Suburbanites of Ohio, listen up. As swing voters in the ultimate swing state, you will have an outsized impact on this election. President Obama has pledged to govern in the interests of middle-class voters like you. With so much resting on your shoulders, that is a promise you should scrutinize with care. What exactly are Obama’s plans for Ohio’s suburban communities? The answer may shock you.
President Obama aims to help Ohio’s Democrats bail out your state’s struggling cities by forcibly transferring suburban tax money to urban treasuries. It’s a bold plan to redistribute the wealth of Ohio’s suburbs. It also calls for halting the sort of highway and commercial development that brings jobs and taxes to the suburbs. The shorthand for this is “regionalism.” Should Obama be reelected, a redistributive city-based regionalist agenda will likely be imposed on Ohio’s suburbs. The best way to envision the future of suburban Ohio in a second Obama term is to see how close this regionalist agenda came to enactment in Obama’s first four years.
Around 2006, Cleveland-area planners began floating proposals to grant the city access to taxes collected by surrounding suburbs. Their model was the Minneapolis–St. Paul region, where the Minnesota state legislature forces reluctant suburbanites to “share” their tax revenue with the cities. Cleveland’s regionalists also touted Portland, Ore., for its metropolitan planning agency. Portland’s planning commission has laid down an “urban growth boundary” that forbids highway or commercial development around the edges of the metropolitan area. Regionalists blame the plight of the cities on the loss of tax base to the suburbs. Blocking new highways that could ease commutes or serve as gateways to newly constructed suburbs is designed both to prevent further exodus and to press current suburbanites back toward the cities. This is what Obama was getting at in that recently released 2007 video where he said, “We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs.”
Redistributive tax sharing and urban-growth boundaries are rare and deeply controversial, in part because they are by design anti-suburban policies. They effectively permit big cities to gut the political and economic independence of their surrounding municipalities. The regionalist Left, President Obama included, wants to see these policies exported to every metropolitan area in America. And Cleveland was on board with the plan.
By 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer was touting Minnesota-style tax sharing, while suggesting that the humble “metropolitan planning organizations” (MPOs) that have long divvied out federal transportation funding might be converted into Portland-style regional planning commissions with the power to block suburban development. With these changes, Cleveland’s regionalists aimed either to prevent would-be suburbanites from moving out of the city or to capture a chunk of tax money from suburbanites who had already left.
In October 2007, Cleveland’s new regionalists sprang into action. The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), the five-county MPO that channels federal transportation funding to the region, took an unprecedented step. Using powers conferred by NOACA’s weighted voting system, members from Cleveland and its poorer, inner-ring suburbs threatened to veto the construction of a highway interchange in Avon, a fast-growing, affluent suburb in neighboring Lorain County, unless Avon agreed to “share” taxes from businesses that moved near the new road.
Outraged board members from outlying counties felt strong-armed by Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs of Cuyahoga County. Avon mayor Jim Smith said his supposedly voluntary agreement to “share” the town’s taxes with Cleveland felt more like the action of a hostage with a gun at his head. Cleveland’s regionalists, on the other hand, were delighted. They saw the Avon deal as a first big step for their ambitious new agenda to seize effective political and economic control of area suburbs.
The Democratic electoral sweep of 2008 quickly gave Cleveland’s regionalists the opening they were looking for. As Obama and the national Democrats embarked on their own transformative agenda, Democrats captured the Ohio House of Representatives for the first time in 14 years. The new House speaker, Armond Budish, a Democrat — the first speaker from Northeast Ohio in more than 70 years — pledged to enact a bold regionalist agenda across the state. With Democrat Ted Strickland in the governor’s mansion, prospects looked good for Portland-style planning agencies and a state-imposed tax-sharing program. Echoing Obama’s then–chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, Cleveland’s regionalists promised not to “waste” the financial crisis. They would seize on it instead to grant Cleveland access to the tax base of surrounding suburbs.
Mid-2009 saw the high tide of regionalism in Ohio. A group of mayors and city planners had established the Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI) for 16 counties in Northeast Ohio. The RPI was floating proposals for regional tax-base sharing and consolidation of the four Northeast Ohio MPOs into a single regional planning agency. Consolidation would grant Cleveland and a few other urban areas the power to clamp down on development in suburbs across the region.
At this point, the anti-suburban agenda of Cleveland’s regionalists began to stir opposition. Alex Kelemen, a businessman and a soon-to-be member of Hudson’s city council, led the charge, often locked in debate with Hudson’s mayor, William Currin, a leader of the regionalist forces. Kelemen pointed out that under the RPI’s tax-sharing plan, a small municipality could be forced to divert local voter-approved education funding to a large city in a different county. Not only would that be undemocratic, it would make school levies nearly impossible to pass. Kelemen decried the RPI’s regionalist plans as the product of “a Cleveland-centered bureaucracy with contempt for growing suburbs and ignorance of business.”
In Democrat-dominated Columbus, objections by Kelemen and a growing number of suburban mayors across Northeast Ohio carried little weight. Yet by late 2010, the tide had turned. Overreach by Obama and congressional Democrats on health care and the stimulus package had stirred up the tea-party rebellion. Although Ohio’s Democrats held majorities capable of imposing regional tax-base sharing and urban-dominated planning councils, they held back, sensing the conservative tide in the upcoming midterm election.