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Ohio tax vote tough for House Democrats

It would be easy to assume that Gov. Ted Strickland’s latest budget-balancing tax proposal would face its biggest hurdle in the Republican-led Ohio Senate. Try again.

It’s in the Ohio House, controlled by fellow Democrats, that suspending a planned 4.2-percent cut in the personal income tax is going to have its toughest time.

Strickland’s proposal is to forgo the final round of a 21-percent tax cut that was being phased in over five years. He called for the cut to be delayed for at least two years, to raise the roughly $850 million put in jeopardy when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a citizen group could take his plan for lottery-run slot machines before voters in 2010.

Democrats took control of the House last year for the first time since 1994, capturing a 53-46 majority.

They did so by running moderate and conservative candidates in some districts that had long been held by Republicans.

In the 18th district, representing the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville, Democrat Matt Patten received 50.86 percent of the vote, for example. And his squeaker of a victory surely had something to do with name confusion. He won a seat formerly held by Republican Tom Patton, a popular Republican who had won 68 percent of the vote the last time he ran.

Adding a vote in favor of a tax increase to that equation could equal one Democrat subtracted from the House roster in favor of a Republican. Rep. Debbie Phillips, in a closely divided district representing Athens, is in the same situation.

Politically, other Democratic representatives — Connie Pillich of Cincinnati and Ray Pryor outside Chillicothe, for example — may have an even tougher time if they vote yes on the tax question. Their districts lean heavily Republican, as the GOP intended when it drew them.

The predicament of such House members was hinted at in the statement that Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, released after Strickland’s announcement.

“I agree with Gov. Strickland that we must take action to avoid deep and Draconian cuts to Ohio’s schools and I appreciate the leadership in putting forth a proposal,” Budish said. “I will discuss this option with my colleagues in the House and Senate and find common ground and chart a course that protects education funding.”

Of course, securing approval in the Senate will be no cake walk for Strickland, either. The GOP controls 21 of the chamber’s 33 seats.

However, if the dozen Senate Democrats stick together on the vote, Strickland would need to persuade only five Republicans to back his plan. His case may be helped by the fact that only eight districts held by Senate Republicans are in play in the next election — leaving 13 GOP senators with extra time to distance themselves from the tax issue before they again face voters.

Certainly, most Republican senators will oppose postponing the tax cut — even some who have voted in favor of tax increases in the past. Sen. Jon Husted, the former House speaker, supported a penny-per-dollar hike in the sales tax to balance another recent budget, for example, but he has been a leading critic of Strickland’s overall handling of the budget.

Several within the Senate GOP, including the politically moderate Senate President Bill Harris, are term-limited and thus capable of supporting the plan without consequences at the ballot booth, however. Strickland may be able to count on their support, as he did in the overall state budget vote this summer.

On Friday, Harris sent a letter to Strickland calling on him to repeal language in the budget bill that was supposed to protect Strickland’s slots directive from a legal challenge. Harris wants all future slots proposals to go through voters.

House Democrats are unlikely to make their political demands as publicly, but they are a pivotal piece of where the issue goes from here.

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