Westerville City Council member Anne Gonzales, a Republican, and Libertarian Michael Johnston are aiming to unseat incumbent Democrat Marian Harris in the race for the 19th House District Nov. 2.

Westerville City Council member Anne Gonzales, a Republican, and Libertarian Michael Johnston are aiming to unseat incumbent Democrat Marian Harris in the race for the 19th House District Nov. 2.

All three candidates are touting the economy, the state budget and education as key topics in the race.

Harris, who was elected in 2008, said she believes education is closely tied to the economy. To attract businesses, she said, Ohio must have a strong education system and a well-trained work force.

Harris said she supports Gov. Ted Strickland's education model, which was passed last year as part of the biennial budget, but she said the economy prevents the state and school districts from implementing much of the plan.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the funds to fully fund it," Harris said.

She said the state must not impose any unfunded initiatives on school districts and must instead wait until the revenue is available.

"Nothing will be imposed until it can be paid for," Harris said. "Hopefully, our economy will turn around and we'll be able to implement that."

Harris said while the governor's plan addresses K-through-12 education, she said the state also must look at preschool and college-level education to create a more successful model.

"I'm a firm believer in early education. We absolutely have to get our kids ready to start school, ready to start learning," Harris said. "I think we need to work on making college affordable for anyone who wants to go."

When it comes to the hole in the state budget, which was plugged with federal dollars in 2009, Harris said state leaders must look at both spending and revenue.

"We have to take a balanced approach," Harris said. "We have to have a balanced budget. We're not like the feds. We have to have a balanced budget on July 1."

Harris said she would look at consolidating state departments to save money and would look at where programs could be cut without hurting residents. On the revenue side, Harris said she is unsure if the budget can be balanced without a tax increase.

"That remains to be seen," she said.

Gonzales, who has sat on Westerville City Council since 2001 and served as mayor, said she believes the key to improving Ohio's economy is to create a friendlier environment for businesses.

"We need to strive to make our state more attractive to job creators, and I think that's accomplished through a streamlined tax structure and reassessed regulatory system," Gonzales said.

She said she believes the economy also would be bolstered by providing training and education for the unemployed.

Gonzales said the education initiatives put forth by Strickland are concerning to her because they put a strain on school districts by imposing unfunded requirements, such as requiring all districts to provide all-day, every-day kindergarten.

"I like the idea of all-day kindergarten, just not when it's an unfunded mandate," Gonzales said. "The unfunded mandate of all-day kindergarten will put a strain on our school districts. It will cause our school districts to go back to the voters and ask for an increase in property tax."

Gonzales said Strickland also has cut funding for school districts and has not addressed school funding overall, something she said she would look to do in the statehouse.

"I'm very concerned about the funding cuts that occurred in (the last budget)," Gonzales said. "I would like to get into the statehouse and address school funding."

Balancing the state budget also is a high priority, Gonzales said, and to do so, she said, spending cuts are going to have to be made, and the state government must look at increasing efficiency to save money.

"During this next budget cycle, it's important that we examine every area in the state budget in order to control spending and encourage efficiency," she said. "It's just like the households in our district: We've had to tighten our budgets, and I believe Ohio has to do the same thing."

Johnston, an IT specialist who has never held public office, said problems with the economy and the state budget can be solved through reducing the size and scope of the state government.

Along with other Libertarian candidates, Johnston is proposing a budget that would slash the current one by 40 percent, eliminate the state's debt by 2013 and eliminate the state income tax by July 2011.

The plan, which is available at www.lpo.org, would eliminate 20 state agencies, many of which provide redundant services, Johnston said, and items that Johnston and other Libertarians believe are "pet projects" of government officials.

"There are some pet projects, there are duplicate agencies," he said. "No one ever eliminates them; they just stay there forever."

To spur the economy, Johnston said the state government must reduce its regulations to allow business to operate and provide jobs at a lower cost.

"A lot of the economy stuff is going to removing the government burden and restrictions that are in place to restrict the private sector from expanding," he said.

The Libertarians also are putting forth an education plan that would fund schools at $100,000 per classroom through a voucher system that would be available to all students, Johnston said.

jnesbitt@thisweeknews.com

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