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Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/7/2013

COMMENTARY

Statehouse gang throws Ohio in reverse

The new state budget is equally regressive as economic and social policy

BY DAVID KUSHMA
EDITOR OF THE BLADE
Felix Falco Plouck, 4, the son of a cabinet member, helps Ohio Gov. John Kasich sign the state's two-year budget in Columbus last week. The governor is flanked by state Senate President Keith Faber (R., Celina), left, and House Finance Committee chairman Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster), right. Felix Falco Plouck, 4, the son of a cabinet member, helps Ohio Gov. John Kasich sign the state's two-year budget in Columbus last week. The governor is flanked by state Senate President Keith Faber (R., Celina), left, and House Finance Committee chairman Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster), right.
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Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly couldn’t be any clearer about where they and their party are taking this state. Ohioans who don’t want to be dragged along for the ride — folks who aren’t rich, women, and anyone else who would rather move forward than backward — need to insist on a different route.

The new state budget, which is equally regressive as economic and social policy, effectively launches next year’s statewide election campaign. Toledoans who have yet to endure this year’s dreary city elections can be forgiven for not wanting to think about a vote that is 16 months away.

But those who would offer a credible alternative to the tunnel vision of the regime in Columbus must start that task now. The Ohio Democratic Party will require every moment until November, 2014, to prove to voters that it is still a force in state politics — if it can, and if it is.

The two-year, $62 billion state budget continues the relentless Republican drive to redistribute income to the wealthiest Ohioans from middle-class, working-class, and poor families. It unnecessarily cuts taxes overall by $2.7 billion over three years, reducing taxes on individual and business incomes while raising the state sales tax and starting to eliminate long-standing state help with local property tax bills.

The nonpartisan research and advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio calculates that the budget gives the richest 1 percent of Ohioans — those who made at least $335,000 last year — an annual state tax cut of more than $6,000. Taxpayers in the middle fifth of incomes, between $33,000 and $51,000 in 2012, will get a chump-change cut of $9 a year. And the bottom 20 percent of Ohio households, which earned less than $18,000 last year, will now pay $12 more a year in taxes.

Kasich administration officials complain that such a “static” analysis doesn’t take into account the economic growth and job creation they insist the tax cut will bring. But Policy Matters notes that a 21-percent state income tax cut in 2005 didn’t keep Ohio’s job market from performing worse than the nation’s overall economy during the most recent recession.

Even as it cuts taxes for the rich, the new budget falls short of restoring aid to local schools and governments, as well as vital state services, that the governor and lawmakers slashed from the previous budget. It places a greater burden on property taxes to pay for education and public safety.

The budget includes a large boost in state aid to schools, from a low base. But much of that money will be diverted to private-school vouchers and to for-profit charter schools — many of them run by generous GOP campaign donors — even though some of these schools do a worse job than the traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of Ohio children.

Republican lawmakers got away with defying their party’s governor on the two most important proposals of his original budget blueprint. They rebuffed Mr. Kasich’s plea to extend the state’s Medicaid program of health insurance to 275,000 more working-poor Ohioans — including 26,000 military veterans and 18,000 residents of Lucas County — even though Washington would have paid almost all of the cost of that broadening under Obamacare. Polls suggest most Ohioans support the expansion plan.

The best the governor could do was veto language in the budget that would have prohibited the Medicaid expansion. Republican legislative leaders say the issue isn’t dead. But when they vow to “reform” Medicaid, they are talking about kicking more people off the program’s rolls, not adding them.

Lawmakers also rejected Mr. Kasich’s modest proposal to increase the severance tax on removal of oil and national gas from the state’s shale deposits. Although the governor evidently was willing to take on Columbus’ powerful fossil-fuel lobby, GOP lawmakers displayed no such courage.

The new budget enacts divisive social policy as well. It plays politics with Ohio women’s freedom and health by effectively forcing clinics that perform abortions to close, and by denying public money to rape crisis centers that counsel sex-assault victims about abortion.

The budget relegates Planned Parenthood, which provides the only health care that many Ohio women get, to the back of the line for federal funding of family planning services. The medical experts in the legislature declare in the budget that a fetus develops “from the moment of conception” and dictate to doctors, under penalty of prosecution, how they must treat pregnant patients.

These are some of the most onerous restrictions on reproductive rights in the country. Instead of introducing and debating them honestly, Republicans slipped them into the catch-all budget, which the governor signed in front of an all-male group of lawmakers.

The new budget also makes it easier for local officials to meet secretly to give away public dollars to corporations in the name of “economic development.” You bothersome taxpayers who believe you have a right to know how your money is spent will have to wait until politicians think you deserve to find out.

Such fiscal and social setbacks would not seem to reflect the preferences of most voters in a state that last November re-elected President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown by comfortable margins. Yet a new poll by Quinnipiac University reports that Ohio’s improving economy has given Governor Kasich his highest job-approval rating ever among voters.

Either way, Republicans’ dominance in Columbus will be hard to dislodge next year. The GOP landslide in the 2010 election entrenched Republicans in nearly every major state office, while leaving Democrats largely bereft of well-known statewide candidates.

Republican leaders have rigged legislative districts with the aim of cementing their party’s control of the General Assembly into the next decade. Meanwhile, the Quinnipiac poll concludes that three-fourths of Ohio voters don’t know Mr. Kasich’s likely Democratic challenger next year, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

Whatever the obstacles, all Ohioans need to ask themselves: Does this state government represent me? If they like what the governor and legislature are doing, they’ll have ample opportunity to stay the course next year. If not, they’ll need a better alternative.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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