Even though polls show the gubernatorial race between John Kasich and Ted Strickland tightening, Kasich seems to be solidly running away with at least one demographic – the editorial pages of Ohio’s major metropolitan newspapers. His most recent endorsement comes from the Columbus Dispatch:
As Ohio copes with economic stagnation, unemployment of 10.1 percent and a looming $8 billion shortfall in the state budget, it needs a resolute leader in the governor’s office. While Gov. Ted Strickland is admirable in many respects, leadership and executive ability have not been his strong suits. Therefore, The Dispatch endorses Republican John Kasich for governor.
Ohio’s budget is facing a crisis unlike any in memory. A deficit of such magnitude speaks to the failure of Strickland even to begin the process of putting Ohio on a sustainable fiscal basis. He should have begun two years ago to make the fundamental structural changes needed to bring the state’s spending into line with its income. Instead, he relied on federal handouts and other one-time money to put off the day of reckoning. Now that day is at hand, and he still has given voters no clue as to how he would bridge the budget gap.
Though Kasich, also, has not offered a detailed plan, he points to his nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he rose to be chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, as proof that he has the experience to deal with tough budget issues. That experience will be invaluable.
Just as important though, Ohio needs a leader who can inspire hope and not simply cope. Ohio has suffered several decades of economic decline and then was knocked flat by the recent recession. The problem is not that the state lacks the talent and know-how to recoup, but that it is adrift and hobbled by uncertainty.
The failure of Strickland and other state leaders to put the state’s finances in order aggravates the uncertainty. Business decision-makers have no idea what the future holds regarding state spending and taxation. They have no way of judging whether Ohio in the next decade will be a good place to invest and expand.
A forceful figure is needed to start making decisions to end the uncertainty. The decisions will hurt, but they can’t be avoided. Someone must take responsibility for hitting the reset button. Kasich has the personality, the drive and the backbone to do this.
Strickland is a decent, thoughtful and caring man, but he has reacted to events instead of taking charge of them. He patches and improvises instead of rebuilding foundations. He seeks to avoid hard choices and passes off aspirations as accomplishments.
Several moments in Strickland’s term illustrate these weaknesses. First is the failure to set the state on a path toward budget soundness. Instead of taking the steps to fundamentally realign the state’s spending with its income, he put this off and leaped at revenue-raising expedients, such as allowing slot machines at the state’s horse-racing tracks.
That plan, though derailed by legal challenges, still undercut Ohio’s traditional opposition to expanded gambling. Seizing on this, casino interests won voters’ approval for a constitutional amendment giving them a gambling monopoly at bargain rates. Only a small percentage of casino proceeds are earmarked for local government, and Ohio’s general fund will reap no significant benefit from the casinos. Thus, with one opportunity to establish gambling on the best terms for Ohio taxpayers, Strickland failed.
The governor showed initiative in convening a panel of contractors, labor organizations and others to reform the state’s archaic and costly contracting rules for public construction projects. Every other state in the Union has abandoned such rules. But then, underlining his lack of leadership, he allowed members of his own party to stymie the measure in the Democrat-dominated Ohio House, winning only a few “demonstration projects” and allowing real reform to be postponed for years. As a result, Ohio taxpayers will continue to be dunned for billions of dollars in inflated construction costs every year until these regulations are changed.
Finally, having declared that if he didn’t reform education funding, he would consider himself a failed governor, Strickland unveiled a plan that calls for billions of dollars in new spending every year but included no means whatsoever to pay for it. He hopes that future legislatures will provide the money. With this, he declared that he has given the state a constitutional system of education funding, even as school districts brace for cuts in state support. He calls this his evidence-based funding plan, but what Ohio needs is a reality-based funding plan.
It is unfortunate that Strickland has run a campaign largely based on character attacks against Kasich instead of offering Ohio a vision for the future.
Of the two candidates, Kasich is the person most likely to tackle Ohio’s problems head-on. He is most likely to push reluctant legislators in both parties to make necessary decisions. He is most likely to tell Ohioans that a fundamental realignment of state priorities must be made now.
However, Kasich cannot do these things alone. No governor can. He would need a strong team of smart, experienced advisers, another area in which Strickland often has been lacking. Because Kasich is willful, his team should include people strong enough to give him good counsel.
Some of Kasich’s ideas raise concerns, particularly his declaration that he will not raise taxes and that he would do away with the income tax. Balancing Ohio’s budget without additional revenue is a tall order. But his goal in making these declarations is to show that he wants to make the state an attractive place for development and economic growth. Nevertheless, the Ohio Constitution requires a balanced budget, and arithmetic is inflexible.
To give him his due, Strickland assumed office at one of the worst moments in the history of Ohio. But with hard times likely to persist, his performance does not inspire confidence. A change in leadership is required. Ohio voters should elect John Kasich as their next governor.