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Ohio Education Groups Fight To Defeat Tax-Repeal Measure

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Cleveland--Ohio's public-education organizations are playing a leading role in Gov. Richard F. Celeste's fight against two anti-tax initiatives that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If the referendum to repeal this year's 90-percent increase in the graduated income tax is successful, elementary and secondary schools would lose $637 million in fiscal 1985, according to the Governor's Office of Budget and Management, leaving state school support below its 1980 level of $1.9 billion.

Higher education, likewise, would lose about 25 percent of its state subsidy. The tax increase was enacted at Governor Celeste's urging to close a $528-million budget gap left by his Republican predecessor, James A. Rhodes, and to stabilize state funding for services, such as education, that had undergone repeated and unpredicted cuts in the previous two years.

G. Robert Bowers, assistant state superintendent of public instruction, said passage of the repeal would "create absolute chaos" in the state's schools and would increase the pressure on districts to seek property-tax increases.

The average Ohio district currently has a property-tax rate of about 28 mills; most districts would have to increase the rate by five to seven mills to compensate for the lost state aid, Mr. Bowers said, but districts with low property wealth would have to levy even more. The 8,500-student East Cleveland district, for example, would lose $2.4 million and would have to increase its property-tax rate by 18 mills to compensate. "Can you imagine a school district asking the voters for 18 mills?" asked Rondle Edwards, the district's school superintendent.

Public-Opinion Polls

Public-opinion polls indicate that the two issues, which gained ballot positions by petition, would pass easily "if the election were held tomorrow," Mr. Bowers said last week.

One of the measures, called Issue 3, would repeal, as of next June 30, all taxes enacted since Jan. 1, 1983--including tax relief for lower- and middle-income families. Issue 2 would raise from a simple majority to a three-fifths majority the margin needed in both houses of the legislature to pass tax measures. Since Governor Celeste's Democratic Party holds only a one-vote margin in the state Senate, Issue 2 would cripple any attempt to reinstate the entire tax increase.

In the past few weeks, however, the Committee for Ohio, an anti-repeal coalition of business, civic, and human-service organizations, has counterattacked with an advertising campaign and public appearances around the state.

Teachers, school administrators, and Parent-Teacher Association representatives, for example, have discussed the likely effects of repeal on school operations and property-tax rates, and have pointed out that, even with the 90-percent increase, state and local taxes in Ohio, as a proportion of income, are lower than the national average. Mr. Bowers said there is some evidence that former supporters of the repeal "are having second thoughts."

Complicating matters, several school districts, including Cleveland, are asking voters to approve local tax increases on the Nov. 8 ballot. "It's confusing for districts to encourage voters to vote yes on one thing and no on something else," Mr. Bowers said. "But it hasn't been a significant problem in the past. I think voters do discriminate.''

Ohioans to Stop Excessive Taxation, the major group backing the repeal effort, contends that the school appropriation would not necessarily undergo such a drastic cut, but the Celeste Administration counters that education, as one of the few "discretionary" areas in the budget, would be one of the first curtailed.

"They are not going to close the prisons and turn the prisoners out onto the streets; they are not going to turn mental patients out onto the street; they are not going to allow welfare recipients to starve,'' Mr. Bowers said. "It would be nice to think that education would not be cut that badly, but there are so many budget items in the general fund that cannot be cut that it's impossible to believe."

The anti-tax group, which asserts that the tax increase was too large and should not have been permanent, also contends that the state has inflated and accelerated aid payments to school districts and other local-government entities in order to prevent an embarrassing cash surplus. Mr. Bowers countered that state aid to school districts has merely returned to its normal payment schedule, having been placed on a delayed schedule during the worst of the recession.

A small group of school-board members and superintendents, calling themselves Ohio Educators for Repeal, has joined the anti-tax forces. Mr. Bowers said they are primarily from districts that, because of high local wealth, did not gain much state aid from the tax in-crease. House Speaker Vernal G. Riffe, a Democrat, has offered a compromise measure that would automatically reduce the income tax if the state runs a surplus over $100 million and the state unemployment rate drops significantly, but the anti-tax organization dismisses the proposal as a desperation move.

A Columbus lawyer has also tried to head off the referendums by asking the state supreme court to strike the measures from the November ballot.

His petition contends that the Secretary of State's legal notice on the issues contained technical flaws and that the state constitution requires separate votes on several issues implied by the tax repeal.

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