Strickland Diet to Slim Down Government, Gambling Machine Expansion to Fatten Coffers

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: With Ohio staggering at the back of the pack of states in important categories like job loss and rising poverty, and with the wolf of recession roaming close by, it was only a matter of time before Governor Ted Strickland reacted to projections that his two-year state budget could be as much as $1.9 billion in the red by mid 2009.

Strickland outlined diet plans Thursday to make budget cuts he said would avoid raising taxes by keeping Ohio's budget balanced, as the state constitution mandates.

But at the same time he called for restricting various expenses, including people, facilities and purchases, he also called for an expansion of gambling machines that play Ohio Lottery games, a strategy he hopes will raise one-tenth the funds he says is needed to keep the ship of state ship-shape.

HUGS AND KISSES MORPH INTO WORRY AND FEARS

Strickland has watched with batted breath as Ohio’s economy continues to suffer from job losses, especially those in manufacturing, rising food and fuel costs, the devastating impact of home foreclosures, especially in Cleveland, its largest city, and the growing ranks of seniors and others who account for a rise in the state’s ranks of working poor.

The glad-handing, hugs and smiles between Republican legislators and Strickland, the first Democratic in 16 years to be governor, celebrating the adoption of a unanimously passed $52.3 billion biennial budget bill in June 2007July is long gone; replaced by words of worry and caution that saw the first course correction Thursday.

STRICKLAND'S BUDGET-BALANCING DIET

The Strickland budget reduction diet will consist of cutting between 1,500 and 2,700 state jobs and closing two mental health facilities. The projected cost reductions of $733 million are closer to the low end of projected budget shortfalls than the high end of nearly $2 billion. However, if more weight loss is required, Strickland said he would raid the state’s $1 billion “rainy day” fund, established as a reserve fund for emergencies.

The first-term governor now beginning his second year said the personnel cuts will be found in positions not filled, buyouts, early retirements and, finally, layoffs, which he said “it would be reasonable to think several hundred.”

“I believe today’s decision is the most common-sense approach. The budget reductions I’m ordering today represent real sacrifice.” [Gov. Strickland, Columbus Dispatch]

Strickland told reporters and others that he will move forward with plans to expand the children’s health insurance program to cover children in families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, $42,925 a year for a family of three, according to published reports that also said dental benefits to adult Medicaid recipients also will be restored later this year.

Continuing, he said planned Medicaid rate increases to hospitals not be implemented yet but that community providers, including doctors, will receive a planned increase.

Strickland, a five-term Congressman who represented a mostly rural district noted for its right-leaning political bent, campaigned on not raising taxes, a policy he was forced to adopt to deflect attacks by Republicans that he was just another “tax and spend liberal.” Strickland has not only held steadfast in not seeking to raise taxes, but to the great chagrin and consternation of Republicans, he took a page from their political playbook by proposing and winning for reduced property taxes for all seniors 65 and older.

Further confounding the powerful forces of fiscal conservatism, he has taken a hands-off approach to a five year, across-the-board income tax reduction plan passed by former Republican Governor Bob Taft and his top-heavy Republican legislature.

Being of humble birth himself, Strickland is the antithesis of flash or bling. Setting a tone early in his administration that he was anything but a big spender, Strickland issued an executive order banning the purchase of lunches and meals by state agencies under his control. He practiced what he preached at the governor’s mansion, where he and his wife, Francis, buy their own groceries except when he and the state’s first lady are hosting large government events.

Accordingly, his budget reduction diet includes new restrictions on hiring, travel and printing and equipment purchases.

By taking this middle road of cutting people and facilities and limiting operational costs first, Strickland hopes it will be enough to keep faith in tact his education funding proposal to colleges and universities who agreed to freeze tuition in return for increased state funding, and so he can push forward with an expansion of children’s heath care.

GAMBLING: GOOD FOR GOVERNMENT, BAD FOR CASINOS

But what is richly ironic, as noted in this published report, is Strickland’s plan to raise upwards of $73 million through an expansion of the Ohio Lottery, which entails placing state-run electronic gambling machines in bars and taverns throughout the state that will allow Ohioans to play paper versions of numbers games like keno.

The surprise of this strategy comes from the combined efforts last year of Strickland, Attorney General Marc Dann, a new Democrat in that position, and the Republican-led legislature to outlaw video slot machines because they were deemed games of chance not skill, and as such were illegal.

Furthermore, for a state who major elected officials have historically been opponents of casino gambling and whose citizenry twice turned down statewide gambling issues in the 1990s and a, third time as recently as last year, the raising of more state revenue to keep the coffers from running dry until the economy improves, which by many accounts is a long, long time coming, is an example of political irony, some might even say hypocrisy, that will certainly not go unnoticed by backers of a new casino resort they say will create 5,000 jobs and generate about $200 million in tax revenues and appears likely to be on the November ballot.

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.
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I find the whole gambling-for-taxes thing very confusing. States tend not to allow gambling except on riverboats or reservations. But they want the revenue but at the same time have weird nimby attitudes.

Are examples of the grapes of intolerance that have been planted in Ohio's rich soil and supported by social conservatives, including governors of recent memory and the General Assemblies they governed with. These faces of intolerance have a corresponding economic impact on the body politic.

Social conservatives and their fiscal conservative brethren still constitute a powerful political force here. They rallied in 2004 to change the Ohio constitution to ban gay marriage, and elected George W. Bush to a second term in the process. Then, in 2007, in response to their threat to again change the constitution to effectively outlaw adult business and unemploy the strippers key to their appeal, the legislature capitulated to them by passing an silly but strict anti-adult-industry bill.

While it doesn't outlaw the industry, it will severely curtail tax revenue at a time when Ohio finds itself walking through the valley of the shadow of budge deficits. Their morality plays have a concomitant business impact. While all Ohio's surrounding neighbors allow gambling and accept tax revenue from those operations, Ohio, being the island of morality its citizens have created for themselves, is faced with balancing its budget by reducing expenditures by laying off government workers or reducing services, such as shuttering two mental health facilities. Has anybody asked what happens to the inmates of these institutions?

Meanwhile, the Elmer Gantry's of anti-gambling have been on the rise since the early 1980s. Ohio voters, who drive to neighboring states or fly to Las Vegas to get their gambling fix satisfied, have turned down gambling initiatives here three times since the 1990s. The most recent was last year, when a group proposed sharing a portion of its revenues (not enough by most observers) to fund scholarships. I'm surprised they didn't include buying a puppy for every new born as part of the proposal's bag of carrots.

Also last year, the beliefs and attitude of this group was the political riptide that set Gov. Strickland, a United Methodist minister, and the Republican-led legislature to ban video slot machines by clarifying the difference between a game of skill (legal) or chance (illegal), which is the definition the nearly 60,000 video slot machines sweeping the state fell under. Strickland, AG Dann and Republican legislators can pat themselves on another good job done to make Ohio a little less fun and diminish their budget coffers accordingly.

But Ohioans may get yet another chance this November to vote down the evils they say will come if casino-style gambling is allowed to plant its flag on Ohio turf. Ohio's senior US senator George V. Voinovich, who opposed gambling during his two terms as governor, criticized Strickland for expanding Ohio Lottery keno game machines to offset budget cuts, called it a bad idea that will lead to Ohio's eventual adoption of gambling. To this eventual horror, he said "Katie bar the door."

But the prospect of 5,000 new jobs and $200 million in revenue the project could bring may be reason enough to ask Katie to unbar the door and step aside, so Ohioans who have lost their jobs can become employed again and so Ohio, which is looking into the abyss of recession again, might see that a glass of beer to a thirsty man is just as thirst quenching as a glass of pure water.

The moral high road some have forced Ohio to go down is full of twists and turns, ditches and dead-end off roads that Ohio can't afford to travel on anymore, in my opinion.