The state's Republican Party chairman took aim Thursday at Democrats for criticizing the GOP governor's proposed budget, while the Democratic party chairman accused him of "rhetorical gymnastics."
The brouhaha over the two-year state spending blueprint began at a GOP news conference announcing a new website aimed at countering Democratic attacks on the budget and highlighting certain opposing votes on policies.
But GOP Chairman Bob Bennett, when asked about Gov. John Kasich's budget, told reporters that the state party is neither endorsing nor opposing it. He said, though, he liked its overall thrust.
"I think it's good for Ohioans," he said. "It will create jobs. It will continue to create jobs." But he declined to take a position on specific pieces of the $63.1 billion proposal, saying he wanted to let the Legislature debate them.
Bennett's spokesman later said the state party can't formally endorse the plan without approval from party leaders but the chairman is supportive of the budget.
The state's Democratic Party chairman, Chris Redfern, seized on Bennett's comments, noting apparent confusion between the words "endorse" and "support."
"You're either with the guy or against the guy," Redfern said.
Redfern said he was "unequivocally" opposed to the spending plan and would urge his colleagues not to back it.
Kasich's budget incorporates a significant rewrite of Ohio's tax code that delivers $1.4 billion in tax cuts over three years. It would reduce the tax rate on virtually all small businesses by 50 percent, cut the income tax rate statewide by 20 percent over three years and lower the sales tax rate from 5.5 percent to 5 percent. But the revisions also would impose sales taxes on professional services - including lawyers, lobbyists and accountants - a move sure to set off a policy fight at the Statehouse, where Republicans control both chambers.
Bennett wouldn't say where the Republican party stood on the sales tax provisions, saying he would leave it to lawmakers to review and hear testimony.
"I'm not going to defend anything that's going to be before the Legislature as far as taxes are concerned," Bennett said. But he added he believed every Ohio resident would benefit from the tax cuts.
The governor also has opted to support expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law, providing health care coverage to potentially 366,000 Ohio residents. Kasich has said he still opposes the health insurance mandate aspect of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. But the decision to expand the federal-state program sets up a potential fight among the governor and Republican lawmakers who are strongly against the federal law. Bennett declined to say where he stood on it.
Kasich is up for re-election next year. Bennett, asked whether that played a role in the GOP's move to create the website against Democrats, said, "I think we would have done this two years ago if we knew what the Democrats were going to do two years ago. And that is be obstructionists on everything that he proposed."
He said he's concerned Democrats are going to vote against the budget without participating in the process.
"They are just going to be against it to be against the governor," he said.
Democratic Representative John Carney of Columbus disputed Bennett's claim.
"I'm ready to have a bipartisan conversation with the governor," Carney said. "I hope he reverses track from what Bob Bennett and the GOP are doing today and actually comes and has a meaningful conversation with people like myself."
Some Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Armond Budish, have praised the governor's move to expand Medicaid. Redfern, also a state lawmaker, backs the idea and said he "absolutely will endorse" it. He said he expects his Democratic colleagues to try to amend the budget to hold a separate vote on the broadening Medicaid coverage.
"Politics is an interesting business to be in," Redfern told reporters. "And to see the rhetorical gymnastics that we've encountered this morning gives even me pause."