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STATE GOVERNMENT Taft begins push for development bonds



Published: Thu, August 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Despite scandals, Taft is hard at work promoting a technology initiative.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Gov. Bob Taft -- under a cloud from investigations into an investment scandal, gifts to his aides and golf he says he didn't pay for -- plans to be active in the bipartisan campaign to pass a $2 billion borrowing plan.

The bond issue was sent to the ballot with unanimous Senate approval Wednesday after Tuesday's 84-7 House vote. The bonds would include money for a technology initiative that's one of Taft's pet projects, and the Republican governor said the economy and jobs are tops in Ohio voters' minds.

The bonds would provide $1.35 billion for road, bridge, water and sewer projects; $150 million for preparing old industrial sites for new business; and $500 million for Taft's Third Frontier project. The Legislature has separately awarded $350 million under Third Frontier over three years.

The campaign already has its first organized opposition. The Ohio Roundtable, which has helped defeat casino gambling initiatives in Ohio, calls the high-tech project a giveaway to corporations and large universities.

The conservative group is already picking at Taft's woes, calling his administration "scandal-clad" in its attack on the bond proposal.

Getting organized

Taft said he was delaying his August vacation because of the need to get the campaign organized. Voters will decide on the merits, not whether he's campaigning during the ongoing ethics investigations, he said.

"Anything else is going to be extraneous," he said. "Do they want to invest in the future job-creating potential of Ohio?"

Taft appointed Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson to lead a committee, with bipartisan House and Senate members, who will pick a Republican and Democrat as campaign co-chairs. That erases an April announcement that former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, second-in-command for the national GOP, would head the campaign. Her experience and advice still will be essential, Johnson said.

Continuing investigation

Taft's administration has become embroiled in investigations into losses topping $300 million from the state insurance fund for injured workers.

Last week, Taft's former top aide was convicted of filing a false financial disclosure form related to a vacation stay at the Florida home of Tom Noe, a Republican fund-raiser who says $13 million is missing from the $50 million in state money he received to invest in rare coins. The Ohio Ethics Commission also is looking into Taft's failure to report up to 60 golf outings over several years.

Lawmakers said Taft remains important to the campaign, and Taft emphasized that he was just part of what has to be a larger bipartisan effort.

While the ethics investigations remain a concern, Taft has good rapport with the state's business leaders, Senate President Bill Harris said.

Power behind the effort

Sen. C.J. Prentiss, Senate Democratic leader, said politicians, including Taft and herself, should stay in the background doing the nuts and bolts work for the campaign.

Taft is a progressive Republican popular with business leaders and has promoted the technology initiative from the beginning, said Dean Lacy, a political scientist at Ohio State University who studies voter behavior. He shouldn't stop, he said.

"He brings more to it than he takes away," Lacy said. "Taft still has sway among opinion leaders."

However, Lacy said Taft should not star in campaign ads as he did in 2003, when the Third Frontier narrowly lost as a solo issue. Voters never understood what the initiative was about, he said. Ads should feature researchers, construction workers and business leaders who would make the case for the bonds creating jobs.

Legislative leaders agreed.

Prentiss said, "This has to be the face of the Youngstown resident who is out there struggling, the face of the Cincinnati resident who's out there looking for opportunity or that great inventor down in Marietta."




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