Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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State of the State

Gov. John Kasich went to the eastern Ohio city of Steubenville to deliver Tuesday's State of the State address at a top-performing public elementary school. The gesture was meant to symbolize his commitment to education and to the economic-development possibilities of expanded oil and gas production in that part of the state, as well as to show that he is not a prisoner of Columbus.

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However effective that combination of messages, the development of sound public policy requires more than the manipulation of symbols. Ohioans who had hoped to hear the governor use the speech to offer his administration's substantive prescriptions for progress on these issues, and other key state matters, likely came away disappointed.

Mr. Kasich again took credit for eliminating what he called an $8 billion revenue shortfall and balancing the state's two-year budget while cutting taxes by $300 million. He noted that the state's rainy-day fund had increased from 89 cents when he took office last year to $247 million today, as if to suggest that Ohio has gotten past its fiscal crisis.

That assessment might surprise the school districts and local governments that have lost billions of dollars in state aid in the current budget, causing many of them to reduce essential services and lay off employees. The governor offered no indication in yesterday's speech when -- or if -- those cuts will be restored.

Mr. Kasich offered a series of valid challenges to public schools, especially urban districts such as Toledo's: improve graduation rates, reduce the number of college-bound graduates who later require remedial courses, and develop stronger teacher evaluation programs.

At the same time, though, he crowed about more than quadrupling the number of school vouchers the state authorizes and about lifting the ceiling on the number of charter schools in Ohio -- measures that inevitably divert resources from the public schools that will continue to educate the vast majority of the state's children.

Similarly, the governor insisted he will not allow oil and natural-gas producers to "degrade the environment" while they ramp up hydraulic fracturing in the state's Utica and Marcellus shales. But as protesters heckled him, he did not offer details of the "tough" state regulations he pledged, or of the tax policies he could propose to extend the benefits of expanded drilling to all Ohioans.

Mr. Kasich denied suggestions that the state Transportation Department is delaying road projects throughout the state to build support for privatizing the Ohio Turnpike. The state simply lacks the money to do everything it promised, he said.

Yet unlike his Republican counterpart in Michigan, Mr. Kasich was not prepared to call for an increase in the state motor-fuels tax to pay for road improvements, as if that would make Ohio economically uncompetitive while bad roads and bridges will not.

Governor Kasich devoted much of his speech to extolling a renaissance of manufacturing in the state, crediting his private development corporation, JobsOhio, for much of that improvement. He cited a number of successes in northwest Ohio, including the expansion of Chrysler LLC's Toledo Assembly plant and General Motors' increased investment in its Toledo and Defiance facilities.

He described several proposals to expand that recovery, such as enhanced cooperation between private employers and higher-education institutions such as the University of Toledo on work-force training, and expansion of the state's logistics infrastructure at such facilities as multimodal operations in North Baltimore. More flesh on these rhetorical bones will be helpful.

The governor properly named several other of his administration's successes: reforms that allow more elderly Ohioans to get effective care at home rather than through costlier nursing-home residence, better coordination of physical and mental health services for Medicaid patients, and changes in criminal sentencing procedures that will divert more nonviolent offenders from state prisons.

Even as he said that reports of political polarization in Columbus are overblown, he urged both parties to "steer clear of mindless partisanship." He could take the lead by persuading his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to repeal a partisan voter "reform" bill that is less about fighting electoral fraud than suppressing some votes.

During his speech, Mr. Kasich presented well-deserved "courage" awards to several Ohioans: a woman who formed a group to fight prescription-drug abuse, another woman who is battling human trafficking, and the family of an Afghanistan war hero who was killed in action. It's to be hoped these examples might encourage the expression of greater political courage in Columbus.

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