Gov. Ted Strickland says he plans to proceed with an education reform package despite the ugly economy.
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COLUMBUS - With Ohio's economy tanking to levels not seen in a generation, at least Gov. Ted Strickland has maintained a sense of humor.
"Someone has said that you should never waste a good crisis," Governor Strickland told The Blade with a smile during an end-of-the-year interview earlier this week.
After two years in office, Ohio's governor definitely has a crisis on his hands, with a state economy that some say never recovered from the last national recession before being plunged into another and a potential budget gap over the next two years that could grow to $7.3 billion.
Mr. Strickland insisted that budget cuts can be made without endangering priorities such as education and economic development that he considers key to Ohio emerging in a stronger position on the other end of the crisis than it had going in.
And despite the downright ugly economy, he plans to forge ahead next year with his promise of tackling a school-funding system that the Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly has found to be unconstitutional.
"We've got to continue to think of the future," Mr. Strickland said in his Statehouse office. "One of the things that I think happened in Ohio for a long time is that there was not sufficient attention given to what we ought to be doing to move forward. It was more of short-term, myopic view of state government.
"I think that the way that we deal with this current economic crisis will say a lot about whether we're going to be a state that's looking to the future or one that is just trying to survive the present," he said.
Two years from standing before voters for re-election, the former congressman from southern Ohio is ending 2008 with a carving knife, slicing off another $180.5 million from the state budget without reducing basic subsidies to K-12 schools or aid to colleges and universities that resulted in a two-year freeze on historically high tuition rates in the state. He's counting on the remaining $460 million shortfall in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, being filled by additional Medicaid support from the federal government.
On Jan. 28, he will present his third State of the State address. A week or so later he will present a budget proposal to lawmakers for the next two years in which he will again have to use that carving knife to protect priorities while slicing elsewhere.
"We don't have much of a choice," he said. "I've got a constitutional obligation to have a balanced budget. I can tell you that we're looking at submitting a budget with very significant reductions."
The governor has said he believes tax hikes would be unwise given the economy, but he has stopped short of a "read my lips" anti-tax vow.
Mr. Strickland is counting on a lot of help from his new friend who, as of Jan. 20, will be the newest resident of the White House. Barack Obama has called on the Democrat-controlled Congress to pass an economic stimulus package so that he can sign it upon taking office.
Just how much of that Ohio would receive remains unknown.
So far it does not appear that Ohio voters have held the two-year governor responsible for the state's economic doldrums and budget problems. Opinion polls still have him with strong job performance numbers, although they have faded in recent months.
"I'm the governor, and so I'm not blaming anyone else," Mr. Strickland said. "I own my responsibility to provide leadership to this state. Did I cause a national recession? No. But am I responsible for dealing with these circumstances in a way that sets appropriate priorities and does the best I can with resources available to me? I own that responsibility.
"I think my obligation to the people of this state is to be candid and transparent and honest with them about the circumstances that confront us," he said.
"I'm trying to do that, and ultimately people will decide whether I'm doing the best that can be done or they're unhappy with me."
Despite the state's financial woes, Mr. Strickland plans to proceed full-speed ahead with an education reform package, addressing both what goes on in the classroom as well as the thorny issue of how to pay for it. Prior to his election, he said he didn't believe his administration would be a success if it didn't address the issue.
The state Supreme Court repeatedly ruled that the state's heavy reliance on local property taxes for K-12 education unconstitutionally places students in poorer districts at a competitive disadvantage.
"It is of such great importance to the future of our state and to the education of our kids," Mr. Strickland said. "Regardless of the circumstances that may exist at any particular point in time, there's always going to be reasons why it should be postponed."
He has held a series of public forums on how to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education in the state as well as the school funding issue. He said he plans to address the issue in his State of the State address, although he probably won't unveil his full plan at that time.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate taunted the governor by keeping empty bills open for his education plan for the entire two-year session that just ended.
"It's still open. It doesn't look like it's passing," outgoing House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), soon to be a state senator, said with a laugh.
"When he ran for office, he said some pretty harsh things about the Republicans who were in control of state government at the time," Mr. Husted said. "He said [failure to address school funding] wasn't for lack of knowledge. It was for lack of political courage.
"He blamed the other side politically," Mr. Husted said. "He said economic circumstances are not an excuse and then staked his governorship on it. Coming off that campaign there was a lot of animosity, but we were able to get past that."
Mr. Strickland generally has had a good working relationship with the Republican-controlled legislature even as he personally went door-to-door to help elect Democrats to the House this year.
The effort paid off. In January, Democrats will control the House for the first time in 14 years while Republicans continue to have a strong hold on the Senate.
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