spending. But if he doesn't, Blackwell will do it for him in the form of a constitutional amendment on November's ballot.

Blackwell's proposal would limit state spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted and Senate President Bill Harris have said they're considering their own version of such an amendment. They're concerned Blackwell's proposal could tie the hands of state government too much.

''You can't have meaningful tax reform without reductions in government spending,'' said Taft spokesman Mark Rickel. ''The question is what kind of program can you put in place that's controlling that spending and at same time enabling government to be responsible to the needs of the people.''

Two years ago, top lawmakers killed a Taft tax plan and battled over other budget proposals. The story's different this year.

When a union group began running radio ads critical of the tax plan, for example, Senate Republicans countered with a news release that said the effort was misleading.

And even though Husted, a suburban Dayton Republican, is promising to find about $1 million to fund a program for children with medical handicaps that Taft wants to cut, he's adamant that the governor's overall budget proposal will survive.

On spring break for two weeks, lawmakers will be hearing from police chiefs, mayors and other local officials about proposed cuts in state funding. Social service advocates also promise to hold meetings around the state to make their point.

Hamler-Fugitt said that with Ohioans voicing support for the proposed tax cuts, advocates for the poor have their work cut out for them.

''We have got to get folks who are going to be negatively impacted by the proposed cuts in this budget, to be calling in and saying how important these programs are,'' she said.

Rep. Sally Conway Kilbane, a suburban Cleveland Republican, scolded opponents of the tax plan at a hearing last week, saying the state will suffer in the long run if something isn't done to jump start the economy.

Afterward, she sounded optimistic about keeping the plan in place.

''We've been at it for a long time, a couple different plans, a couple different ways of looking at it, listening to lots and lots of people,'' said Kilbane, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

''A lot of my committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, understand what the issues are here.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press Columbus bureau.