By MARC KOVAC
Calling jobs “our greatest moral purpose” and defending a two-year spending plan that he says will ensure the state remains on the economic upswing, Gov. John Kasich outlined his vision for Ohio Tuesday night.
“My mission is to make sure that everybody in our state has a chance to realize their hopes and dreams and that their families can do much better,” the governor said. “Because it’s not good enough for some to do well while we leave others behind. We must [work] everyday to make sure that everyone has a chance in Ohio.”
He added, “We are succeeding here in Ohio turning our state around, and it is fantastic.”
Kasich didn’t tread too much new ground before an audience of more than 1,700 lawmakers, state officials and other invited guests gathered in an auditorium just off the northwestern Ohio city’s central square.
He reviewed statistics he’s repeated to audiences since taking office — how Ohio is now tops in the Midwest in job creation, how 120,000-plus new jobs have been created and how there’s now $1.9 billion in the formerly depleted rainy day fund.
He touted his administration’s policy decisions — controlling Medicaid spending, reducing the size of state government, lowering taxes, refunding overpayments to businesses, establishing the JobsOhio nonprofit to coordinate the state’s economic development programs.
He talked about visiting the state as a child, “the promised land” across the state border from his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pa.
“I fell in love,” Kasich said. “I sensed Ohio’s excitement then. I felt its opportunity. I knew Ohio was going to be my home. ... It’s just so awesome here.”
He added, “Ohio is a land of hope and opportunity, realized dreams for our families. We’re safe. We’re friendly. We’re filled with the potential to pursue our passions. We take care of our neighbors. Ohio is a place where we can work, contribute, build a better community. We can be a shining example.”
As he has in multiple appearances since unveiling his biennial budget earlier this month, Kasich explained his plan for a small business and personal income tax cut, sales tax cut and broadening to include services and the oil and gas tax hike. He defended the latter to lawmakers, including Republican members who continue to voice concern about the proposal.
He also asked the GOP-controlled legislature to move quickly on his plan to leverage billions of dollars for road and bridge projects using the Ohio Turnpike.
He sought backing for his school funding package, which he said will provide increased state support for the poorest school districts. The richest districts, he said, would receive about $110 per pupil, while the poorest would receive $7,500 per pupil.
And he lobbied hard for an extension of Medicaid benefits for more needy Ohioans, saying federal dollars paid by Ohio taxpayers will go to another state if the eligibility levels are not raised.
“I’m not a supporter of Obamacare,” Kasich said, adding later, “I don’t believe in the individual mandate. I don’t like a lot of the programs that are going to drive insurance rates up. But in this case, extending Medicaid benefits will help us on many levels, including the positive impact this decision can have on the mentally ill and the addicted.”
Kasich urged lawmakers to stay focused on the “mountaintop” and move his two-year, $63 billion budget despite calls from opposition to abandon the tax package, school funding reform and other provisions.
“Should we rest on our laurels?” he asked. “... Should we put the state on cruise control? ... We’re going to keep our foot on the gas in this administration, and we hope you will join us. ... The only thing that will stop us, ladies and gentlemen, is the fear of change, the fear of big ideas. Let’s not go there.”
As he did last year, Kasich presented several “Courage Awards” Tuesday night, including one honoring the teachers and staff at Chardon High School with one of three Courage Medals, marking their response to a shooting last year that left three teens dead and three others injured.
“They’re unbelievable,” the governor said, drawing on memories of his own parents’ death. “It’s not easy there, even today. It’s still tough, and they’re trying to put the pieces back together. ... We know they’re never going to be quite the same. .... They’re going to heal... because they’re tough and compassionate and smart. They’re going to make it, but what courage they showed on that fateful day, and what courage they’ve shown ever since.”
Other medals went to the late Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 astronaut and first man to step onto the surface of the moon, and Sondra Williams, an autistic woman and author who serves as director of the Autism Research Institute’s youth division.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle were supportive of some of Kasich’s ideas but questioned others.
Republican leaders of the Ohio House and Senate were complimentary of the governor’s tone and vision but noncommittal on his tax reform, Medicaid expansion and school funding proposals.
“This is a man who is looking ahead to our state’s future,” said Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Republican from Medina. “I think it’s important that as he went through those remarks, everyone realized that there was bipartisan recognition of what he was asking for, and I think it was an exciting evening for all of Ohio.”
Senate President Keith Faber, a Republican from Celina whose district includes Lima, added, “It is always a pleasure to work with a governor who is willing to lead. You got to see a bit of John Kasich’s heart tonight. ... We’re going to study the governor’s proposals in great detail, great enthusiasm, and frankly, we look forward to working with the governor.”
Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Republican from Wooster who heads the powerful finance committee, called the speech “vintage Kasich.”
“He’s very full of energy and ideas,” he said. “He’s a strong leader. And generally, the legislative process works the best when we have a governor who is presenting a lot of ideas that we can work off. I think some of them will need shaped, but I think he’s given us a package of proposals that he addressed today that we can work with and help make the state better....”
Statehouse Democrats, meanwhile, remained supportive of Kasich’s plan to expand medical coverage and other services to the needy, but they remained opposed to other parts of his biennial budget.
“The tax cuts for small businesses is something that would be beneficial for our state,” said Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from Boardman. “But when you add all this up and he says the most important thing is K-12 funding, the numbers don’t reflect that. It’s OK and it’s nice to give big happy speeches, but when you’ve got to go through a very detailed budget, I’m not sure he’s going to [gain approval for] all the things that he spoke about tonight.”
Rep. Ronald Gerberry, a Democrat from Austintown, echoed those concerns, saying schools in his district will have to seek more tax levies, with no increase in state funding.
“Well over 300 school districts are getting absolutely no [additional] money in the next two years,” he said. “How is K-12 so important if well over 300 school districts aren’t getting an extra dime? ... We’ve gone from 89 cents in the rainy day fund to $2 billion. At the same time, we have school districts and county governments and township governments throughout the state of Ohio placing tax levies because they’re broke.”
Rep. Bob Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown, added, “The tax system that he’s trying to implement is so confusing. It’s all over the place ... Increasing sales tax is certainly going to hurt the people in my district.”
But some Mahoning Valley business representatives lent their support to Kasich’s plans.
“I believe the turnpike plan is a refreshing major step forward to maintain and improve our infrastructure, including local projects like the lane expansion of Interstate 80 in Mahoning and Trumbull counties,” said Tom Humphries, president & CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, in a statement issued Tuesday night. “This commitment to infrastructure will further cement Ohio’s reputation as one of the best states in the U.S. to do business.”
From the perspective of small business owners, Kasich’s plan to cut taxes is innovative and would serve to benefit everyone, according to Claudia Kovach, vice president of City Machine Technologies Inc.
“Reforms like this drive job creators to hire, invest and grow,” Kovach said in a written statement. “It’s clear the governor cares about small businesses and wants to see us succeed, not just because it helps us individually but because he knows a strong small business community is good for the entire state.”