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Dear public employees: Be afraid

Published: Sun, November 14, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

It was a verbal shot heard round the state of Ohio: “Please leave the cynicism and political maneuvering at the door, because we need you on the bus. And if you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus. I’m not kidding.”

So said Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich two days after he had scored a stunning victory over Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who was seeking a second four-year term.

Kasich, a former congressman, state senator, Lehman Brothers executive and television talk show host on Fox News Channel, made the comments — and others of equal sharpness — to a gathering of Statehouse lobbyists. The governor-elect’s bottom line: You had better get on board with impending budget cuts.

But the warning could easily apply to public employees who either directly or indirectly feed from the state’s financial trough.

“Changes are coming,” Kasich said. “Some of it will be uncomfortable for people, but this is our chance to save this state. I don’t think there’s much time left. Our brand is starting to change now and we need to rebuild it, and we can.”

Chain saw massacre?

So, what are the changes? The details have not been made public, but given that the new Republican governor and the Republican controlled House and Senate next year will not raise taxes, it’s a safe bet that a chain saw will be taken to the next biennium state budget which is expected to have a deficit of $4 billion to $8 billion at current spending levels.

Public sector workers in Ohio beware. The days of wine and roses will soon be a memory.

Indeed, during the campaign, Kasich made it clear that the manpower reductions implemented by Strickland over the past four years were inadequate and that more are needed.

Strickland’s first biennium budget had the lowest growth in spending in 42 years. In response to the national recession, the governor slashed outlays by $1.5 billion.

The current budget reflects a reduction in government spending by nearly $2 billion, compared with actual spending in the previous budget. And that was before a $851 million hole.

In other words, the Democratic governor reduced the size of government to the level it was during the Reagan era.

From February 2007, at the beginning of the Strickland administration, to last September, the state’s workforce was decreased by 4,670 employees — 63,559 to 58,889.

But, during the campaign, Kasich argued that not enough had been done to reduce the size and cost of government — and the voters agreed.

So, now, the chain saw is being oiled and readied.

While Kasich has kept his budget cutting plans close to the vest, one long-time Republican political operative in Columbus offered this observation: Everything is on the table.

What does that mean? Here’s how he framed it: The days of college professors making $100,000, teaching one class a semester and spending the rest of their time in their offices or on sabbatical are over.

In other words, education funding — state colleges and universities and even kindergarten through high school — is going to take a hit. So are social service agencies, libraries and even programs for the poor.

There are no sacred cows.

Collective bargaining law

Kasich, who was strongly supported by business groups, had said during the campaign that he wanted to reexamine Ohio’s collective bargaining law, passed in 1983, that gives public employees the right to bargain, seek arbitration and to strike. Only safety forces are prohibited from striking.

There also is chatter in Columbus about looking at whether Ohio could become more competitive as a right-to-work state.

The Republicans have taken over state government and have marginalized the Democrats. Thus the agenda they’re pursuing is one that takes aim at what they see as the problem with government: too many overpaid employees.

And here’s a bet they can’t lose: If Kasich and the GOP-controlled General Assembly go after public employees’ pensions, they’ll have widespread support from Ohioans working in the private sector.

And, Kasich will be able to launch his presidential campaign — as an anti-big-government conservative.

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