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Deciding the Issues

By John Fox · October 18th, 2006 · Editorial
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Election Day is less than three weeks away, and no matter where your voting precinct is your ballot will be full. As always, CityBeat is here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

We begin our election endorsements with the ballot initiatives most Hamilton County voters will face. There likely will be local school and municipal tax levies on your ballot, too, but you'll be asked to decide as many as five statewide issues and three countywide issues.

Ohio voters will vote on several hot-button issues: increasing the state's minimum wage, introducing slot machine gambling in nine locations and enacting a smoking ban. Hamilton County voters have their own hot-button issue -- a sales tax increase to fund a new jail -- along with renewals of two social service tax levies.

Check out citybeat.com/election for news articles, columns, editorials and blog posts about many of these issues and all the local and statewide races -- more than 40 pieces designed to provide background and context for Election Day. Get informed, make a choice and cast your vote.

Look for more CityBeat endorsements in next week's issue.

Issue 1 (Ohio Referendum on Workers' Compensation Law): NO ENDORSEMENT

The Ohio Senate passed S.B. 7 earlier this year to revise existing parts of the law governing workers' compensation as well as to implement new provisions. Parts of S.B. 7 have been put on hold pending this referendum, while other provisions have already taken effect. If Issue 1 fails, only the sections that are the subject of this referendum will be dropped.

Basically, Issue 1 changes procedures for determining the amount of compensation that can be received for wage loss or permanent total disability. And it prevents the Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission from setting its own policies regarding investment managers, which is what got the state into the Coingate scandal in the first place.

At press time, the Ohio Supreme Court is set to decide a legal challenge to Issue 1's suitability as a ballot initiative -- so it might not even appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. If it does, CityBeat will offer an endorsement in a future issue.

Issue 2: (Ohio Constitutional Amendment to Increase Minimum Wage): YES

Ohio is one of a number of states this fall letting voters decide whether to raise the minimum wage. Congress hasn't hiked the federal minimum wage since 1997, and so states have been taking the situation into their own hands -- although the best that Ohio's legislature could do was bring the state's minimum wage up earlier this year to match the federal rate of $5.15 an hour.

If passed, Issue 2 would raise the state minimum wage to $6.85 an hour and index the rate to inflation so that it's adjusted every Jan. 1. There would be exceptions for businesses with revenues less than $250,000, for family members working in a family-owned business, for workers under age 16 and for those who receive tips or who have disabilities. Employers would have to keep pay records for three years following the last day of employment and provide the record to the employee or their designee upon request.

Issue 2 is a no-brainer "yes." Supporters contend that more than 700,000 Ohioans would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, either directly or because the head of their family earns the minimum wage. If you work 40 hours week at a minimum wage job right now, your yearly gross pay is $10,712 -- the official U.S. poverty line is $13,200. That's criminal.

Even at $6.85 an hour, your yearly income rises to only $14,248. But that's something, isn't it?

It's incredible that, in an era when corporations pay their CEOs tens of millions of dollars and when the Republican-led Congress cuts the taxes of the nation's wealthiest citizens, many politicians and business leaders actually are complaining about raising the minimum wage. All because some hard-working man or woman, often supporting a family, might earn an extra $3,500 next year.

Some of these same "small government" advocates also say the state has no right to tell the business community what to pay its workers. Well, the minimum wage has been in effect for decades, as have laws telling businesses not to discriminate against minorities, not to hire young children, not to keep workers from having bathroom breaks, not to send workers into dangerous mines, etc. And the corporate world has somehow managed to survive, perhaps even thrive.

Get over yourselves and give working stiffs a break.

Issue 3: (Ohio Constitutional Amendment to Approve Slot Machine Gambling): NO

With Ohio's economy in the tank, expanded gambling has been identified as a possibly lucrative revenue source -- especially since neighboring states Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia draw money out of Ohio with their own casinos. Pennsylvania will soon begin opening slot machine parlors, likely drawing Cleveland, Akron, Canton and other area residents.

So the owners of Ohio's seven horse tracks got together to form Learn and Earn, a plan to entice voters to allow them to operate slot machines at their tracks by committing a portion of the proceeds to fund college scholarships and aid to local governments. For some reason two non-track locations in downtown Cleveland were added to the list of gambling facilities, and for some other reason Cincinnati -- just like Cleveland facing nearby out-of-state casino competition -- was shafted.

If Issue 3 passes, up to 31,500 slot machines will be permitted at the seven tracks and the two Cleveland locations. Gaming can later be expanded into full-scale casinos at four Cuyahoga County locations (two tracks, two downtown spots) if approved by the county's voters -- but nowhere else.

Profits will be distributed like this: 55 percent to the slot and casino owners and operators, which would be exempt from all Ohio taxes; 30 percent to the Ohio Board of Regents for in-state college scholarships and grants to the top 5 percent of students graduating from accredited public or non-public high schools; 8 percent divided among local governments; 6 percent to the race tracks for purse money; 1 percent to gambling addiction services; and 1 percent to fund the Gaming Integrity Commission (there's a great name) that would regulate gaming and be appointed by the governor and majority legislative leaders.

This is a tough call. On the one hand we're over the moral indignation some show toward the casino gambling in Ohio -- a state that already sactions legalized gambling on horse races, legalized gambling on a lottery, legalized gambling at bingo halls and wink-wink-nod-nod gambling at thousands of annual Catholic church festivals. Full-blown casino gambling is a short drive from most Ohio cities, and the world hasn't ended yet.

Casino gambling is coming to Ohio as well as to Kentucky. It's just a matter of when.

Still, Issue 3 smells bad. Too many stories have been told about the underhanded Learn and Earn petition workers ("Will you sign the petition for more college scholarships?" "Is this about gambling? "No, it's to fund college scholarships.") to make us believe the tactic was mere coincidence.

And the way Cincinnati was cut out of the deal stinks, with reports of the parent company of Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind. (which also owns the horse track in Toledo) pressuring the track consortium to dump its original concept of downtown casino locations in both Cleveland and Cincinnati. Learn and Earn subsequently offered $100 million in development grants to Cincinnati as a make-good, which bought the support of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Sure, college scholarships and local development funds sound great, especially on the backs of suckers who waste their hard-earned paychecks at slot machine parlors. But Issue 3 isn't honest, isn't fair and isn't the right way to introduce casino gambling across Ohio.

Vote no on Issue 3. We guarantee you the horse tracks and various downtown developers will be back next fall, if not sooner, with a better-thought-out and fairer plan.

Issue 4: (Ohio Constitutional Amendment to Ban Smoking Except in Restaurants, Bars, etc.): NO

Issue 5: (Ohio Law to Prohibit Smoking in Public Places): YES

These competing ballot issues are a classic example of the phrase "No good deed goes unpunished." First, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Ohio Hospital Association, Ohio State Medical Association and other groups organized a petition drive to place a comprehensive statewide smoking ban on the November ballot, which ended up being Issue 5.

Facing similar ballot measures across the U.S., tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris started spending millions of dollars to defeat the smoking bans and/or push rival propositions that sound like tough restrictions but actually relax existing anti-smoking laws. In Ohio, their rival proposition has become Issue 4.

In brief, Issue 5 is a law that would prohibit smoking in enclosed areas of public places and enclosed areas in places of employment, exempting most private residences, family businesses, tobacco stores and some hotel rooms. The Ohio Department of Health would educate citizens and enforce the law.

Issue 4 is a Constitutional amendment that would prohibit smoking in enclosed areas except tobacco stores; private residences or nonpublic facilities; separate smoking areas in restaurants; most bars, bingo and bowling facilities; separated areas of hotels and nursing homes; and race tracks. The amendment would erase retroactively any local anti-smoking law in effect and would prohibit the future adoption of any such local law.

If both issues pass, Issue 4 takes effect because it's a Constitutional amendment. If both fail, things stay as they are and Ohio cities can continue to enact their own smoking regulations or continue to do nothing.

Since Issue 4 is a blatant attempt by cigarette manufacturers to confuse the public into approving a smoking "ban" that eliminates Ohio cities' local law-making rights, it's an easy "no" endorsement. You can already smoke in bars, restaurants and bowling alleys in most cities, including Cincinnati.

We've had a more difficult time coming to grips with Issue 5. The health benefits of a more comprehensive smoking ban are obvious for those exposed to second-hand smoke, as are the years of public health service demonstrated by the sponsoring organizations.

From a practical view, the statewide nature of the ban keeps suburban communities from playing off against cities that have enacted tougher smoking regulations. The playing field for attracting bar and restaurant customers would remain level between cities and suburbs.

On the other hand, we're a little tired of lawmakers turning smokers into third-class citizens. They know smoking is bad for them, they already pay a ton in taxes for every pack of cigarettes and they have to stand outside in the rain to smoke -- leave them alone and let them die in peace.

And we've heard dire predictions of how Cincinnati area bars and restaurants would go out of business because their customers would flee to Northern Kentucky to smoke. As several readers have pointed out, CityBeat is supported by bar and restaurant ads that could evaporate if an Ohio smoking ban passed.

When it comes down to it, though, public health trumps private enterprise. Smokers have a right to smoke, but governments have the duty to protect their citizens from unwanted second-hand smoke and thus should enact laws that do the most good for the most people -- such as Issue 5.

While it's possible that Cincinnati area establishments might lose customers in the short run should Issue 5 pass, we can't believe that over the long haul smokers will go out of their way just to be able to smoke inside a bar, club, bowling alley or restaurant. And we think a lot of people who currently don't go to bars because they're too smoky might start coming back.

Issue 12: (Hamilton County Sales Tax Increase to Fund New Jail): NO

Here's another difficult issue to determine, since it contains elements we support and an end result (increased and modernized jail space) that's hard to argue against. As with the gambling provisions in Issue 3, however, the path taken to the end result is strewn with stinky decisions.

Hamilton County Commissioners placed Issue 12 on the ballot to raise the existing sales tax levy by one quarter of 1 percent from the current 6.5 percent to 6.75 percent for 10 years. The tax increase would raise an estimated $32.5 million per year, for a total of about $325 million over its life, to "support criminal and administrative justice services."

If passed, Issue 12 would fund construction of a new 1,800 bed jail facility as well as a three-year property tax reduction in the form of a credit. The new jail would replace three existing satellite facilities and add capacity, and the existing Hamilton County Justice Center downtown would remain in use.

The new jail -- which hasn't been designed or located anywhere yet -- is scheduled to cost $225 million, with the remaining tax revenue going to pay the finance costs, pay the cost of temporarily housing prisoners in Butler County until the new facility becomes available and fund the property tax rollback.

Commissioner Phil Heimlich has pegged his flagging re-election campaign to the jail construction issue, so much so that voters are facing a rushed and desperate plan funded by the worst possible source -- a sales tax increase. It's the most regressive tax of all, hitting low-income people with the same sales tax as upper income people when, of course, people of means are able to absorb the additional tax in their daily lives.

With the property tax rollback on top, the new jail will be disproportionately funded by those who don't own their own homes and those who make less money than the average county resident -- the very definition of unfairness.

Heimlich had his entire four-year term to address what's been called a county priority for more than a decade, and he waited until re-election time so he could rally the reliable Republican crime-fighters (County Prosecutor Joe Deters and Sheriff Simon Leis) to help pass this tax plan while also boosting his candidacy.

Like with Issue 3, we say vote no. If expanded jail space is in fact a priority, the newly configured county commission board (with David Pepper instead of Heimlich) will be back next fall, if not sooner, with a better-thought-out and fairer plan.

Issue 13: (Hamilton County Children's Services Renewal Levy): YES

This is a five-year renewal of a property tax levy of 2.77 mills at the same level as previously passed in 2001. If passed, it would generate more than $41 million a year over the five years. It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $48.95 per year.

Levy funds provide the local matching funds required to annually receive the state and federal revenues that protect disadvantaged children of Hamilton County. The system operates the 241-KIDS hotline for reporting suspected abuse and neglect; investigates allegations of abuse, neglect and dependency; places children in temporary care when necessary; prepares children for adoption; and provides funds for the operation of the Hillcrest Training School for adolescents.

The Children's Services Levy was first established in 1986 and has been approved by voters every five years since. It should be passed again this year.

Issue 14 (Hamilton County Health and Hospitalization Services Renewal Levy): YES

This is a five-year renewal of a property tax levy of 4.49 mills that's actually a reduction of .09 mill from the level previously passed in 2001. If passed, it would generate more than $47 million a year over the five years -- reducing funds for Health and Hospitalization Services by approximately $9.5 million per year. It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $47.24 per year.

Annual levy funds would reimburse University Hospital to pay for costs of care to medically indigent or uninsured patients; Children's Hospital Medical Center to fund innovative programs to reach poor and uninsured children; Tuberculosis Control Services to provide screening, diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis (mandated by the state); Inmate Health Care for health care needs of inmate populations in the county correctional facilities (mandated by the state); Juvenile Court Medical Services for health care needs of detainees at county juvenile facilities; and Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services to treat referrals from the Drug Court and other agencies.

The Health and Hospitalization Levy was first established in 1966 and has been tweaked over the years but passed by voters. It should be passed again this year.



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