- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

MEDINA, Ohio (AP) - Ohio Gov. John Kasich used his annual State of the State speech Monday to pledge a new round of tax cuts, propose using casino money for a plan to boost ties between communities and schools and said state higher education funding will be tied to course completion and graduation.

Kasich also pushed the importance of vocational training as an alternative route for some students, proposed giving veterans free academic credits for training and experience they received in the military, and promised a new fight against smoking in the state.

In a dramatic moment, Kasich presented his annual courage awards to three women who survived a decade-long captivity in Cleveland after they were rescued in May when one of the women pushed her way through a door to freedom.

The governor also used the 64-minute speech to indirectly ask Ohio voters to support him over likely Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald in November.

Citing a spiritual mission to “bring about a healing” before he dies, he said being governor to all Ohioans is his life and mission. He likened his first term to a hike up a mountain.

“After you’ve struggled through the early obstacles you get out on more solid ground, and when you get out on that more solid ground you get the first glimpse of your goal - the summit - and you come together and it lifts your spirits, and you get that extra boost to keep going,” he said.

Kasich’s tax plan would push Ohio’s inome-tax rate from 5.33 percent to below 5 percent for individuals and small businesses.

“When Ohioans have more money in their pockets, we’re being true to the fundamental idea that made our nation great,” he said to applause. “Government works for the people, not the other way around.”

Education was a key theme of the address, which took place at the Performing Arts Center in Medina. This marks the third consecutive year Kasich has taken the speech outside the Statehouse in Columbus.

Kasich proposed directing $10 million in casino revenue to get communities more involved with schools and parents more involved in their children’s education, and said he wants to make it easier for returning veterans to get civilian jobs.

“If you can drive a truck from Kabul to Kandahar in Afghanistan, don’t you think you should be able to drive a truck from Columbus to Cleveland?” he said.

Kasich will introduce a midterm budget bill soon that could be the vehicle for the policy priorities of the fourth and final year of his term.

“Our great purpose will continue to be helping every Ohioan have a chance to find a job that lets them fulfill their purpose,” he said.

House Education Chairman Gerald Stebelton said he liked the governor’s education proposals but said they’ll need careful review.

He said some proposals should be dealt with separately from a midterm budget bill. “If each idea has merit, it will stand on its own merit,” he said.

Stebelton, a Lancaster Republican, said tying higher education funding to graduation rates also raises concerns.

“The devil is in the details because universities are not in total control of what happens to their students on the paths to graduation,” he said.

He said family emergency, accidents and other events can take students out of the school cycle. “In concept, I like the idea,” he said.

FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, questioned Kasich’s budget priorities. He said Kasich was “counting on Ohioans to forget that he balanced those budgets by shifting the financial burden to the middle class and already-suffering communities.”

Minority Democrats said the governor’s actions do not match his words. They said while Kasich claimed to not raise taxes, many Ohioans are feeling the bump in the state sales tax and the removal of the homestead exemption and property tax rollbacks.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni said Kasich’s plan to cut the income tax rate wouldn’t pad the wallets of many in the middle class.

“It’s not going to change the way that they act,” said Schiavoni, a Boardman Democrat. “It’s not going to change the way that they spend. It’s not going to change anything about the way that they conduct their life.”

Republican legislative leaders pledged to review details of Kasich’s plans. They couldn’t say whether session schedules would need to be extended or changed.

“If you know anything about John Kasich, you know one thing: He’s not willing to sit back and rest,” Senate President Keith Faber said. He said the governor had given them plenty to work on through this year.

Several dozen protesters gathered outside before the speech to protest Kasich policies.

“Everything that he has done so far has been against the working class people of this state,” said Jamie Fant, of Dayton, a retired corrections officer.

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