In the previous two-year state budget, John Kasich made spending cuts inevitable. The governor and his Republican allies already faced the task of closing a projected gap between revenues and expenditures. Then they chose not to raise taxes, even had in mind reducing tax rates.
One target for reduction was the Local Government Fund, a longstanding revenue-sharing mechanism. It was slashed by 50 percent. Tangible personal property tax reimbursements were reduced, and the estate tax was eliminated.
In recent days, Tim Keen, the director of the office of budget and management, and policy adviser Randy Cole have sought to place those cuts in a broader context, pushing back against critics. By including all funds that find their way to the local level — among them Medicaid dollars, school funding and transportation grants — the two have calculated that local revenues are expected to increase by almost $2 billion from 2011, when Kasich took office, to 2014.
Looked at this way, the Local Government Fund amounts to just about 2.5 percent of all state support. So, Keen and Cole seem to ask: What’s all the fuss? This latest after-the-fact explanation for the local government cuts follows a previous effort citing the need to cull and make more efficient the many overlapping layers of local government.
More, the Kasich team points out that local revenues are increasing as the economy improves. It adds that there has not been a rush to put local tax levies on the ballot.
The flaws in this analysis start with that levy count. Local officials know well that recession-battered voters are unlikely to approve new tax money until the recovery gains more strength. Meanwhile, Keen and Cole opt for a convenient starting point (2011), overlooking where local governments stood financially before the recession. In Summit County, general fund revenues are getting better — rising from $97 million in 2012 to $100 million this year. In 2008, general fund revenues were $112 million. There is still a way to go.
It is true that local governments badly need re-engineering, through sharing services if not merging outright. Yet, in the end, it is simply too much to pretend they haven’t been squeezed hard, with little funding available to help them study in detail what is required to run things more efficiently.
Simply put, reductions in general operating revenues cannot be made up easily. Money that is passed through, designated for specific purposes, isn’t money available when it comes to hiring law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers or assistant prosecutors. From that perspective, things are clear enough: A governor who relied on spending cuts to balance the budget now is scrambling to put the best face on the choice he made.