John Kasich often marvels at his accomplishments in the governor’s office. Fantastic, awesome, unprecedented are just a few of the superlatives that surface in his remarks, even “miracle” making an appearance.
How then to describe the record of John Gilligan?
Kasich boasts about his partnership with the legislature. Yet both chambers are dominated by fellow Republicans, and the governor still hasn’t gained approval of his proposed Medicaid expansion.
When Gilligan stepped into the governor’s job in January 1971, he faced Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Nearly a year later, the Cincinnati Democrat signed into law the state’s first personal income tax. The word “transformational” has been so overused that it has become something of a platitude, and thus robbed of its impact when it actually fits, as it does in the case of Gilligan and his four years leading the state.
Gilligan died last week at age 92 after a long illness. Richard Celeste, a former governor, got it right in the Columbus Dispatch obituary, telling the paper that Gilligan “laid the groundwork for what I would call the modernization and competitiveness of Ohio. He probably never got the credit for it that he deserved.”
The story about how the income tax prevailed at the Statehouse has been told many times, the pledge during the race for governor, the tax study commission headed by the Kroger chairman, the divisions among Republicans, the interim budgets, Gilligan applying the pressure, even closing the state parks. Worth emphasizing today is why he pushed so hard for its enactment.
Policies of low taxes and low spending resulted in a state of neglect, Ohio suffering from embarrassing comparisons usually aimed at the likes of Mississippi. Gilligan cited cities in decline, the pollution afflicting Lake Erie, the plight of the poor and vulnerable. The state relied too heavily on property taxes. He argued the tax system would benefit from a component reflecting the ability to pay. Other large, complex states, for instance, Michigan and California, had taken the step.
What may have made the strongest impression was the condition of the public schools. The state share of funding had fallen below 30 percent. For a time, the Youngstown schools shut down, the same happening to several other districts, unable to operate because they lacked the resources.
A Gilligan campaign slogan went: “We can do better.” The income tax bolstered the state’s finances, providing a mechanism for steady investment in the items that would help the state advance — in education, opportunity, public works and quality of life, all factors that are crucial today to success in a global economy.
Yet the income tax hardly is the whole story. Consider just a partial list of the achievements on his watch:
•?The creation of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Transportation.
•?A restructuring of state government, merging departments, separating mental health from corrections.
•?Requirements for financial disclosure by elected officials, campaign finance reform and the creation of the Ohio Ethics Commission.
•?The state’s first minimum wage law, plus improvements in unemployment compensation, workplace safety and consumer protection.
•?A law to reform the destructive practice of strip-mining.
The job got a bit easier when in 1972 Democrats gained control of the Ohio House and narrowed the gap in the state Senate. Gilligan appeared headed for re-election in 1974. Ohio voters overwhelmingly had defeated a bid to repeal the income tax.
His narrow loss to James Rhodes has been much analyzed, a confluence of factors in play, including a tense relationship with John Glenn, who won the ’74 U.S. Senate race, capturing roughly 1 million more votes than Gilligan. Lee Leonard of the Columbus Dispatch, writing in early 1991 about Richard Celeste, sized up Gilligan: He just wasn’t good at telling people want they wanted to hear.
Even those who liked him understood that Gilligan could be arrogant and abrasive, his sharp wit getting him into trouble, most famously with a crack at the Ohio State Fair: “I shear taxpayers, not sheep.” Yet there is something appealing about a politician resistant to the now familiar packaging of candidates.
Gilligan admired how Adlai Stevenson talked to voters as adults.
In that way, the public character deserves highlighting, or his willingness to engage and lead. Gilligan came of age politically when the vast majority of Americans admired the federal government. They could see the difference made in ordinary lives. He brought that spirit to his public life, from a decade on the Cincinnati City Council starting in the 1950s to a term in Congress to four decades later contributing as a member of the Cincinnati school board. He held to the concept of achieving together what each of us cannot do alone.
Take a look. Practically nothing of significance that he accomplished as governor has been reversed or abandoned. That reinforces the stakes when some talk easily about jettisoning the income tax. If the state still has much to do, it gained under John Gilligan the framework required for pursuing a better Ohio.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.