While the national spotlight has been on Wisconsin’s efforts to downsize state government and get structural deficits under control, Ohio also has been moving to rationalize its state government in an era of high unemployment and static state revenue.
The Buckeye State will soon consider the budget proposals of newly elected Republican Gov. John Kasich, which would close Ohio’s $8 billion, two-year budget deficit by, among other things, reducing payments to localities, restructuring Medicaid and selling five state prisons. As in similar reform efforts in Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana and other states with Republican governors, no tax increases are proposed.
Earlier, the governor supported separate legislation to give state and local governments more control over program costs and how localities can best deliver vital public services. That bill would allow government workers to continue to bargain collectively over wages, hours and terms of employment. Elected local officials would gain more power over work rules. Supporters argue that local officials representing taxpayers would be better able to control costs by seeking innovative and creative ways to provide necessary public services such as education. That bill has passed the Ohio Senate and is awaiting action in the House.
A key player to enacting this ambitious agenda is House Speaker William G. Batchelder, a conservative stalwart and defender of limited constitutional government for nearly four decades. His record reveals a consistent champion of job creation, economic development and educational choice. He was a major state leader for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, and President Reagan appointed his wife, Alice, to the federal bench. He was elected speaker by the Republican caucus in January. Mr. Batchelder is determined not to let this opportunity for real reform to slip away.
“The governor and I both believe that this is the time for real reform in Ohio. The state has lost 600,000 jobs and two congressional seats. Our industrial base has been eroding. How can anyone in good conscience defend the status quo?” he says.
Mr. Batchelder strongly defends the absence of tax increases in the governor’s budget. “The Tax Foundation ranks us 46th out of 50 in business climate, and we have the seventh-highest tax burden in the country. We have to compete for industry, entrepreneurs and jobs with other states. We can’t do that if we keep increasing taxes.”
The Kasich budget is chock-full of reforms for gigantic state programs. Mr. Batchelder points to the education proposals that would allow parents and teachers to take over failing schools and convert them into charter schools as a way to improve educational performance.
He also touts the proposals to reform Medicaid. He is enthusiastic about plans to get pregnant women into the medical system earlier in their pregnancies to reduce births of underweight babies. He also notes that 4 percent of Medicaid patients consume more than half of Medicaid spending and offers ideas on how this care can be better coordinated and streamlined.
The separate bill to reform collective bargaining for government workers is also before the House. Mr. Batchelder is firm in his belief that limiting bargaining to wages is essential to restoring solvency to local governments across Ohio, especially because the state budget proposes reductions in payments to localities. To cite one example, he quotes the five-year projections 613 school districts provided to the Ohio Department of Education, which show that by 2015, compensation costs to teachers, administrators and staff are projected to swallow 96 percent of all revenue in those districts. “Obviously, we have to change the status quo,” he says. “Our bargaining reforms, along with enhanced programs for charter schools and vouchers, can make Ohio a leader in educational policy.”
Mr. Batchelder says that though these extensive reform proposals have created controversy, he is confident that the budget and the government-union reforms will become law. “Like I said, the status quo is unacceptable. The people of Ohio know that. What we have been doing is not working. I believe these reforms will enable us to once again create jobs, keep our young people at home and point the way to a brighter future for all citizens of Ohio.”
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC.