Governor must sell tax increases with State of the State address

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft is expected to deliver a "pretty stark" State of the State address next week that will pitch tax increases to solve Ohio's budget deficit.

Normally a chance to rally lawmakers around good news and upcoming programs, Wednesday's speech will focus mainly on Ohio's budget deficit and the economy, Brian Hicks, Taft's chief of staff, said Thursday.

"It will be a pretty stark speech, it will be pretty somber and it will reflect the reality that we're in," Hicks said.

Taft, a Republican starting his second and last four-year term, said Thursday he expects an announcement on tax increases next week and may use the State of the State for that news.

He's already said a tax on alcohol or cigarettes is being considered to fix Ohio's current budget deficit. Other taxes are being considered to balance the two-year budget due July 1.

Taft (pictured, above) has little choice but to lay out the bad news, said Nancy Martorano, a political scientist at the University of Dayton.

"Typically, the goal is to try to keep it positive and focus on the good things going on," Martorano said. "Unfortunately with the budget situation, there's not too much good going on in the state of Ohio."

Taxes are "the necessary evil now," she said. "I don't think he has anywhere else to go for the money. He's been boxed in. He might as well say it now."

House Speaker Larry Householder, also a Republican, said he's interested in what Taft has to say. He said he expects talk of the future and economic development.

As far as trying to sell taxes to lawmakers in the speech, "Certainly that's up to him," Householder said.

One of the leaders of a revolt by House conservatives last year over another Taft tax increase said he doesn't want to hear talk of taxes.

"For me and my constituents, we need to hear him say that he is going to show leadership and take the opportunity to put some controls on the size of government," said Rep. Tim Grendell, a Chesterland Republican.

"I just don't think the people of Ohio want to see taxes as the first resort. I think they want to see government deal with its own inefficiencies," he said.

Grendell was one of about a dozen House Republicans who delayed a proposal to patch a $1.9 billion deficit last year until they forced the reduction of a new tax on cigarettes from 50 cents a pack to 31 cents.

Rep. Chris Redfern of Port Clinton, the top-ranking House Democrat, agrees that Taft needs to push cuts first, as long as they're not across-the-board reductions.

Taft "needs to propose to this body a blueprint for reducing nonessential state government line item by line item, department by department, agency by agency," Redfern said. "There's a lot of waste in this state."

Martorano said Taft has the benefit of dozens of other states facing similar budget shortfalls.

As a term-limited governor, he has another advantage, she said.

"If he pushes a tax increase, he doesn't have to worry about any potential re-election backlash, and given the political nature of the state, there probably wouldn't be too much backlash on the Republican party anyway," she said.

Republicans control all five statewide offices and five of seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court. Taft defeated Tim Hagan, his Democratic challenger in November, by 20 percentage points.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)