Thursday, January 1, 2004

Tax repeal try is thorn

By Leo Shane III
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio Legislative leaders expect the sales tax repeal effort led by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to be their biggest headache in the coming year.

"We will have to react to it in some way," said Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester. "I think Secretary Blackwell is committed to this ... and it's a pill we don't like to swallow."

Last month Blackwell submitted petitions with more than 140,000 signatures to put a repeal of last year's 1-cent sales tax increase before the Legislature. Lawmakers enacted that increase, set to expire in June 2005, to fill about $2.6 billion of the $4 billion hole in Ohio's two-year budget.

The repeal would end collection of the extra cent six months earlier. Blackwell, a Republican candidate for governor in 2006, has said if lawmakers refuse to respond to the request, he would work to put the issue on the November ballot.

White expects many members of the Senate to wrestle with the issue.

"We did difficult work putting together the budget," he said. "A lot of people bit their lips and voted for a bill that contained things they didn't like but that we needed. So this will be weighing heavily on our minds."

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said the latest round of petitions hasn't been certified yet, and even if it is, he remains unconvinced that Blackwell will put the issue on the November ballot.

"I'm sure it's another challenge we'll have to take a look at," he said. "The House has already faced a heck of a lot of challenges. This is just a bunch of people who don't know the state's budgeting process."

Blackwell estimates a repeal could save taxpayers $650 million to $800 million. He maintains government spending can be trimmed without drastic cuts in service.

Both Householder and White said tax reform and lawsuit reform will be their major legislative focuses this year.

Householder said he hopes to revive a bill to restructure personal income and business taxes that was pushed aside during last year's budget debates. Business groups have already begun discussions with House leaders on the issue.

"We have to get our tax code right," he said. "It has to be overhauled. We've had very positive response so far, and now it's about trying to get more folks on board."

White said he is unsure if reforms can be passed before next summer, when many lawmakers will shift their focus toward the November elections. All 99 House seats and 16 of 33 Senate seats are up for election

Both men are more optimistic about planned lawsuit reforms. The Senate has passed a bill that would limit awards for non-economic damages in all civil cases. The House has approved a portion of that bill dealing with when lawsuits can be brought and evidence requirements for asbestos-related lawsuits.

Two issues passed by both chambers last year will be brought up again. A concealed weapons bill adopted in December is still in limbo as House officials and Gov. Bob Taft try to find a compromise over a public records provision.

And a bill strengthening penalties for abuse of mentally retarded citizens will be revisited and likely rewritten, unless lawmakers opt to override Taft's veto of the measure. An amendment mandating legislative action before a state institution can be closed prompted Taft's action.

Legislative issues for 2004 Sales tax repeal: Lawmakers will decide whether to end the tax six months early or possibly have the voters do it themselves in November.

 Tax reform: House officials hope to revise and rejuvenate a bill restructuring business and personal income taxes.

 Jury award caps: Would limit how much plaintiffs could receive for pain and suffering in all civil cases.

 Asbestos litigation: The House and Senate have passed bills designed to speed up how quickly cases move through the courts.

 Pension protections: Questionable investments and spending by state retirement boards have prompted a host of bills.

 MRDD abuse: A bill increasing penalties for abusing mentally retarded citizens was vetoed by Taft.

 Concealed weapons: Taft and House leaders are struggling to find a compromise on an already passed bill for concealed handgun permits.

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