A massive corruption scandal just then breaking in Cleveland-centric Cuyahoga County also stymied the regionalists’ plans. The idea of forcing suburban taxpayers to bail out a corrupt and mismanaged Cuyahoga County government in an election year was a nonstarter.
With President Obama’s help, however, that was far from the end of the line for Ohio’s regionalist agenda. Deeply committed to redistributive regionalism, in 2009 the Obama administration hailed Ohio’s RPI proposals as a national model. A year later, Northeast Ohio received a coveted “regional planning grant” under Obama’s little-known but potentially revolutionary Sustainable Communities Initiative. Despite a Republican resurgence in Ohio and victory for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Kasich, in 2010, the regionalists in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County would get a new shot at transforming the state.
The same crowd that ran NOACA and the RPI now took on leadership roles in the group created by Obama’s federal grant, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC). That gave Cleveland’s regionalists federal recognition, and potentially the ability to place federal-aid leverage behind their policy preferences.
NEOSCC has seen factional struggles between its bolder leftists and its more cautious political hands. The more progressive faction floats proposals like Portland-style urban-growth boundaries. Savvier regionalists understand that a piecemeal approach may quietly achieve the same end. If NEOSCC manages to merge the four metropolitan planning organizations in the 16-county region, it can then create a de facto growth boundary without formally declaring one. With weighted voting for cities, the new planning commission could block suburban development projects on a case-by-case basis.
Either tactic would deprive Ohio of jobs. For example, the state was thrilled in 2009 when a large new Barbasol shaving-cream plant located in the Cleveland exurb of Ashland, Ohio, rather than Syracuse, N.Y. Ashland extended rail, sewer, and road infrastructure out to semi-rural land to service the plant site. Urban-based “smart growth” planners would have forbidden all that as “sprawl,” and Barbasol’s new plant would now be in New York instead of Ohio.
NEOSCC is due to issue its final report in 2013, and that could spell trouble for suburban Ohio. Leaders of NEOSCC, as well as spokesmen for the RPI (often the same individuals), can be expected to press their agenda on the Ohio state legislature in 2013, particularly if Obama and the Democrats do well in 2012. A safely reelected Obama could put considerable regulatory muscle behind the group’s findings. Back in 2009, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan floated the idea of doling out federal aid in such a way as to advance the goals of Northeast Ohio’s regionalists. All Obama would have to do is condition Ohio’s receipt of various federal-aid programs on the state’s adherence to NEOSCC’s recommendations. It’s a tactic he’s used on other issues.
That only begins to describe Obama’s efforts on behalf of the regionalist agenda in Ohio. A group called Building One America (BOA) has attempted to draw politicians from inner-ring suburbs across Ohio into an alliance with city-based legislators on regionalist issues. BOA’s goal is to create in Columbus a political coalition capable of forcing tax-base sharing and large-scale regional planning on Ohio’s suburbs. BOA is run by some of the same community organizers who trained and worked with Barack Obama in his early Chicago days. Those left-leaning activists see regional tax-base sharing as the antidote to what they characterize as the greed of America’s suburbanites.
President Obama has lent BOA’s anti-suburban efforts the full prestige and resources of his administration. The White House hosted a BOA-organized conference attended by numerous Ohio politicians, for example, in July 2011. The assembled Ohio politicos heard speakers tout the advantages of Portland’s planning system as well as those of regional tax-base sharing in Minnesota. Obama’s ties to the regionalist movement run deep (as I show in my book on the topic, Spreading the Wealth). Reelect Obama and he’s sure to push for regionalism in Ohio and beyond.
In short, if President Obama is still around to help them, Ohio’s regionalists will get another bite at the apple in 2013. Tax sharing and large-scale regional planning were close to passage in 2009. With Obama backing up NEOSCC by putting strings on federal aid, and the White House supporting BOA’s coalition-building efforts in Columbus, prospects for a regionalist triumph in Ohio would be good. If Obama was in the White House and a Democrat took Ohio’s governorship in 2014, a regionalist revolution in the state would have to be reckoned more likely than not.
Be assured that if Ohio’s legislature sets up a regional tax-base-sharing scheme, it would transform the state. Legislation enabling and incentivizing the practice would surely be seized on by interests well beyond Northeast Ohio. The regionalist agenda may have come out of Cleveland, but every suburbanite in Ohio would feel the effects of its ratification by the state government.
Ohio’s regionalists will tell you that their tax-base-sharing plan is strictly voluntary. Don’t believe it. Their goal is to have Washington and Columbus create incentives and disincentives that leave suburbanites little choice but to sign on. Tax-base sharing in Ohio would be no more “voluntary” than was the agreement by Avon’s Mayor Smith to tax sharing in 2009.
So listen up, suburban Ohioans. When it comes to protecting your middle-class communities, President Obama talks a good game. Unfortunately, his well-laid anti-suburban plans tell a different story. The president and his fellow Democrats are coming for your tax money. Redistribution is the goal, and suburban Ohio is target No. 1. More broadly, Obama’s regionalist agenda is an attack on the values and way of life of suburban America. How odd it would be were Ohio’s suburban taxpayers to hand Obama the key to their own undoing. Forewarned is forearmed. Suburban Ohioans, it’s up to you.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This piece is adapted from his new book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.