By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's drive to repeal Ohio's sales tax increase stumbled Thursday after county election offices declared 62,000 of his petition signatures invalid.
Blackwell, the state's top election official who oversees statewide citizen initiatives, was put in the politically uncomfortable position of acknowledging that nearly 40 percent of the 157,000 signatures his privately run repeal campaign had collected and submitted were no good.
A tally of county reports shows Blackwell's repeal effort now stands 2,081 names short of the 96,870 needed to put the issue before the legislature. Of the signatures that remain, many face legal challenges filed in 58 counties.
A former Cincinnati mayor, Blackwell said his Citizens for Tax Repeal campaign won't challenge the counties' findings. He said it's easier to go and get more people to sign up.
"I don't even put this in the category of a setback," he said. "I think it's probably a day, or a day-and-a half's work at best to get another 10,000 signatures."
Opponents of the repeal declared an early victory.
Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, co-founder of a coalition of social service, labor and government groups, pointed out that Blackwell can't file any new petitions until the challenges that her group filed are settled.
"These petitions have been, at best, not well done," Tenenbaum said. She predicted her coalition would find more invalid signatures.
Blackwell launched his repeal effort shortly after lawmakers passed a $49 billion budget that increased spending by 9 percent and included a temporary penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase. Gov. Bob Taft signed it.
Blackwell contends the sales tax hike wasn't necessary and argues lawmakers could have balanced the budget mostly by cutting health care costs.
Tenenbaum's group, Taft and legislative leaders have opposed the repeal. They say it would punch an $800 million hole in state spending that would require devastating cuts to schools, local governments and health care. Tenenbaum's group also accuses Blackwell of using the repeal effort as an early publicity campaign in his planned 2006 run for governor.
The opposition's primary weapon in the repeal fight has been to keep the initiative from ever getting to the legislature.
Peoples' names are not counted if they are not registered voters, or if their addresses can't be verified. Other names can be stricken if they appear more than once on the same or different petitions, or if officials are convinced different names were signed by one person.
Jeffrey Ledbetter, the treasurer of the repeal effort, said the campaign had little time to circulate petitions and had to rely on 3,000 volunteers to do most of the work. He said the campaign spent $317,000 on the repeal effort from September through January.
Once the legislature gets the petitions, it has four months to respond. If the legislature ignores the repeal petitions, Blackwell promises to put the issue on the November ballot.
The longer it takes to get the repeal to the legislature, the less time Blackwell will have for a second petition drive. Blackwell said the lack of signatures won't keep his repeal effort down.
"This is so matter-of-fact and routine," he said. "We've got more than enough time."
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