By Jordan Gentile
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft has built a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, businesses and labor leaders to persuade voters to let the state borrow $500 million over 10 years to invest in new high-tech businesses and jobs.
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He's also amassed enough campaign cash for a $3 million advertising blitz that opponents are unable to counter.
State Issue 1 is the only statewide measure on Tuesday's ballot.
The proposed constitutional amendment is the final piece of the governor's $1.6 billion Third Frontier economic stimulus plan. The other pieces include hundreds of millions already set aside in the state's capital budget, its tobacco settlement fund and a loan program fueled by state liquor profits.
"The business community thinks it's very important," said Doug Moormann, a lobbyist for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Taft's former business and industry advisor. "We believe it will help keep Cincinnati and Ohio competitive in a world marketplace."
Some conservative lawmakers and their allies who think it's a bad idea say they have no money to fight Issue 1. Other groups simply don't think it's in their interest to fight the governor on his signature issue.
Roger Geiger, director of the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, called the Third Frontier a "gravy train'' for research universities. He predicted most of his small business group's 37,000 members will go to the polls skeptical that Issue 1 will profit them at all.
But Geiger said his group chose to stay neutral, in part, because it wants the governor's help to pass bills that would limit lawsuit awards in personal injury cases, and to help employers with rising health insurance costs.
"In the political world we live in, you've got to pick your battles," Geiger said. "We can't let this distract us and hurt our working relationships."
The 200,000-member Ohio Farm Bureau Federation came out against Issue 1 earlier this month. Outside of outlining their objections to the press and to its own members, lobbyist Scott Williams said there is little else his group will do.
Tax money questioned
At the center of the issue is whether the Third Frontier is a wise use of tax dollars.
Taft says close to 100,000 new jobs would be created by the $1.6 billion the Third Frontier program would spend over the next decade. Of that amount, estimates are that 30,000 jobs would come from Issue 1 proceeds.
Critics doubt the new jobs created will make up for the $63 million in interest taxpayers will owe on the bonds. They also question whether the government should act as an investor when it comes to creating new jobs.
John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, says Issue 1 is the type of measure that usually has trouble gaining support in Ohio.
"The public in general tends to be suspicious of bond issues, especially complicated ones."
He said critics of Issue 1 have been too ambivalent and uncoordinated to wage an effective campaign against it.
Conservative members of the governor's party were the main critics of Issue 1 as it passed through the legislature and was placed on the ballot. Some Republican lawmakers say the Third Frontier project looks like a big-government program that Issue 1 will swell to even larger proportions.
"Who would have thought a Republican governor would run on this?" said Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, one of six House Republicans who voted against the resolution. "There's a firewall between government and private business. This would tear down that wall."
Still, most Republicans in the General Assembly voted with their Democratic colleagues to put Issue 1 on the ballot.
Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, voted against Issue 1 because he said $500 million wasn't enough. He now says he wholeheartedly supports it.
Working with Republicans to ensure Ohio's economic vitality is just common sense, he added.
Green says that Taft was able to draw support from big business, labor and the establishments of both political parties because he framed Issue 1 as a public investment that also benefits the private sector and doesn't raise taxes. "It's a political trade-off that appeals to Republicans and Democrats," Green said. And with a well-funded ad campaign that seems likely to go unchallenged on television, he added: "It's probably going to prevail."
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