Although campaign advertisements promote him as an active leader, Gov. Bob Taft more accurately wears the label Governor Inertia: He tends to act only when forced to do so.
The abysmal condition of Ohio's public schools cried out for immediate and forceful action when Taft took office in January 1999. During the 1998-99 school year, nearly half of the fourth-graders in Ohio's public school failed the state's mathematics achievement test, while 47.4 percent flunked the science test and 40.8 percent came up short on the reading achievement test.
Sixth-graders also performed poorly, with 53.5 percent flunking the science achievement test, 48.6 percent failing the mathematics test and 47.9 percent stumbling on reading.
During that same school year, nearly 820,000 children, almost 45 percent of Ohio's entire K-12 public school enrollment, were trapped in school districts that achieved less than half of the state's 27 minimum performance standards. Nearly 526,000 of these children sat in districts that met eight or fewer of these standards.
Yet Ohio's performance standard minimums are truly minimal. High schools, for example, are considered successful if as few as 60 percent of their 12th-graders pass achievement tests and if as many as 10 percent of their students fail to graduate.
Taft assumed the role of governor in the midst of this academic catastrophe and at a time when the state supreme court, through its rulings in DeRolph vs. Ohio, had already demanded meaningful changes to the education finance system. Amazingly, Taft's sole education initiative upon entering office was OhioReads, a program that matches volunteer reading tutors with students in kindergarten through fourth grade — a minor initiative by any objective measure.
But forced into a corner by repeated rulings that the state's system was unconstitutional, Taft finally responded by drafting "Rebuilding Ohio's Schools," a $10.1 billion, 12-year school construction initiative.
Three years later, Taft is rewriting this recent history and claiming responsibility for funding increases aimed at education in Ohio, including this building program.
"And he's building schools, too," says a narrator in Taft's first televised campaign advertisement. "Gov. Taft started the most ambitious school-construction program ever — to make them safe, secure and ready for learning."
Taft's official Web site similarly implies he was the driving force behind increased education funding.
"Gov. Taft has enacted the largest education budget in state history," the Web site says. "Since Gov. Taft took office, support for Ohio schools has increased 40 percent. Primary and secondary education received an increase of $1.4 billion over the previous two-year budget; per pupil spending increased by 12.1 percent immediately, to $4,814 in 2002 and $4,949 in 2003."
The political advertisement and the governor's Web site both fail to mention that Taft, along with the Republican-dominated General Assembly, vehemently fought any increase in school spending — the same spending increases for which Taft is now claiming credit — until the supreme court gaveled them into action.
Taft's inertia is readily apparent in other areas as well. The recent budget crisis, which he resolved in the short term by cutting state jobs and siphoning Ohio's tobacco settlement payments from education and anti-smoking programs (see "Up in Smoke," issue of Aug. 8-14), could have been mitigated if Taft and the General Assembly had beefed up the state's rainy day fund before revenues dwindled.
Although they had received competent warnings about the inadequacy of this fund to weather even a mild recession, Taft and the legislature continued returning surplus funds to taxpayers. This financial inertia ended only when a $1.9 billion deficit appeared on the financial horizon.
The upcoming election has also prodded Taft into action. Just two months before the election, the governor recently announced MathRules, the math equivalent of OhioReads. Campaign finance reform, long dormant in the Taft administration, has also received much-publicized pre-election attention from the governor.
Yet another example of Taft's executive inertia involves the drug reform initiative that will appear on the November ballot. Ohio's drug courts, judicial programs that offer treatment to low-level drug offenders in lieu of incarceration, have been grossly under-funded since their establishment. Due solely to this to lack of financial support, these courts serve only 5 percent of those offenders who are eligible to participate.
But now, since the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies has successfully steered a competing treatment-in-lieu-of-incarceration program onto the ballot, Taft and his staff are aggressively promoting the very drug courts they stifled and ignored for nearly four years.
According to Taft administration meeting notes and correspondence, the administration favors the current program over the ballot initiative because, under the current program, drug court judges retain more punitive power over those who don't successfully complete treatment and because drug courts are cheaper. If the ballot measure is defeated, the state can continue to under-fund drug courts; if successful, the measure would constitutionally mandate adequate funding.
The Taft reelection campaign is anything but inert. It seems intent on vigorously painting the brightest picture of the candidate's governance.
"Bob Taft works every day to attract more employers and good jobs," says the commercial narrator, while an accompanying graphic claims the governor created or saved 100,000 jobs.
As pointed out in the Aug. 24 Columbus Dispatch, this number represents the gross jobs entering the state during Taft's tenure, without netting out jobs that left Ohio. When both sides of the equation are presented, the portrait of Taft's employment record is anything but bright.
According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when Taft took office, Ohio's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.2 percent. In July 2002, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.7 percent, an increase of 35.7 percent. The unemployment rate of all other states increased, on average, by only 19.1 percent. Ohio's neighbors — Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia — showed an average increase of only 29.8 percent.
In grasping for achievements to tout as he seeks another four-year term, Taft uses statistics that, when examined objectively, present a vastly different picture from that which he contrived. It is also unsettling and ironic that the bulk of Taft's claimed achievements — those pertaining to education — rightly belong to several members of the Ohio Supreme Court, one of whom, Justice Alice Roby Resnick, Taft vigorously campaigned against in 2000.
Given the dubious nature of his self-proclaimed achievements, the obvious question is, "What did Bob Taft achieve in four years as governor of Ohio?"