Sunday, February 22, 2004

Candidate Q&A: 29th Ohio House district

An unusual three-way contest is taking place for the Republican nomination in the 29th Ohio House district, which includes Colerain Township, Crosby Township, Greenhills, Mount Healthy and other Hamilton County communities.

29th Ohio House district
Saturday: Hamilton County Commissioner
Friday: Ohio 34th District state House
Thursday: Warren County Prosecutor
Weds.: Ohio 14th District state Senate seat
Tuesday: Ohio 2nd District U.S. House seat
Monday: Ohio 1st District U.S. House race
Sunday Forum: Commissioner candidates

Current Sen. Lou Blessing of Colerain Township, whose district includes the 29th, is term-limited, so he's trying to move into the seat of Rep. Patricia Clancy, who is running for Blessing's Senate seat. Opposing Blessing are John Waksmundski, a high-school and college teacher who is Springfield Township clerk, and Colerain Township Trustee Keith Corman, who was co-chairman for the county's Community Compass project. Here are excerpts from our recent question-and-answer session with the three candidates.

Q. Tell us briefly about some of the issues you're running on.

John Waksmundski: The major issue is reducing taxes. It's possible to cut taxes and still maintain a high level of services. One thing I would work on is looking to see if we could revise the Ohio tax code to perhaps produce more revenue or at least be more fair. Being a teacher for 30-some years, I'm a great believer in education. I'm not on the inside, but I do think education could be adequately funded without breaking the budget.

Being a township person, I would like to work in legislation to help townships in zoning, to make that process a little less complicated.

I probably lean toward favoring (Secretary of State) Ken Blackwell's sales tax repeal, but I feel more important is that sales tax end as scheduled in July 2005. I have no problem as long as the legislators, who have increased spending 70 percent over the last 11 years, keep their word.

Keith Corman: I believe that the tax system does need to be overhauled. The last major revision was in the 1930s, and I think it's time we bring it up to the 21st century. One example is the corporate franchise tax. The one-cent sales tax generates over $1 billion a year. To scratch that thing with only six months to go would be more of a political game and an injustice. If we're going to balance the budget and bring deficits down, we're going to have to look at what services should be readjusted. One way to do that is go out into the districts and talk to people and understand their feelings.

One of the larger issues is economic development. We must work hard to retain businesses in Ohio and have more tax incentives.

Lou Blessing: One thing that's driving the economy is disposable income. That's the reason I've focused on public utilities. You talk about 10 percent sales tax increase or decrease, that pales in comparison to a 10 percent reduction or increase in a person's utility bills every month. See what we've done on the electric side. Cinergy rates have been frozen since 1993, with a 5 percent reduction in 2000 as result of deregulation. The future is in dealing with the energy transition plans, to make sure we don't have price spikes. Those things are critical for businesses and consumers.

One interesting thing with the sales tax repeal. I just want to make sure the people understand this is simply a six-month rollback. I can pretty much assure you that thing won't be extended past July 2005. The legislature is in no mood to extend the tax.

Another thing: In 1996 the amount of consumer debt in his nation exceeded the money supply. The prime rate has gone down, but the interest rate on credit cards has gone up beyond the state usury rate. Unless Congress takes major action on this, we're not going to get any real economic recovery.

The only thing that's keeping the economy going is the refinancing of equity with low interest rates. People get more money through refinancing. Now there's income to spend. But eventually that string's going to run out and you're going to have this consumer debt hanging out there.

Q. What are you hearing from people in the district? What's on their minds?

Corman: Most of the people I talk to are concerned about jobs and job security. Jobs are leaving this area, and unfortunately where we're located with Kentucky and Indiana dangling carrots, it's easy for people to move across. They're worried about education. They want good education, but they want to be able to afford to pay for it.

You know, we can have the high-tech jobs; those are important to have, and they help boost the economy. But there's also a large mass of blue-collar workers in this area, and it's important we are able to keep them in this area, too and meet their needs. Among older people, what I hear is their concern over medical costs.

Waksmundski: Most of the people I run into are concerned about the economy, and what government is doing about it. And one of the things I would hope to do would be to communicate better with the residents concerning legislation. I would try to get around to residents and actually cover specific legislation. Most of the people I run into, to be honest about it, all they seem to want to talk about is their taxes. They feel their taxes are too high, whether it's county or state.

Blessing: I generally hear about hot-button issues - concealed carry, partial birth abortion, emotional issues. Among other things are bills regarding state pension programs. There are a lot of retired teachers out there. But what I'm hearing generally is the economy, and sometimes health care.

Q. What are your thoughts on how the state has dealt with higher education in Ohio, and where do we go from here?

Blessing: You may not want to hear this, but we passed a resolution in the Senate dealing with allowing VLTs (video lottery terminals) at race tracks and tying revenues to a college scholarship program. The top 10 percent of kids in their high schools would get a free ride to Ohio universities. That's the idea - we're trying to stop the brain drain, the thought being they'll stay in Ohio if they have their alma mater here. It ought to be on the ballot. Let the people decide. It would be a great solution. We have funded higher education as best we can in light of the DeRolph decision. That has put a big drain on state resources. But we can do better with higher ed.

Waksmundski: I'm in higher education myself now, and I think the state has tried to do as good a job as it could with the budget restraints in past few years with DeRolph. I do think that higher ed should be adequately funded. However, I do feel sometimes if you want higher education you're going to have to work for it and pay for it. I don't think it should be draconian. But many of us worked our way through college. I waited on tables, I won some scholarships, I did the things were necessary to meet tuition. And sometimes that's the sacrifice you have to make. Nonetheless, I don't think the state should ignore higher education. Certainly we have to be concerned about funding, perhaps in areas such as engineering and high-tech, which seem to be the future.

Corman: I think we're all on the same page. It's quite important that it's maintained as best we can. We want to try to keep it to where it isn't a situation where every quarter, students face higher tuition. They're like everyone else. They have a budget they have to account for.

It would be good to bring industry in a little more to help offset this with co-op programs and the like. I'd like to see a more cooperative involvement, not just always asking the government to straighten it out - although maybe it's important for the legislature to take a leadership position in bringing this all about.

Q. The nursing home reimbursement issue is a big factor in state finances. What do we do to control those costs?

Blessing: Those rates are set based on absolute 100 percent occupancy, which means they're the lowest rates. We could set them on different occupancy rates, but then that means reimbursement rates are going to go up because the fixed costs remain the same. What's happened is that there have been a lot of popular bills to regulate aspects of the nursing homes. All become very expensive to comply with, and over the years the costs have gone up. We can cut the reimbursement rate. We likely will. But then some of the regulations and services will have to be cut. I want to make sure people know what the ramifications are.

Waksmundski: This is a delicate and controversial issue, because any time you get into a program like this - social welfare, or programs for elderly people - and try to cut or reform, people rise up. Of course, one side of you says that if we're paying for empty beds, we need to investigate and see if we can reform it and bring down the cost. This is the same for many other social welfare programs. But then the other side rises up and says we're not being sensitive to these needs. I think these programs need to be looked at and we need reform legislation to make sure we're saving money and not spending unnecessary dollars.

Corman: We have to look at both sides of it. We have to look at the restrictions we put on nursing homes. We're adding more and more burden on them, which costs more. One of the things we need to take into consideration is the many mandates that are coming down. A lot of the costs come from federal mandates. We should work with congressional leaders and try to have that kind of thing reversed.

Q. Are there any other issues you'd like to address?

Waksmundski: I have some ideas to work on. Most of them focus on township government. I'd like to help township officials run their governments more efficiently.

I am also concerned about education. As one who's been a public school teacher, I'm a little bit concerned about charter schools. It's not that I'm opposed to them. Some of them may be very effective. But I'm concerned about charter schools where the funding is questionable. I have some questions about charter schools not being able to meet state standards. I'm not sure about vouchers. If schools are absolutely failing, as some of our urban schools are, vouchers may be a good idea. These are issues I'd like to examine on the education committee if I'm elected.

Corman: One of the things I find of importance goes back to an area in which we're all in the same boat - wanting to drive economic development in Southwest Ohio. One thing we have in this area is Interstate 75, which is a north-south corridor. It carries the heaviest volume of commerce of any Interstate in the United States. Parallel to that are railroad lines north to south. But in this area we have no direct outlet to the east. I think it's important we try to focus to see what we can do in this area, to see how we can plug into this north-south axis with commerce connecting the Rust Belt with New Orleans and making southwest Ohio a strong economic hub.

Blessing: I would like to continue to focus on finance. It's exciting. It might not be fun, but I'd like to help solve those things as best we can. The other issue would be public utilities. That will drive the economy. They're changing. I know the industry. I'll give you an example. In Maine, Time-Warner has an offer going: 40 bucks a month, unlimited long distance, local , caller ID, call waiting, all that. The problem is that technology is great, but it changes the competitive dynamic. They could literally put Cincinnati Bell out. Then when there's only one company left, what do you think is going to happen to the prices? What you need is people in office who understand these things and can make a balance that allows technology to go forward and help business keep prices down and keep the economy rolling.

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