Democrats had rare chance to flex muscle on bond levy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Outnumbered for more than a decade, Democrats in the Legislature got a rare chance to flex their muscle on a hefty public borrowing package awaiting voter approval.

With some Republicans splitting from their leaders over a portion of the issue that they consider corporate welfare, and religious conservatives objecting to what they see as an implicit support of a type of abortion, the GOP needed Democrat help get the $2 billion bond package on the November ballot.

So the Democrats publicly disapproved or were silent for months, leading many statehouse insiders to predict the ballot question was dead for the year. Instead it overwhelmingly passed the House and the Senate last week - after Democrats got changes they wanted.

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The package includes $500 million in borrowing to support high-tech companies, an issue that failed on its own in 2003. It's combined with a wildly popular $1.5 billion public works package. Because the proposal would amend the Ohio constitution, it needed three-fifths approval by lawmakers.

Sen. C.J. Prentiss, the top Senate Democrat, thanked President Bill Harris for his cooperation before the unanimous vote last Wednesday. She said her members endured criticism for delaying the package while she told them to keep quiet.

''You have the same votes today that you had in April,'' she said on the Senate floor. ''We've worked together since April. It's a better bill.''

Democrats got promises that if the proposed amendment passes, the legislation to make it take effect would include protections for union-level wages and assurances that all the state's regions - not just the biggest cities - will be able to compete for the technology bonds, among other changes.

With the GOP getting what it needed, Democrats must rely on the majority to follow through on that verbal agreement if the issue passes and the bill is drafted.

''Obviously politics is a lot of trust, and I at this point trust the speaker,'' said Rep. Chris Redfern, the House Democratic leader.

The minority party also was able to prevent an attempt by Republican conservatives to insert in the amendment a ban on using the bonds to pay for embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic cells that can develop into any type of body tissue are hailed for their potential to develop treatments for many diseases, but religious conservatives oppose them because days-old embryos are destroyed to make them.

House Speaker Jon Husted called for a vote on the bill and didn't call on fellow GOP Rep. Mike Gilb when Gilb stood to offer the amendment. The House vote was 84-7, with some of the six Republicans who opposed it doing so because of stem cells.

''If Mike's amendment would be added to that, then the issue would have fallen apart, and it wouldn't be on the ballot,'' Redfern said.

Most of the Legislature's actions require only a 51 percent vote, so the need for Democratic help is rare. The party lost the majority in 1994, and now is outnumbered 60-39 in the House and 22-11 in the Senate.

A faction within the faction got its way in 2003, when black Democrats in the House pledged their support for a contentious two-year state budget. When 14 anti-tax Republicans bolted over a sales tax increase, the black caucus pledged that five of their 14 members in safe districts for re-election would vote for the GOP budget, making the total 53-46.

In return, GOP leaders eased back on cuts that mostly hit the poor, children and elderly in the black members' largely urban districts, restoring money for Medicaid, Head Start, housing, day-care and school breakfast programs.

That wasn't so with the latest two-year budget that passed in June, with the support of only one Democrat in the entire Legislature.

In both chambers, Democrat after Democrat offered amendments that would have blunted the tight budget's blows to higher education, adults losing dental coverage under Medicaid and the foundation that uses tobacco settlement money to help keep teens from smoking.

Husted said there was no reason to hear the amendments because Democrats had already said they wouldn't vote for the budget even if it included their changes.

Carrie Spencer is a correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press in Columbus.