Fisher, Taft talk of aid to youths; Differences in policy shown

By Joshua Benton and James Drew
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — Democrat Lee Fisher announced yesterday that, if elected governor, he would support creating a tax credit for “working poor” families. His Republican opponent, Bob Taft, sidestepped the issue, saying the state faces several “tough priorities.”

As election day looms seven weeks away, the two gubernatorial candidates revealed their plans for protecting the state’s children yesterday at a forum sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio.

The event was held a month after the nonprofit group released a 34-page report calling on the gubernatorial candidates to improve the lives of children from low-income and “working poor” families.

A federal tax credit adopted in 1975 offsets regressive Social Security, local, and state taxes, and adds to the earnings of low-wage workers.

A state credit equal to 10 per cent of the federal credit would reduce the state tax bill of more than 600,000 families by an average of $132 a year, said Mr. Fisher, a former attorney general. For some, the savings would reach $365 per year, he added.

“If you can target the tax cut to working families, that’s the way to go. It’s focused on those who need it most,” Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Fisher said the cost of the tax credit would be about $80 million a year, which he said would come from other sources in the budget – not higher taxes on wealthier Ohioans. Over time, he would like to double the credit to 20 per cent of its federal equivalent, but only if the state budget allows it.

Mr. Taft did not give a point-blank “no” to the audience when asked if he would support starting a state earned-income tax credit.

“It’s a question of priorities. It’s something we have to address together as a state and a community,” Mr. Taft said.

Meeting with reporters after the forum, Mr. Taft referred to a state version of the federal tax credit as an “expensive program” at a time when the state is struggling to find funds to subsidize child care for lower-income families and health insurance for poor children.

“I don’t think it’s timely now for me to endorse a proposal that at 20 per cent of the federal credit would cost $150 million a year,” he said.

Mr. Taft said one of his major goals is that every child be able to read by the end of fourth grade. He has proposed setting aside $25 million a year for a program he’s calling OhioReads.

Mr. Fisher received a thunderous reception, including two standing ovations, from an estimated 300 people at the forum. The audience interrupted his speech more than a dozen times with applause, including when Mr. Fisher recounted what he considers his accomplishments for children during his four-year term as attorney general and in the state Senate.

Among other proposals Mr. Fisher made were making more families eligible for day-care assistance and child health-care coverage; toughening child support collections, and increasing education on child safety issues.

An hour later, Mr. Taft received a standing ovation but the audience gave him a cooler reception than Mr. Fisher. Mr. Taft’s remarks were interrupted with applause four times.

Mr. Taft noted that Governor Voinovich, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, has attracted attention to Ohio by supporting early-learning programs.

“It is my hope to build on that foundation and to move our progress to a higher level,” he said.

Mr. Taft said he supports expanding eligibility for the state health insurance program for poor children, evaluating the track record of children who are in Head Start programs, and boost ing child support collections.

He said that, if elected, he would expect a report on his desk soon after taking office that would outline which counties are doing the best job of helping welfare recipients make the transition to work.