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