By Marc Kovac
Gov. John Kasich has directed a state panel to pump up to $20 million into efforts to counter the state’s ongoing opiate epidemic.
The funds will go to research efforts related to managing pain without using prescription opiates, which are viewed as a gateway to heroin and other drugs.
“I think that $20 million will be worth it, and I’m excited to see what we get,” Kasich said.
The governor announced the Third Frontier Commission investment Tuesday night in Sandusky during his State of the State speech before about 1,500 in a historic downtown theater.
During an address that stretched more than an hour, the governor mostly stuck to central themes of his administration – “fiscal strength, lower taxes, proper regulation” and help for people living in the shadows.
Reaction from local Democratic lawmakers, however, was far from supportive.
“At a time when Ohio needs new ideas and a fresh approach, Gov. Kasich offers more of the same,” said Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate. “He continues to push for more income-tax cuts while raising the sales tax and failing to invest in Ohio’s schools and communities. His plans continue to harm the middle class.”
Schiavoni added: “And while our state suffers through the opioid epidemic, the governor says we should ‘start talking.’ This is a health crisis. What we need to do is start acting. Let’s give our counties the funding they need now to support children’s services, law enforcement and addiction treatment programs.”
State Sen. Sean J. O’Brien of Bazetta, D-32nd, said, “Ohio has led the nation in opioid deaths in recent years. My district in Northeast Ohio has been hit especially hard, but the governor still refuses to declare a state of emergency. There have been cases in Ohio where county coroners were forced to rent refrigeration trucks to store the bodies of overdose victims, but majority Republicans continue to block attempts by Democrats to address this crisis.”
O’Brien also criticized Kasich on the governor’s proposed budget adversely impacting education. More than half of Ohio’s public schools would see a funding cut or no additional money for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 as a result of Kasich’s budget proposal, O’Brien said.
“Not giving our public schools the funds they need to educate students as best we can is detrimental to the future of our entire state,” he said. “While the governor’s speech [Tuesday] painted a rosy picture of the future of the Buckeye State, his cherry-picked facts fail to represent the real future we are facing with failing schools and local communities with no money.”
Kasich, though, contended, “The state of our state remains strong, and the state of our state remains stable, but holding onto the progress we’ve made takes vigilance,” he said. “Changes await, and only by holding the line on conservative budgeting, fostering job creation and recommitting ourselves to helping each other along on our journey will we succeed in the coming years.”
It was Kasich’s seventh address to a joint session of the Ohio House and Senate and the sixth away from the Statehouse, after earlier stops in Steubenville, Lima, Medina, Wilmington and Marietta. This year’s location, the Sandusky State Theatre, was within view of Sandusky Bay and the state’s northern shore.
“I have to tell you, I’ve been in love with Ohio’s North Coast and this part of the state for a long, long time,” Kasich said, recounting trips to Vermilion for family vacations when he was a kid and the oft-mentioned pronouncement from an uncle that they were entering “the Promised Land” when they crossed the border into Ohio.
He touted work under his administration to protect Lake Erie, including investing about $2.5 billion in related water quality efforts since he took office. State officials announced a new $1 million grant Monday to help restore wetlands in the Sandusky area.
Kasich also spotlighted Ohio’s growing work force, bolstered by companies like Borgers in Norwalk, Fuyao in Dayton, Amazon in suburban Columbus and others, which are driving a need for workers with technology and other skills.
As the state increasingly focuses on autonomous vehicles, drones and other technologies, schools need to shift how they teach kids, and Ohio’s existing workers will have to be retrained to ensure they have the skills needed to meet emerging work force needs, the governor said.
“The dramatic change is coming,” he said. “Make no mistake, this change will affect more than just blue-collar jobs.
He added jokingly, “Who knows, maybe even the general assembly will be replaced by robots. ... The bottom line for almost everybody in almost every profession is this: ... If we aren’t prepared for change, people are going to find themselves out of work.”
The governor’s executive budget includes a number of policy proposals connecting schools to the business community – the addition of corporate leaders as nonvoting members of school boards and requirements that teachers shadow businesspeople in their communities.
Kasich also announced the formation of a new task force including business and industry leaders who will work with school officials to consider Ohio’s changing workforce.
“Transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, all those things that have made Ohio what it is today, will be changed in fundamental ways,” he said. “But perhaps the most profound effects of technology will be seen in education and in the ways that Ohioans, at all ages, prepare for rapidly changing workforce needs.”
He added, “We have to get our children ready for the jobs of the future.”
On the state budget, the governor urged support for his tax reform package, which includes a small income tax cut, backed, in part, by higher taxes on cigarettes, other tobacco and vaping products, alcohol and oil and gas produced via fracking.
Republican legislative leaders aren’t supportive of many parts of Kasich’s tax proposal, but the governor defended his tax-shifting plan and focus on reducing income tax rates.
“You look at the states across this country that have the fastest economic growth, they either have no income tax or very low income tax,” he said. “It matters. ... We’re never going to be competitive as we need to be if we don’t keep paying attention to this.”
Kasich also urged lawmakers to move his proposal to centralize municipal tax filings – a change that he said would save $800 million.
“That’s $800 million that can be put back into those companies to grow and to hire,” he said, adding, “We want to know what you think. We’ve got a budget over there, if you’ve got ideas or better ideas than we have, we’re for it, OK? But let’s please get this municipal income tax burden [reform] passed so we can help these businesses.”
Kasich also encouraged continued support for needy residents, via a Medicaid expansion enacted under his administration and efforts to help out-of-work Ohioans get back on their feet.
“Welfare without a path to work doesn’t work,” he said.
He recounted his administration’s efforts to combat drug addiction, including last week’s announcement of limits on prescription painkillers. And he announced the Third Frontier investment “to bring new cutting-edge research breakthroughs out of the laboratory and onto the front lines to manage pain without opiates, improve treatment to reduce relapses and turn back the tide of the opiate epidemic.”
A big part of dealing with latter, as well as other issues facing Ohio communities, will involve the support of local groups, he said.
“Issues like these will never be solved in the Statehouse alone, no matter how good our intentions are,” Kasich said.
Vindicator politics writer David Skolnick contributed to this report.