Governor pushes modest jobs program in State of the State

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft used his sixth State of the State address to propose inexpensive solutions to the state's economic woes through a series of jobs programs.

Taft called Wednesday for additional spending on programs that help companies teach workers and announced a guarantee to provide trained workers for companies that bring at least 100 jobs to Ohio.

The former program would cost an additional $12.8 million a year, the latter about $3 million, the Department of Development said.

By contrast, two years ago Taft called on lawmakers to support his $1.6 billion Third Frontier Project.

"Everything depends on a good job -- strong families, strong communities, the pursuit of the American dream, and a tax base to support schools for our kids and services for our seniors," Taft said.

House Republicans called the ideas reasonable and likely to win support. But House Speaker Larry Householder also said lawmakers are already working on most of Taft's proposals.

"Seventy-five percent of the work already's been done," said Householder, a Glenford Republican.

Taft (pictured, above) urged lawmakers to pass a series of pro-business bills, including limits on injury lawsuits against businesses and workers' comp reforms. He also wants a job tax credit extended to insurance companies.

"With every decision we make, every bill we pass, every budget we approve, we must ask ourselves -- how are we improving Ohio's climate for jobs?" Taft said in the 31-minute speech before a joint House-Senate session.

Taft also announced new government committees, one of his favorite approaches to state problems. One would help unemployed workers and companies trying to cut through government red tape, the other to help communities fight military base closings.

A year ago, Taft asked lawmakers to help revise the state's tax code, a request that fell on largely deaf ears during a tight budget year.

He reiterated his request Wednesday while acknowledging lawmakers' own "creative ideas" on the subject.

Householder said he believed tax reform was possible, even in an election year when anything that hints at a tax increase could be politically deadly.

"If you look at the states that we have to compete against today, they have grown into their tax code because they're new to manufacturing," Householder said. "We need to change our tax code."

Taft also called for continued funding of his Third Frontier high-tech jobs initiative by using money from the state's construction and tobacco funding budgets.

Missing from Taft's speech was any mention of a plan -- which he opposes -- to repeal the state's penny sales tax increase several months before its June 30, 2005, deadline.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a fellow Republican leading that initiative, said talk of tax reform must include cutting taxes and state spending.

"It was very clear that at the end of this year I probably will be the best friend that Bob Taft has," Blackwell said immediately after the speech ended. "Because right now the tax repeal effort is creating a demand for tax reform and spending discipline."

Democrats, in the minority in the House and Senate, criticized Taft for not offering substantive proposals to help reverse job losses in the state.

"It's going to take more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to get the job done," said House Minority Leader Chris Redfern of Port Clinton. He was referring to J.M. Smuckers' snacks distributed to lawmakers to honor the Orrville company's worker training programs.

Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a Cleveland Democrat running for U.S. Senate, said too many young Ohioans are leaving for better jobs elsewhere.

The question "is whether or not our children, our grandchildren, will have the same opportunities in Ohio that we have," Fingerhut said. "To judge by the agenda we heard today, the answer is unfortunately, no."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)