In Ohio: Battleground State Battles

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: The label “battleground state” generally refers to a state whose Electoral College votes can make or break a race for the White House. Ohio, the nation’s 7th largest state with 20 such votes, has been so designated in previous election cycles and is predicted to again defend that title this year.

This year the moniker "battleground state" may more aptly describe the breakout of intra-state battles taking shape over the budget, voting systems and energy. These battles are creating fissures between Republicans, who still rule the roost at the legislature and office of auditor, and Democrats, who for the first time in 16 years control the executive branch and offices of attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.

BURGEONING BATTLES FOR BUCKEYES

The major battle this year will be over a budget that seems doomed to deficit if the state’s ailing economy worsens, as many expect to happen as the nation’s economy falters from performance drags tied to unbridled, unregulated subprime lending and the home foreclosure mess it spawned, continuing jobs losses, rising unemployment, inflation exacerbated by sky-high fuel and food costs and a palatable anxiety that no matter what they do, elected officials have little ability to straightening out the economic twists and turns in the road ahead.

Governor Ted Strickland, now embarking on his second year as the first Democrat to hold the office since 1990, is caught in the headlights of an oncoming recession some say has already arrived, checked in and is unpacking; ready for a long stay here, as it's doing with our northern neighbor, Michigan.

What is bedeviling Strickland, a United Methodist minister, is the reversal of fortune that now projects the state could face a budget shortfall of as little as $733 million or as much as $1.9 billion by the end of its biennial budget cycle in 2009. This dramatic turnaround from the $56 million surplus the former five-term Congressman and state lawmakers built into the budget that won unanimous approval from all quarters in the second quarter of 2007 is not the “Turnaround Ohio” program he campaigned on in 2006.

What’s a governor to do? The state cupboard, already scant from job losses (15,300 lost last year, 13,800 of them in manufacturing), reduced revenues from a 2005 tax reform package for individuals and corporations, rising Medicaid costs that budget managers say may require digging deep to ferret out an additional $207.3 million to cover the state share, fall out from the subprime lending debacle that has hit Ohio hard, is seen as the backstop of last resort to keep spirits up in the face of the souring reality of every day life for many?

For Strickland, who has assiduously steered clear of talk of raising taxes for fear Republicans will bayonet him now and again in three years when he runs for a second term for being the kind of tax and spend Democrat Ohioans have been taught by decades of Republicans to be wary of, one distasteful but practical option is to lighten the load of the ship of state by offloading employees with offers of buyouts to limit the drag their costs impose on state finances, and to look to agency spending reductions where possible.

"I don't want to (deal with this) in a meat-ax approach," Strickland said in an interview. "We want to do everything possible to maintain services to the people of Ohio … but we've got to do it at less cost and more efficiently."

When asked if state layoffs are likely, Strickland said, "I think it would be unrealistic to assume that personnel reductions would not occur." [Gov. Strickland, Dispatch]

A second battle, one fought before but being resurrected again during an important election year, is over how some Ohioans will vote in the state’s March 4th primary election and how all Ohioans will vote in the November general election.

For a candidate whose main applause-generating campaign stump speech closing line was that if she did her job of running elections right nobody would know her name in the same way Ohioans and others know the name of Katherine Harris of Florida in 2000 and Ken Blackwell in Ohio in 2004, Brunner appears to have set a new all-time record in the name recognition dash. The notoriety that took Mr. Blackwell four years to earn, Jennifer Brunner, who based her campaign on reforming elections in Ohio, has breezed to it in less than one year.

Brunner is waging a battle with her local election officials, respected national election-law and election-operation experts, concerned advocates and activists, state lawmakers, county commissioners and even former supporters who are both confused and angered by her self-righteous, high-handed management style over her intransigence to deviate from voting reforms that are costly and, many say, rightfully deserve further discussion but ought not to be force fed to them in a pell-mell fashion during an election year that promises to see a record turnout of voters.

Making headlines early in 2006 by firing the four bi-partisan members of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Brunner has since produced a $1.9 study of Ohio’s voting machines and recommendations she is saying she would be remiss in not heeding but which local election officials are chaffing at and the Ohio GOP says shows what a bully she is at heart.

Showing no quarter in wielding her first-year authority as election chief to force a costly statewide change in voting machines on everyone by November, Brunner created enough hostility toward her and her plan that a growing chorus says is an overreaction to touch-screen machine vulnerabilities that the mounting forces bucking her juggernaut of judgement are formidable enough that she decided the better part of valor was to back down from her staunch stand to replace those machines with optical scanners for all 88 counties by November.

The new sheriff in town, as some fans of western movies who may think she’s Wyatt Earp in a skirt have called her, is also experience growing headwinds from several counties that for reasons of cost alone think her directive ordering paper ballots available for any voter that wants one in each of Ohio’s 11,360 voting precincts is a bit much. She’s also been battered by election experts and advocates who think not providing voters a chance to correct ballots before casting them will result in more not fewer valid votes, which will be officially tabulated at vote centers instead of at each precinct as they’ve been done for ages.

It seems both ironic and detached from the real world that at a time when Ohio’s governor is contemplating thinning the herd of government employees as a politically expedient tactic to avoid going into the red, Brunner is ready to pitch $100 million of voting equipment and spend at least a third of that, and maybe more, to buy another generation of machines that are beset with their own gremlins. It sounds noble to talk about security and the need for voter confidence, but money doesn't grow on trees in Ohio like it used to. For average Ohioans who don't see their paychecks expanding enough to keep up with inflation and who know well their shrinking dollar doesn't buy what it used to, Brunner's spend at all costs style seems profligate at best and divorced from economic reality at worst. They have their own ideas about what their precious public dollars should be spent on, and a wholesale replacement of one system with another may not be the smartest thing for Brunner to do now.

As for security, many local election officials are saying their touch screen work fine, are easy to use, voters are familiar with them and are great for disabled voters. If security is indeed the priority, as Brunner contends, a lot fewer dollars will be needed if more training of poll workers, more hands-on help from machine vendors are pursued to quell the queasiness Brunner obviously has with existing voting systems.

Brunner came out charging, set in her ways and acting with the kind of hubris that is found atop Mt. Olympus. She found some surprises along the way, not the least of which has been the battles of her own making she now has to fight and that may produce more confusion, distrust and political antipathy than she wagered on.

A third intra-state battle is over energy reform. Described as the biggest issue facing the legislature for the remainder of the year by Republican Jon Husted, Speaker of the Ohio House, the plan proposed by Strickland is a hybrid framework including regulation and market competition.

Energy producers like FirstEnergy, headquartered in Akron, want to escape the grasp of state regulators. Instead, they want to claim the market as their playing field. Big energy users that often have their own contracts want affordable prices and reliable supplies. Consumers, of which there are about 4.5 million in Ohio, want rates that remain stable or that may be reduced with competition. A battle is also brewing over renewable energy components of the bill.

As the Dayton Daily News points out, future battlegrounds are being scoped out on issue sick leave, veterans, lottery profits, gambling, to name just a few.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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