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Ohio leaders debate taxes, death penalty at forum

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Gov. John Kasich is not eager to end the death penalty, not afraid to veto a drilling tax and not looking to push a right-to-work proposal to limit labor unions.

The first-term Republican made those stances clear in answering questions Thursday during a legislative preview session for journalists, organized by The Associated Press.

Still unknown is what he'll say in his State of the State address on Feb. 24 in Medina.

"I don't know yet," he told reporters. "But hopefully it will not be a real long talk."

State leaders including Kasich were asked about an array of policy issues facing them in the election year.

Online voter registration was among the top priorities for Secretary of State Jon Husted, also a Republican. But support for it among his fellow GOP lawmakers who dominate the Legislature remains unclear.

Leading Republicans told reporters at the forum that their caucuses have not taken positions on whether to let Ohioans sign up online to vote. Senate President Keith Faber, of Celina, said his GOP members have mixed feelings about it.

Outside of election law changes, the leaders said they're working on adjustments to the state's renewable energy and efficiency mandates, along with tax changes that include a rate hike on horizontally drilled shale wells.

A proposal pending in the Legislature calls for severance-tax increases on the wells, with proceeds funding a statewide income-tax cut. The measure replaces a scuttled tax plan that Kasich sought. The new plan would generate an estimated $2 billion over 10 years.

Kasich said he's still working with the General Assembly on the idea.

"If I don't have a severance tax that passes the smell test in terms of what I think is fair, I told the leaders I'd veto it," he said.

House Minority Leader Tracy Maxwell Heard, a Columbus Democrat, said the state was lagging behind in the tax revenue that others were getting from the industry. She said she does not believe companies would leave because of the tax.

Faber also said he was confident Ohio doesn't run the risk of chasing away energy companies. "The industry is maturing, and now is the time to have that discussion in a holistic way," he said.

State leaders including Kasich were asked about their position on the death penalty, following the prolonged execution of a condemned killer this month that led to calls for a state moratorium on capital punishment.

Kasich said he awaits the review of the execution by Ohio's corrections department. "But at the end of the day," he said, "I believe that the death penalty, when applied in a strict way with a thoroughness, is an appropriate amount of justice that should be delivered."

Heard was the only one of four legislative leaders to back a moratorium.

Attorney General Mike DeWine was asked about the state's appeal of a federal judge's ruling that ordered Ohio to recognize gay marriages on death certificates.

In the ruling last month, federal Judge Timothy Black said Ohio's ban on gay marriage, passed by voters in 2004, is unconstitutional and that states cannot discriminate against same-sex couples simply because some voters don't like homosexuality.

Gay marriage supporters in Ohio are collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment that would repeal the ban.

Asked whether he would halt the appeal pending the outcome of the effort, DeWine said, "I think it would be irresponsible of me, and I'm not sure ethically I could do that."

Other highlights from the forum include:

—Kasich said efforts restrict union fees in the Rust Belt state is not on his agenda.

—DeWine said he thinks it would be "a mistake" for Ohio to legalize marijuana, but it's worth examining at how it plays out in other states, such as Colorado. "I don't think it's going to work out to well, but we'll see."

—Republican and Democratic legislative leaders were split on the time the General Assembly has spent debating women's health issues such as abortions.

—Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern said he sees Kasich's record on economic and women's health issues as his weaknesses going into the fall election; Republican Party chairman Matt Borges pointed to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald's record of public service and trouble in picking a running mate as vulnerabilities.

—Borges said he's never spoken with Kasich about the governor's interest in a 2016 presidential bid. "I know that no one in our building is looking anywhere beyond 2014."

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