While it should come as no surprise that Gov. Bob Taft's chief opponent in this year's gubernatorial election, Democrat Tim Hagan, is making political hay with the state's fiscal crisis, the seriousness of the issue demands more than a partisan response.
There will be time enough in the fall election for a debate on a root causes of the crisis and whether Republican Taft and the GOP controlled legislature failed to make tough decisions because they didn't want to anger the electorate.
For now, Ohio needs all of its best minds -- political and otherwise -- working on solutions to the budgetary implosion. Last week, the governor projected a $500 million deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and a $750 million deficit for the 2002-03 fiscal year. Tax receipts are way below the projections that the administration and the General Assembly embraced when they unveiled a budget balancing bill at the end of last year.
With the national economy in a slump, many states have had to scramble to plug holes in their budgets.
The $1.25 billion deficit projection revealed by Taft does not take into account the price tag that would be attached to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling on the funding of public primary and secondary schools. If the court adopts the plan it initially embraced, the legislature could be forced to come up with $1.2 billion. There isn't that kind of money in the state's treasury.
Rainy day fund: Taft and Republican leaders in the House and Senate have dismissed talk of an increase in either the state sales or income tax, which makes the push to find short-term and long-term solutions all the more challenging. The governor has proposed taking $350 million from the rainy day fund, cutting spending by $100 million and performing $50 million worth of budgetary juggling so the state can eliminate this year's red ink. But that still leaves the $750 million in the 2002-03 budget, which is more than the $250 million that would be left in the rainy day fund.
"There needs to be substantial, new, ongoing revenues to balance [next year's budget] and help with the future years," the governor told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But given that Taft and his Republican colleagues in the legislature aren't willing to discuss a sales or income tax increase, the question of where the "new, ongoing revenues" will come from needs to be answered.
Democrats have been quick to criticize the Republicans for not dealing with this crisis in a realistic, expeditious manner, but neither Hagan, who will be the Democratic nominee for governor, nor other Democratic leaders have come forth with a plan that addresses this real problem.
While politics is very much a part of the equation, the reality is that the state's financial meltdown affects all of us. For instance, there is talk that there may not be a capital budget next year, which means that important economic development-related projects in the Mahoning Valley will have to be shelved or delayed.
That is why Democrats and Republicans in Columbus need to work together to reverse Ohio's fortunes.