Taft Announces $1.6 Billion High-Tech Plan

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft proposed Ohio spend $1.6 billion over 10 years to boost research and attract high-tech jobs in a speech that set the stage for his re-election campaign.

Republican leaders offered general support for the governor's plan, outlined in Taft's State of the State address Tuesday, while Democrats panned it as too little too late.

The 34-minute speech, interrupted by applause 24 times, including seven standing ovations, began and ended with references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"When I took office the economy was strong, employment was plentiful, the state budget was stable and we were a nation at peace," Taft said in the noon address. "How times have changed."

The longest ovation, 57 seconds, honored Ohioans who have died in the war against terrorism or who are serving in the military or helped in New York following the attacks. Several rescue workers and military officers were in the gallery, including Sgt. Temple Jefferson, a member of the Ohio National Guard providing security at Port Columbus International Airport.

Taft drew attention to education by focusing on the state's spending on schools, including $2 million spent daily on school construction this year.

He promoted academic excellence by highlighting the accomplishments of Fairland school district in southern Ohio, which achieved 26 of 27 academic standards on last year's proficiency tests, despite the fact it is not a wealthy district.

Taft also announced a plan to spend $2 million to help double the number of programs encouraging high school students to attend college.

The centerpiece of Taft's address was his high-tech funding plan, dubbed the "Third Frontier Project," after Ohio's successful role exploring two earlier frontiers -- the wilderness and the industrial revolution.

"Thousands of Ohioans are now exploring the next frontier, in space, medicine, technology, information and communications," Taft said. "But we're not moving fast enough to keep pace with our competitors or replace jobs lost to productivity."

The state has already committed $500 million of the state's tobacco settlement dollars to biomedical research. Taft proposed using an additional $500 million in state construction dollars, asking voters for authority to borrow $500 million next year to recruit top university researchers and borrow an additional $100 million to target industries with high-growth potential.

Senate President Richard Finan, a Cincinnati Republican, said there's always a concern about using too much construction money, much of which generally goes to projects in lawmakers' districts. He also questioned how new Taft's proposal was.

"I'm not sure we haven't been doing it to some extent," Finan said. "I think he's just raising the bar a little bit higher than where we are now."

House Speaker Larry Householder, a Glenford Republican, offered a warmer reception. "If Ohio's going to be the success that we know and want to see Ohio be in the future, this is exactly the type of start that we need to have."

Rep. Dean DePiero of Parma, the top-ranking House Democrat, called the plan full of "warmed over ideas."

"If we had done it three years ago, we might not be in the situation we are now," he said.

Tim Hagan, the Democratic candidate for governor, said Taft gave a re-election speech with little focus on problems in the state.

"The proof is in what he's done, not in what he says he's going to do," Hagan said, adding Ohio's rate of job creation has lagged behind the national average for six years.

Taft also prodded Senate Republicans to pass his bill providing prescription drug discounts to senior citizens and the disabled through Ohio's Golden Buckeye Card.

House Republicans, who passed the bill in June, gave Taft's comment a standing ovation, while many Senate Republicans stayed in their seats.

Although Taft asked the Senate to pass the plan by month's end, Finan said that was unlikely because of several questions about its cost.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)