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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2011

What Ohioans want

GOV. John Kasich and the Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly insist that they are doing what voters hired them last November to do -- that they are giving Ohioans what they want and demand.

Evidently this means that Ohio taxpayers want their state government to transfer wealth from middle-class, working-class, and poor families to the state's richest individuals and businesses. They want their local governments and school districts to have to raise taxes and reduce services while laying off police officers, teachers, and other essential employees.

They must want Columbus to unload valuable state assets without much long-term return or public debate. They want to widen even further the disparities in Ohio's tax system -- relatively low state taxes, but above-average local taxes.

These are among the pernicious effects of the two-year state budget that the legislature approved and Mr. Kasich signed last week. The governor hailed the document as an expression of "courage to do the right thing." Those Ohioans who will be harmed rather than rewarded might offer a different definition.

Lawmakers balanced the budget largely by slashing billions of dollars in state aid to schools, colleges and universities, libraries, nursing homes, and municipal and county governments, as well as state-administered social services. Big spending cuts in these areas would have been inevitable in any event, given the initially projected $8 billion revenue shortfall in the $55.8 billion budget -- a product of Ohio's recession-plagued economy.

But as the new budget chops aid to public schools, it did not need to confer special financial favors on the best-off school districts (generally represented by Republicans), or permit big expansions of private-school vouchers and charter schools without adequate state regulation. As the budget caters to business, it did not need to muzzle the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, which advocates utility ratepayers' interests.

The GOP governor and lawmakers, hewing to their rigid no-tax stance, rejected proposals that would have shared the budget burden more fairly and efficiently. They refused to review the $7 billion the state gives each year in tax breaks -- a major source of state spending.

Many of these breaks are useless and wasteful favors for powerful Columbus lobbies. Ohio think tanks from across the political spectrum identified $300 million a year in immediate savings from eliminating unneeded tax credits, exemptions, and deductions. Lawmakers weren't interested.

To the contrary, Mr. Kasich's "Invest-Ohio" program -- stuck into the budget at the last minute -- confers a new $100 million income tax break on wealthy investors, without any showing of the job creation and small-business growth the governor asserts the program will yield.

Lawmakers compounded the budget's imbalance by eliminating Ohio's estate tax, which has provided vital revenue to local governments that already are reeling from a 25 percent cut in their state aid (50 percent next year). Repealing the tax benefits only the wealthiest 7 percent of Ohio households; by the end, GOP lawmakers didn't even bother to defend their baseless claim that the tax kills jobs and causes rich residents to flee the state.

The new budget raises money in the short term by privatizing state assets that have been long-term revenue sources, notably the Ohio Turnpike and the liquor distribution system. Lawmakers did not examine adequately the permanent implications of these changes.

Legislators did stick their noses into local matters that don't concern them, as with a budget item that would encourage member communities to leave the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.

The budget has a few redeeming features. Instead of indiscriminately slashing the state's largest spending item -- the Medicaid program of health insurance for low-income, sick, and disabled Ohioans -- the budget includes initiatives by the Kasich administration designed to run Medicaid more efficiently. These efforts promise to reduce expenses without denying access to health care or diminishing the quality of care.

The budget authorizes a study of a merit-pay program for teachers, to supplant the outmoded seniority rules that too often dictate school employment and salary decisions. Although creating an objective system of teacher evaluation will be much harder than advocates say, the initiative needs to begin.

The spending plan also provides financial incentives for consolidation and service-sharing among local governments. It establishes options to expensive incarceration. It streamlines construction rules for public buildings. But such advantages are overwhelmed by the damage the new budget does.

As they inflicted so much pain and sacrifice on their constituents in the name of fiscal responsibility, lawmakers rejected a budget proposal that would have cut their own salaries by 5 percent. Why penalize brave, effective public servants who are doing such a good job of representing the interests of all Ohioans?

But if you don't share the regressive vision of Ohio's future that Governor Kasich and GOP lawmakers have summarized in the budget, you might want to speak up -- promptly and loudly -- to challenge the new regime in Columbus. Otherwise, get ready for a lot more of the same.



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