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Strickland record mixed on taxes

Gov. Ted Strickland blocked a tax increase in the new state budget with a vengeance that angered much of his Democratic base, opting instead to open the doors to slots-style gambling at Ohio’s horse tracks.

Yet thinking Strickland opposes all tax increases on principle would be a mistake.

‘‘It’s not that I don’t believe in taxes,’’ Strickland said in an interview with the Associated Press. ‘‘It has been said that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, and I do believe that.’’

Strickland’s positions on taxes have fluctuated with both the policy and the political landscapes over the years.

In 1993, when Strickland was a congressman representing Appalachia, he favored the federal tax increase to pay for President Clinton’s ill-fated health care reforms. The vote, which he stands behind, came back to haunt him politically.

During the 1994 campaign, Strickland offered an argument while debating opponent Frank Cremeans for why he might support a federal tax increase. The footage and quotes were widely used against him in attack ads and direct mail.

Cremeans made taxes a central theme in the election, and Strickland lost.

Voters in southeastern Ohio returned Strickland to Congress in 1996, but that wasn’t the end of the issue for him.

In 1998, his Republican opponent, Nancy Hollister, and the national Republicans launched TV and radio attacks against Strickland for being a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal. They pointed to additional budget and tax votes in Washington.

Strickland retained his seat that year, fighting $400,000-plus in GOP advertising with claims that Hollister’s record of raising taxes was even worse than his.

Strickland answered his critics in the 1990s by calling himself a pragmatist, a person who sought to reflect the views of those he represented, which sometimes changed when it came to various budget and tax proposals.

In 2006, now twice burned, Strickland faced anti-tax conservative Ken Blackwell in the race for governor. This time, Strickland spoke out against raising taxes.

It was a position he stuck with throughout the tense budget process, even in the face of criticism from his own party’s base of social service advocates and the editorial pages of newspapers across the state.

‘‘The fact is, it was a very fragile time for our economy,’’ he said. ‘‘I think a few months ago we were close to a total economic meltdown, nationally and internationally. Even now, the economy is in a very fragile state and I believe we should do nothing to make the recession worse.’’

Did his stand on the issue have anything to do with the potential political fallout in 2010 from a pro-tax vote, like the ones that harmed him when he was in Congress? ‘‘Hell, no,’’ the governor said.

Democratic consultant Gerald Austin, who has been an adviser to Strickland’s congressional efforts, said attitudes toward taxes are different at the state and national levels.

While pro-tax votes may cause a congressional candidate to get ousted, that has rarely been the case for a pro-tax governor.

Ohioans are willing to re-elect governors after they raise taxes. It has happened in recent history for Richard Celeste, a Democrat, and George Voinovich, a Republican — both of whom were re-elected after raising taxes to balance the state budget.

Both Celeste and Voinovich became governor after serving as state lawmakers. Austin said that gave them an appreciation for the difficulties of writing a state budget that is constitutionally required to balance.

‘‘They learned that balancing a budget in Columbus is different from going to Washington as a congressman and balancing a budget there, which basically is printing money,’’ he said.

Strickland said his lack of state legislative experience didn’t play a role in him calling the tax question differently than his predecessors.

‘‘I have heard from at least two of the former governors,’’ he said, ‘‘and they have said to me that they never faced the circumstances I faced in this budget.’’

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