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Published: Saturday, 4/30/2011

Budget-bill breakouts

Ohio's Republican-controlled General Assembly has given Gov. John Kasich just about everything he’s asked for in his proposals to privatize state government functions — until now. Members of a House committee are balking at giving up the final say on agreements to lease public assets to private groups.

The governor’s budget would give Budget Director Tim Keen the power to lease the Ohio Turnpike to the highest bidder without seeking legislative approval. Some GOP lawmakers think — correctly — that this is too little public oversight.

So the House Finance Committee wants to require that such contracts gain final approval from the four Republican and two Democratic legislators and the non-lawmaker chairman who sit on the Ohio Controlling Board.

But Mr. Kasich’s budget doesn’t stop there. It also would authorize the sale of five prisons — the House committee has added a sixth — to private operators, hand over profits from liquor sales to the governor’s semi-private economic development group, and open state parks to timber cutting and oil and gas drilling.

These are not minor changes. They deserve to be debated in their own right, not tucked away in a 3,200-page budget bill that will get an all-or-nothing vote.

Lawmakers and voters are right to be skeptical of the inclusion of such basic issues in an omnibus bill. Separate legislation would give Mr. Kasich the opportunity to make his best case in support of each sale or lease of each asset.

Taxpayers have the right to know what they will give up in the long run for each short-term cash infusion. Will roads, heavy equipment, and drilling rigs in state parks affect wildlife? What’s the environmental danger from hydraulic fracturing? Or oil spills? Or logging? How will drilling affect campers, hikers, and other park visitors?

The turnpike made about $9.6 million in profit on $209 million in revenue in 2009. Will tolls skyrocket if a private company spends billions to lease the turnpike? How will a private operator maintain road patrols, snow removal, highway repairs, and other essential services?

Who will watch over JobsOhio if it has its own revenue stream from liquor distribution? More broadly, should an economic-development agency also be engaged in venture capitalism?

Mr. Kasich wants Ohio to move “at the speed of business.” Power in a business model flows from the top down. The goal is profit to improve the bottom line.

But in a democratic system of government, power is supposed to flow from the bottom up. Officials are elected to promote the general welfare, protect vulnerable citizens, and safeguard the interests of future generations. The result is a deliberative process in which the governor proposes, the legislature disposes, and all are answerable to voters.

The business model sometimes finds democracy to be inconvenient, especially its demands for transparency and public debate. But if the broad expansion of private enterprise in the public sphere that Mr. Kasich seeks can’t survive a little less speed and a little more discussion, maybe it’s not in Ohio’s best interest.



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