Ohio auditor report draws lots of attention

Published 10:21 am Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It’s not easy to make a splash when you’re the state auditor. But Ohio Auditor Mary Taylor did just that last week.

Taylor, a Republican, released her own analysis of Ohio’s budget condition. It showed that the state would face an $8 billion gap in two years, after federal stimulus money and other one-time funds the Democratic governor is counting on dry up.

The state auditor doesn’t typically play a role as fiscal watchdog of the state budget, but Taylor made a deft political calculation in determining it was the time to step in.

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For one thing, her fellow Republicans in the Legislature are in a quandary over Strickland’s budget.

Until details were released on Thursday, House Democrats who control that chamber had kept the fine points of their school-funding rewrite close to the vest. And, even after the press conference and document release, the minority GOP caucus must still wait until next week — like the rest of the public — to see the exact language of a substitute budget bill.

Republicans hold a majority in the Ohio Senate, meanwhile. But there, too, the GOP finds itself in a bind.

As of Friday, the state budget — a massive policy document detailing $54 billion in state spending over the two years that start July 1 — wasn’t expected to emerge from the House and sent to the Senate until the last week of April. By statute, the budget must be signed into law by June 30.

That gives the Senate an unusually small time window — one-third the time the House has used — to make its own revisions to the budget. And the changes will have to include the Republican response to Strickland’s school-funding concept, a complete overhaul of how Ohio pays for public schools.

So Taylor put her staff, which includes former Republican state budget director Tim Keen, to work on the numbers for the good of her fellow Republicans.

House Republican Leader Bill Batchelder commended her for her ‘‘forward thinking.’’

‘‘Since legislators have not been able to obtain clear information from the Strickland administration, this analysis was much needed,’’ he said in a statement.

But Taylor’s act wasn’t purely magnanimous.

Politically, Taylor aspires at minimum to be re-elected in 2010. She’s also eyeing the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by George Voinovich and, with her statewide success, might even want to run for governor someday.

Last week’s splash, and an earlier ruckus she raised over the Strickland administration’s books being potentially ‘‘unauditable,’’ are improving her visibility and placing her sometimes sleepy office in the limelight.

The results of her budget analysis also underlined two themes about Strickland’s plan that Republicans have been trying to hammer home — and undoubtedly would love to use against Strickland when he runs for re-election.

First, it emphasized that his budget is reliant on a good chunk of one-time money (a criticism out-of-power Democrats once lobbed at Republicans). Second, it shows that the Strickland administration’s budget numbers haven’t always added up.

Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern labeled the whole exercise disingenuous.

‘‘It’s time for Mary Taylor and Ohio Republicans to get honest with the people of Ohio,’’ he said. ‘‘They have made it clear they oppose Ohio benefiting from billions in job creation funds provided by President Obama. That leaves only two options: either they want a massive tax hike on Ohioans or devastating cuts to job creation, education and health care for Ohio families.’’

Strickland responded to her report with a statement.

‘‘If we put aside heated rhetoric and partisan gamesmanship, there emerges a simple truth about federal stimulus resources. Without them, more Ohioans would lose jobs, fewer Ohioans would have access to health care, teachers would be laid off, tuition would increase, prisons would be forced to close, mental health and other important community services would be cut, and fewer Ohio jobs would be created.’’

Strickland also hinted, between the lines, that Taylor was using her state office — the only one the once-powerful Ohio GOP now controls — for the benefit of her colleagues in the Legislature.

‘‘If these are the actions that Mary Taylor and legislative Republicans are advocating for,’’ he said, ‘‘they should come out and say so.’’

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.