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Gov., Ohio lawmakers don't rule out ballot push

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republican Gov. John Kasich and GOP legislative leaders weren't saying earlier this week whether they will use strong Statehouse majorities next year to champion some statewide ballot issue before Ohio voters.

In a year-end review session with Senate President Tom Niehaus and House Speaker William Batchelder, Kasich answered "next question" when asked by a reporter whether the 60-vote margin in the Ohio House might be invoked to advance a ballot measure. The GOP will have both the House and Senate votes to do so without Democratic help, beginning in January.

Kasich also declined to say what position he might take on a right-to-work amendment limiting Ohio labor unions, if one were advanced by an outside group. Besides right-to-work, which prohibits mandatory union dues collection, other prospective ballot issues could deal with overhauling Ohio's redistricting process or countering burgeoning ballot initiatives pushing gay marriage or legalized medical marijuana.

Kasich said he is like a horse with blinders on, focusing on job creation. He touted his administration's closing of a nearly $8 billion state budget gap, restoration of almost $247 million to the state Rainy Day Fund, and efforts to reduce regulations, slow Medicaid growth, and shrink government by more than 7 percent.

"It's clear that Ohio is in a period of transformation," he said.

Batchelder and Niehaus attributed the accomplishments to Kasich's willingness to entertain new ideas and sometimes fail, while crediting legislative Democrats for working with them to find common ground.

"We're doing something here that they're not getting done in Washington," Batchelder said.

Democrats were not present at the press conference, and Batchelder's and Niehaus' Democratic counterparts issued releases after the event critical of Kasich.

"Once again Gov. Kasich touted bipartisanship at his year-end press conference without inviting Democrats to be part of the discussion," said Senate Democratic Leader Eric Kearney of Cincinnati. "True bipartisanship means Democrats and Republicans should work together to find solutions on all the major issues facing the state of Ohio, not just when it's convenient."

House Democratic Leader Armond Budish of Beachwood said Kasich, Batchelder and Niehaus brag about their financial stewardship of the state but have been "anything but responsible."

"They balanced the budget on the backs of our kids, by slashing funds from education; on the backs of local taxpayers, forcing local communities to place hundreds of levies on the ballot; and on the backs of those most in need of social services, by slashing funds to people who are poor, older, and disabled," he said.

Budish was particularly critical of Kasich's plan to issue $1.5 billion in turnpike revenue bonds for road projects in northern Ohio and across the state, saying it "puts the maintenance of one of our best resources at stake."

Kasich said the plan proposes just the right amount of debt to "unlock the value" of the turnpike. He said it is nothing like the federal stimulus program, some money from which he rejected on behalf of the state.

"This is not an ideological thing," he said. "I didn't want the train because it was a train to debt and nowhere."

Kasich said his upcoming budget will include a reworking of Ohio's tax policy, a school-funding formula that puts more money in classrooms and helps children of all regions and income levels succeed, and a severance tax increase on big oil and gas drillers. Niehaus said he expects the Senate to support the plan. Batchelder said he expects his caucus to support the proposal after working out some details.

Niehaus, who is leaving office because of term limits, said he believes redistricting and ethics law changes should be on next year's to-do list as well.

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