COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich said Thursday he's pursuing obvious but politically dicey ways to save Ohio money, including taking on public employee unions and diverting non-violent criminals from state prisons.
Kasich made wide-ranging remarks on how he'll tackle a looming $8 billion budget gap at an event to announce his nominee for tax commissioner: former Franklin County Auditor Joe Testa.
Kasich said “low-hanging fruit” like union protections and prison reforms should have been plucked long ago to curb Ohio's tax burden.
He said he opposes paying union-scale prevailing wages on public job sites, doesn't think public employees should have the right to strike, and opposes using binding arbitration to resolve contract disputes involving police officers and firefighters.
“We'll come up with a series of changes, but binding arbitration is not acceptable,” Kasich said. “You are forcing increased taxes on taxpayers with them having no say by people who come from a faraway place and have no accountability to the taxpayers.”
Jay McDonald, president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, said Ohio's binding arbitration law took effect in 1984 as an alternative to settling police, fire and prison guard labor disputes through strikes. He said arbitrators side with employers “on a very regular basis.”
“Certainly, arbitrators are very well aware of what today's economy is and are they're not awarding benefits that are out of reach of employers,” he said.
He acknowledged that public safety forces can be costly for taxpayers.
“It costs money to find somebody to face the threat of gunfire, it costs money to find somebody to run into a building that's on fire,” he said. “I don't think we want to contract out the rape investigation of our neighbor to the lowest bidder.”
Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association that represents 1,500 police officers, detectives and dispatchers, said binding arbitration allows police to air their grievances and still keep the public safe.
“We work now and grieve later. That's the motto. That's what I tell my guys,” Loomis said.
Kasich said public employees should not be allowed to strike anyway — though he doesn't know how practical it would be to do away with the practice.
“My personal philosophy is I don't like public employees striking. Okay?” he said. “They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they've got good benefits, great retirement. What are they striking for?”
Kasich said he will also fight to chip away at Ohio's prevailing wage law, which he said adds to construction costs at universities and drives up their tuition costs. Although he said he would prefer to repeal it, “if we can make progress in some areas, we can allow people to provide more services at a lower price.”
Kasich is a former congressman, Fox News commentator, and Lehman Brothers managing director who defeated Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in last month's election. He takes office Jan. 10 and, by mid-March, must have a blueprint for balancing Ohio's $50 billion-plus budget for the upcoming two-year period.
He said prison costs could be drastically reduced by rethinking whether non-violent offenders, including those who commit drug-related offenses, should be sent for short stays in state prison. Kasich said people who commit such crimes are not a public threat and shouldn't be imprisoned at high cost to taxpayers alongside murderers.
He also said state prison also seems like the wrong place for child-support deliquents.
“Why do I want to put somebody that doesn't pay child support in a state prison ... instead of putting them somewhere and forcing them on a work detail or home confinement or county jail, in a place where the public is safe and yet we can get our costs?” he said. “To me, that's low-hanging fruit.”
Just last week, state Sen. Bill Seitz failed to get the necessary support to bring an overhaul of Ohio's criminal sentencing laws up for a vote on the floor of the Republican-controlled Senate. The measure proposed cost-reducing measures such as imposing the same sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, expanding inmates' ability to reduce their sentences through good behavior, and increasing use of halfway houses and GPS devices, as well as numerous other changes.