Ohio Legislature Languishes as News of Jobs Cuts Ring In New Year

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OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: In the traditional and predictable barrage of stories recounting the ups and downs of the year recently ended, the saga of highs and lows for Ohioans is tantamount to a blood-draining, white-knuckle ride on the Mean Streak roller coater at Cedar Point along Lake Erie.

From the first day of business in 2007 when new Democratic officials walked into offices only Republicans had held dominion over since 1991, everyone knew the power equilibrium shift would produce its fair share of news. The subsequent months did not disappoint.

THE OFFICEHOLDERS THEY ARE A CHANGING

On his first day in office, new Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, aided by new Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, let everyone know that business as usual, which is what so soured Ohioans on Republican rule, would be very different. Pulling out his veto pen, Strickland scrubbed a lead-paint-manufacturer protection bill designed by Republicans who sensed the coming electoral tide would wash away their impressive voting majority. Using their overwhelming numbers to force-feed lopsided bills in the waning days of a lame duck session to then-Governor Bob Taft, who despite having the lowest approval rating of any governor was still compliant enough to go along with nearly all bills sent to him, GOP elected leaders sought to maximize the machine they had built up over the decades to reward business backers and penalize unions and consumers.

One of the constitutional quirks associated with Strickland’s veto of the bill Taft didn't sign was more about counting what constituted the 10-day period between the legislature passing it and the bill being delivered to Taft. In the end, the Ohio Supreme Court undid Strickland's veto. The all-Republican supremes ruled that both Strickland and Brunner performed illegal acts. The industry-backed bill, which also effectively neutered Ohio's consumer sales practices act, is again the law of the land.

But even though year-end news reports crowed about the hug- and love-fest between defensive Republican legislators and an aggressive Democratic governor over the state’s two-year budget, the steady drip of bad economic news, highlighted by the raging debacle of subprime home loans and the devastating impact they will have on Ohio going forward, continued unabated.

SAY HELLO TO THE NEW NEWS, SAME AS THE OLD NEWS

On the first business day of 2008, that drip continued as headlines announced the loss of another 900 jobs by National City Corp., a regional bank headquartered in Cleveland. Hit hard by mortgage-related delinquencies and defaults, the job cuts announced by National City, the number of which will affect Ohio still not known, are the newest in a litany of indicators foretelling that Ohio’s economy is likely to pale further before it perks up and prospers.

And what seems like good economic news for individual Ohioans, who are worried about more job losses – Ohio lost 11,500 jobs during the 12 months since October 2006 – a tanking state unemployment fund, how to pay for health care for themselves and their families, keeping up with the ever-rising of a college education, paying for rising costs for food and fuel, the news that their personal income tax obligations will be reduced by 4.2 percent is good news for them but bad news for the state, which is already murmuring about adjusting the love budget in light of reduced revenue from property, income an sales taxes. This personal tax reduction represents the fourth of five annual cuts Republicans pushed through in 2005. With next year’s final phase, Ohioans will see the dollars they send to the state reduced by a full 21 percent. But what they keep in their pockets will not be available to fund many of the services they expect government to provide.

Even though he promised during his campaign to restore dental coverage – paid for by Medicaid – for about 700,000 low-income Ohioans who Republicans kicked off the rolls to reduce the state-share outlay, Strickland said the steady increase in Medicaid cases over during the second half of the year forced to him to delay on delivering on that promise, which also included increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates to health providers and institutions.

Ohio is not alone in its economic struggles, although it does share the ignominious status along with two other states of still having fewer jobs today than it did when the Bush recession of 2001 came to an official end. In a report by Stateline.org that gives a snapshot of noteworthy 2007 news from each state, it shows that Ohio has the longest legislative session of the seven states with full-year legislatures.

THE LETHARGIC, LANGUISHING LEGISLATURE

With a professional class of legislators in session year in and year out, whether they are in Columbus doing the people’s business or not, the sweet and sour of this situation oozes irony and should cause Ohioans a little heartburn, given on-again-off-again, love-hate relationship with government.

They hate government, as they’ve been inculcated to to think for decades; but they also love it, because when they had a chance in 2005 to change the Ohio Constitution in ways that would have radically changed how government worked, they resoundingly voted against those sensible changes.

The 132 members of the Ohio General Assembly met a total of 37 days in the House and 43 in the Senate. From a production standpoint, about 700 bills have been introduced so far but only 27 have become law. From a cost standpoint, the combination of base salaries for legislators of $58,933 a year and the cost of their staffs – Senate employs about 125 staffers, House employs 190 staffers -- comes to about $12.3 million per year for the Senate [or $24.6 million for the biennium] and $22 million for the House [or $44 million for the biennium] add up to a cool $68.6 million.

So in the best scenario, based on the country’s longest legislative session, what do Ohioans get in return for the $93,972 per day operating tab they pay for? But in a year like 2007 when legislators managed to show up for only 80 days, that figure skyrockets to $428,750 per day. And for what?

After passing Ohio’s $52.3 billion two-year budget, lawmakers make their mark with bills that allowed AT&T (SB117) to enter into video franchise agreements on a statewide basis rather than community by community; made touching in strip clubs illegal (SB16); brought the hammer down on rogue commercial fishers (SB77) and shut down (HB177) the state’s fast growing video game parlors.

Interesting issues legislators didn't act upon were high-treatment centers and green license plates for sex offenders; illegal immigrants; booster seats for 4-8 year olds; allowing race tracks to show old races customers can bet on; cervical cancer treatments for pre-teens and banning abortions.

WORDS OF WARNING OR WISDOM?

Hanging high on the walls of the inner sanctum of the Ohio Statehouse press room is an oblong sign with the following quotation on it: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session." Having worked in that room for years as a credentialed Statehouse reporter and knowing the cynical, sardonic attitude most reporters, especially those who had covered the hallowed halls the longest, harbor about motivations and means of Ohio's professional class of legislators, interpreting it as both a a slice of wisdom and a serving of warning seems fair and balanced.

If Ohio really wants to move forward, it should do what Indiana is proposing to do, namely reduce its bloated, costly government. One big step for Ohioans, one giant leap for Ohio, would be to pass a constitutional amendment to limit the days
the Ohio legislature is in session. By doing so, it will save tens of millions of dollars in the process, prevent the introduction of hundreds of worthless bills, focus the attention of legislators on what is really important and give them a prescribed but limited time to tackle those issues so voters can either toss them out for a better model or reenlist them for another term in office. But by allowing them endless time to play their inside-baseball games of pride, power and prejudice, the once great state now fallen on hard times will be the worse for wear.

With voting issues starting to bubble again, 2008 promises to be another election year Ohioans and the nation won’t soon forget.

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@www.epluribusmedia.org

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