COLUMBUS — It’s amusing to watch Republican state legislators cringe, bob, weave and squirm as they contemplate Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed 18-cents-a-gallon increase in the state gas tax.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, “the only thing more plentiful than the potholes on Ohio’s roads these days is the angst in the Statehouse among legislators” considering the tax hike.

The Dispatch story didn’t say just Republican legislators, but there are so few Democrats in the House and Senate that Republicans will have to take the lead to enact the tax, a whopping 64 percent increase over the existing 28-cent tax.

This time the “angst” is on the other side of the political aisle.

For decades, Ohio Republicans have shamelessly exploited the state’s need to pay for schools, run prisons, care for the mentally ill and, yes, build and repair highways and bridges, by branding Democrats as tax-happy demons.

It’s worked.

The grand master in tax-bashing was Republican James A. Rhodes, the only person elected to four, four-year terms as Ohio governor. He twice unseated Democratic incumbents with anti-tax campaigning.

It came naturally to the colorful, earthy Rhodes. He had a low-key, calculating ally, however, in Akron’s Ray Bliss who was state Republican chairman in 1962 when Rhodes won his first term as governor

The incumbent seeking re-election that year was Democrat Mike DiSalle, a former Toledo mayor. DiSalle had been elected in 1958, along with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, in a backlash against a Republican-backed right-to-work issue on the ballot that year.

Voters overwhelmingly — by 63 percent — trounced the proposal to ban labor contracts that required union membership as a condition for employment and in the process elected Democrats to every statewide office except secretary of state.

DiSalle considered himself a reformer, according to journalist Mike Curtin, writing in "Ohio Politics." Ohio had been known as a low-tax, low-spending state with unmet needs in education, social services and other areas.

To help Ohio catch up, Curtin wrote, DiSalle and the legislature approved a tax package that included: a 2-cent increase in the gasoline tax; a 2-cent increase in the cigarette tax; a wine and mixed beverage sales tax; a hike in the horse racing tax; an increase in the corporate franchise tax and a decrease in the amount exempted from the sales tax.

Rhodes and Bliss had the theme for Rhodes’ successful 1962 campaign, tagging the Democratic governor as “Tax-Hike Mike.”

There were other issues in the campaign such as DiSalle’s strong opposition to capital punishment. They combined to help Rhodes win with 59 percent of the vote.

Rhodes was re-elected in 1966, but the Ohio Constitution prohibited him from seeking a third consecutive term in 1970.

Democrat John J. Gilligan won that year. Like DiSalle, Gilligan was determined to provide more spending for education, welfare, mental health and the environment, according to journalist Hugh C. McDiarmid, also writing in "Ohio Politics."

To pay for this expansion of state government, Gilligan and the legislature enacted Ohio’s first-ever state income tax.

Rhodes was itching for a return as governor. He prevailed on the Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court to rule that the constitutional limit on two terms for governor meant consecutive terms.

This meant he could seek a third, non-consecutive term in 1974. Soon he was on the campaign trail with a familiar theme. He accused Gilligan of taxing “everything in Ohio that walks, crawls or flies.”

Rhodes squeaked to victory with 48.6 percent of the vote to 48.2 percent for Gilligan.

He was re-elected to his record fourth term in 1978 by defeating Democrat Richard F. Celeste.

Rhodes couldn’t run for a third term in 1982, and Celeste won his first term. Like DiSalle and Gilligan, Celeste pushed through a tax increase. It made permanent a 50-percent temporary surcharge in the income tax and added 40 percent. Opponents branded it a 90-percent tax hike, although Celeste backers argued that other adjustments in the plan made it just 27 percent, according to journalist Tim Miller, also in "Ohio Politics."

The anti-tax magic had worn off for Rhodes, however, when he sought a fifth term in 1986 against Celeste who won a second term with more than 60 percent of the vote.

That didn’t discourage Ohio Republicans from continuing to spread the anti-tax gospel.

During last year’s governor’s race DeWine warned that if elected his Democratic opponent Richard Cordray planned to raise taxes, which Cordray denied.

“The last thing we need are higher taxes. But that’s exactly what Richard Cordray would do,” a DeWine campaign ad proclaimed.

The tax increases that brought down DiSalle and Gilligan were for general government spending and DeWine’s gas tax hike is for a specific purpose — roads and bridges.

Whatever the purpose, it’s steep enough to give Republicans their own version of “Tax-Hike Mike.”

 

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is the coauthor, with John C. Green, of "Mr. Chairman: The Life and Times of Ray C. Bliss." He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.