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Ohio Lawmakers Agree To Place Tax Question on Upcoming Ballot

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A marathon debate over education funding continues in Ohio, where school groups are already divided over a May 5 ballot measure that proposes hiking the state sales tax by 1 cent in order to raise revenue for schools.

Gov. George V. Voinovich signed the ballot bill Feb. 17, two days before a deadline to qualify measures for the spring primary election. Lawmakers also face a state supreme court deadline of March 24 to revise the school aid system, which the court declared unconstitutional a year ago. ("School Finance Plan Fails by 2 Votes in Ohio," Feb. 11. 1998.)

It took 11 months of pitched wrangling for lawmakers to finally give the go-ahead to the ballot measure, which would raise $1.1 billion annually. The revenues would be evenly split between schools and property-tax relief. The Senate passed the bill Feb. 17 on a 23-10 vote. House members voted 59-39 for the bill a little less than a week before.

The tax hike is needed to supply aid for Ohio's 1.8 million public school students at the level that lawmakers approved and the governor agreed to earlier this month.

Mr. Voinovich, a Republican, has already indicated that he will campaign for the ballot measure, according to Patricia Madigan, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Imperfect Plan

Even if voters ratify the plan, it must eventually pass constitutional muster at the state's highest court. And that, say some, just won't happen.

"Many people believe that if they pass this, the school funding issue will be solved," said Warren G. Russell, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association. "But it won't."

The association's leadership has not formally declared a position on the measure, but Mr. Russell said the group will likely be opposed.

The problem, he said, is that the proposed revenue split between school aid and tax relief would still leave property-poor districts with inadequate school funding, which is what the 1997 court ruling ordered the state to remedy.

The proposal would be more acceptable if it directed all of the tax revenue to pay for the new aid formula, Mr. Russell said.

Not all school groups oppose the plan. Officials with the Ohio Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, say they will support the ballot measure, even if it's not perfect.

"We recognize that this is not the ultimate solution," said Michael Billirakis, the president of the association. "But it does provide more money for education by providing a revenue stream."

Questions are also being raised about the legality of putting forth such a measure at all. Critics charge that lawmakers misused an obscure, 147-year-old state constitutional provision in deciding that a simple majority vote in the legislature was sufficient to put the tax question on the ballot. An earlier effort to approve the ballot question by a supermajority of lawmakers failed.

A Feb. 9 letter from the office of state Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery, however, gave legislators the green light for their action.

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