Saturday, February 28, 2004

Tax issue divides rivals in GOP's Senate contest



By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio Reps. Jean Schmidt and Tom Niehaus are winding up their battle for the GOP nomination for a state Senate seat in a flurry of activity.

ELECTION SECTION
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In the past two weeks, Niehaus and Schmidt have escalated their campaigns - placing new political ads on TV, mailing thousands of pamphlets to targeted households and trekking door to door to shake hands and solicit votes.

The race also has become more controversial. Both candidates have absorbed shots from TV ads, and allegations of improper campaign fund-raising tactics against a GOP fund-raiser supporting Schmidt have sparked an investigation by Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

A factor that makes this race so high-profile is that the winner Tuesday likely will become the next senator for the 14th District, which includes Clermont, Brown, Adams and Scioto counties and the western part of Lawrence County. The Democratic candidate is little-known Paul Schwietering, a Cherry Grove electrician who has never held public office.

The seat is open because the state's term limits law is forcing out Sen. Doug White, R-Manchester.

The hot-button issue has been taxes.

"The biggest difference between us is the penny state sales tax increase," said Niehaus, a New Richmond resident who has represented the 88th House District for three years.

Niehaus voted against the tax increase in June, while Schmidt voted for it.

Schmidt, a Miami Township resident who has been state representative for the 66th District for three years, said failure to pass the sales tax would have severely harmed services for children, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.

"When you're in an economic recession, the need for public assistance goes up, not down," she said. "The people I talk to in my door-to-door campaign aren't worried about the penny sales tax increase. They're worried about having jobs, an educated work force and health care."

She pointed out that Niehaus had supported the sales tax increase in last April's House vote. Niehaus said he switched his position in June because of changes in the sales-tax proposal and the state's failure to make cutbacks.

Recent TV ads have focused on the tax.

One ad for Niehaus depicts him as a fiscal conservative who voted against last year's penny state sales tax increase and paints Schmidt as a tax-happy public official who voted for the increase as well as a $3.5 billion increase in the biennial budget.

But a TV ad by the Ohio Taxpayers Association, which supports Schmidt, portrays Niehaus as a politician whose voting record indicates he's not as opposed to tax increases as he says he is. Specifically, the ad criticizes him for voting for legislation to raise sales, gas and cigarette taxes.

That caused the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which backs Niehaus, to point out that Schmidt had voted to raise those same taxes.

E-mail skemme@enquirer.com




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