Unions challenge petitions to repeal sales tax increase

Elections workers are checking the petition signatures for validity.
COLUMBUS -- A group representing public-employee labor unions is trying to challenge signatures gathered by Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell in his bid to repeal the state's temporary sales tax increase.
Mark Hatch, a spokesman for Ohioans for Fiscal Responsibility, said that his group has filed protests of signatures in 40 of the 88 counties around the state and that others could be coming.
"We're examining each and every petition," Hatch said.
Ohioans For Fiscal Responsibility is made up of unions including the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees.
A group led by Blackwell, Citizens for Tax Repeal, has submitted 157,000 signatures to require state lawmakers to consider repealing the temporary sales tax increase, passed as part of the state's current two-year, $48.8 billion budget.
At least 96,780 valid signatures are needed to force the Ohio General Assembly to consider the repeal. Elections workers are checking the signatures for validity.
If lawmakers don't act within four months of the petitions' being certified, Blackwell and others have vowed to gather another 96,780 valid signatures to place the issue before voters statewide in November.
Wants to halt spending
Blackwell, a potential 2006 GOP candidate for governor, says the repeal is necessary to halt what he has characterized as unnecessary government spending.
Hatch said his group has filed protests in individual counties over such things as inaccurate petition cover pages and other discrepancies.
"We believe there are signatures that appear to be in very similar handwriting," Hatch said.
"We are going to do a very thorough review," Hatch said.
Hatch said that the protests are filed with the individual county boards of elections but that the common pleas courts in each of the counties where there is a protest would hold hearings.
"A few hearings are being scheduled for the next couple of weeks," said Hatch. "Both sides will go in and make their pleas."
Gene Pierce, a consultant working with the Citizens for Tax Repeal, said the effort by the labor unions bordered on harassment.
"We think it's a blatant attempt to try to harass and intimidate Ohio citizens trying to exercise their constitutional rights," Pierce said.
A study done by the Cleveland-based Federation for Community Planning think tank said Ohio would lose $813.8 million in revenue if the sales tax increase is repealed at the end of 2004 instead of its scheduled June 30, 2005 expiration.
The state taxation department puts the anticipated revenue loss at $798 million, if the proposed repeal succeeds.
The sales tax increase is expected to generate $2.6 billion over the two-year budget period, state officials say.
If the proposed repeal succeeds, it could lead to state spending cuts in education, health and social services and support for local governments, the federation said in its study.