Let's return once more to John Kasich on election night in November 2010. He was so delighted with voters — and himself. “Guess what?” he told cheering supporters, “I am going to be governor of Ohio!” The victory was somewhat improbable even amid the wreckage of the deep recession. He promised to shake things up. He talked about privatization and getting rid of the income tax.
What would Kasich do? How radical would he be? Eight years later, as the governor enters his final week in office, we have the answers. One goes, not radical enough. The political world has changed rapidly around him, most evident in his unsuccessful presidential run. The guy who bounded onto the stage now fits the description of “classic conservative,” a backer of fiscal discipline, free trade, immigration and alliances, while his Republican Party takes cues from a leader who promotes brands of nationalism, nativism and protectionism.
During a recent appearance at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, the governor cited what he views as the leading achievements of his administration — the state’s fiscal condition, the creation of JobsOhio, the privatized economic development operation, and the Medicaid expansion. The first seems to ring true, the state with a budget surplus approaching $3 billion. JobsOhio? Its opaqueness long has made it hard to assess. The Medicaid expansion has been a triumph for the state.
At the Metropolitan Club, the governor joked about the expansion: “That was a really, really hard decision. It took so much courage to agree to take money from the federal government to help the mentally ill, the drug-addicted and the working poor.” So, the benefits were obvious. The achievement for the governor was maneuvering past the Republican majorities in the legislature, with many opposed or wanting to duck the question.
The result has been a sharp decline in the number of Ohioans lacking health insurance. Roughly 700,000 people living in near poverty have consistent access to care. Their health and quality of life have improved. Many report that keeping a job and finding employment are easier. Rural hospitals, especially, have been helped, the revenue bolstering their finances and the surrounding economy.
The governor’s fiscal policies are more problematic. If the surplus is real, so are the shortcomings in the steady reduction in income tax rates, plus the loss of other revenue sources.
When the governor arrived in office, there was much talk about the state’s “structural deficit.” What too few acknowledged is that the concept included the state failing to generate the dollars necessary to meet its needs. That hasn’t changed the past eight years in key areas, the state disinvesting, for instance, in higher education, cities and counties, even public schools. The governor rightly champions the state becoming more entrepreneurial in spirit. Yet entrepreneurs say they are more interested in talent than tax rates.
During the 1970s, Ohioans engaged in an intense argument about the value of an income tax. Those favoring the idea prevailed, even at the ballot box, and a bipartisan consensus largely held. That is, until 2005, when Republicans started aggressively reducing income tax rates, and the governor boosted the effort, all the tax cuts amounting today to $3 billion a year in lost revenue.
The change is profound and worrisome. That isn’t ground easily recovered. Where will Ohio find the dollars to invest?
Two days after their victory in November, Mike DeWine, the governor-elect, and Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor-elect, spoke at a conference in Columbus. Each made a point of using the L-word. They wanted lawmakers and others to know: They would listen.
Which gets to another aspect of the Kasich years, the governor’s inability to persuade his fellow Republicans to follow his lead. Remember the call for a modest increase in the severance tax on oil and gas? It never happened, and neither did applying the sales tax to a wide range of services, or, more recently, regulating gun sales or addressing algae in Lake Erie.
Perhaps that is partly explained by the governor’s steadfast and admirable opposition to President Trump, who shows disdain for the experience and knowledge the governor values. Then again, in a business all about building relationships, John Kasich really isn’t much of a listener. Soon, he will be in a place where he can just talk.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.