Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is locking horns with his fellow Republicans over a $1.2 billion a year sales tax increase approved by the GOP-dominated legislature in 2003.
Blackwell's official job is to oversee elections, but the outspoken conservative has launched a petition drive to either force lawmakers to wipe out the tax hike or put the repeal issue up for a statewide vote next November.
"Ohio is in an economic death spiral," Blackwell proclaims when he talks about why he's leading the drive. Blackwell cites a mushrooming number of personal bankruptcies, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, a "brain drain" of young Ohioans moving to other states, and flat population growth.
He blames all this on taxes he says are too high for both families and businesses.
Ohio legislators in July raised the state sales tax a penny on the dollar, increasing it from five percent to six percent, to help balance the state budget. The increase is supposedly temporary and will expire in two years. But Blackwell and other anti-tax activists don't believe it will die. That's why they've launched their petition drive, and they're especially peeved at Republican lawmakers.
"We (Republicans) said we weren't going to have a major tax increase without a vote of the people, and then we give them the largest tax increase in the state's history. I'm trying to bring the party back into sync with traditional Republican values." Blackwell said.
Other GOP officeholders Gov. Bob Taft, House Speaker Larry Householder, and Senate President Doug White -- don't like the anti-tax activists stirring up a taxpayers' revolt, especially since many Ohioans don't seem to be upset about the increase.
The chairman of the Ohio Republican Party is angry at Blackwell for bashing his fellow Republicans as "tax-and-spenders." "Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican -- is broken nearly every day. And frankly, it's got to stop." " GOP chair Bob Bennett said.
Bennett believes Blackwell is using tax repeal in 2004 to gin up support for a campaign for governor in 2006.
Bennett also fears a divided G.O.P. would have a tough time delivering Ohio's 21 electoral votes for President Bush in the November election.
But Blackwell isn't backing down. He notes he's one of the few top Ohio Republicans who's being consistent because he's applauding the President and Congress for cutting federal taxes and he's pushing a campaign to cut them in Ohio too.
"The last time I checked, no one had elected Bob Bennett to anything," Blackwell said.
Besides its political aspects, the tax repeal campaign has huge ramifications for government programs and the business climate. Blackwell maintains that repealing the tax hike early could be the springboard for other tax "reform": for example, lowering business taxes and flattening Ohio's graduated income tax on individuals.
But labor unions and groups that depend on government dollars are mobilizing to fight the repeal in the legislature and on the ballot, if necessary. They say tax repeal could cost the state close to a billion dollars and could hurt food pantries, homeless shelters, meals-on-wheels for the elderly, subsidized child care for low-income working families, free medical care for working poor adults, children's mental health programs, schools, and universities.
Pressed on where he'd cut government to save enough money to substitute for the tax hike, Blackwell now talks about cutting "wasteful" Medicaid spending. "We subsidize thousands of empty nursing home beds," he says.
But there's no more fat to be trimmed, according to advocates of social welfare programs.
"Legislators already worked line by line to see just where they could find those kinds of cost savings, and in the end, just as much as they would have loved to say it's all there in waste, fraud, and abuse, they couldn't find it," says Kathy Tefft-Keller, director of the Ohio chapter of the AARP. Republican leaders of the legislature generally agree.
Bill Cohen is a statehouse reporter for Ohio Public Radio.