Painful state budget leaves few happy

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Political scientist John Green heard a not-so-funny joke at the Ohio Statehouse recently.

When told that political unity had finally been achieved at the Statehouse, Green asked how. The response: ‘‘Now everyone’s depressed.’’

Sad but true. Passage of the latest two-year budget — complete with a divisive racetrack slot machine plan, deep cuts to social programs, painful hospital and nursing home fee increases, and heavy use of one-time federal stimulus money — left hardly anyone jumping for joy.

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Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland made a controversial political reversal on video lottery terminals, and ruling Democrats still weren’t able to avoid cuts to agency budgets that are expected to put up to 3,000 state employees out of work.

A handful of legislative Republicans had to associate themselves with expanded gambling, the rest forced to break with their leadership. And few constituencies — aside from race track owners, and perhaps teachers’ unions — were left with the warm and fuzzy feeling that followed the 2007 ‘‘Kumbaya’’ budget vote.

The Rev. John Edgar, a leading church and anti-gambling voice in the state, expressed outrage at ‘‘the failure of the entire Ohio General Assembly and Governor Strickland to approve a biennium budget with sufficient revenue to provide for essential government services.’’ He accused all of political cowardice.

In the budget’s aftermath, everyone is vulnerable — though Strickland was ultimately the worst hurt heading into the 2010 election.

‘‘A lot of voters blame whichever party is in power when things are bad,’’ said Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. ‘‘In that sense, executives — that is, governors, presidents — tend to be the most vulnerable.’’

Strickland’s approval rating fell 11 percentage points as the budget debate raged in Columbus, according to one poll. Quinnipiac University reported 46 percent approved of the job he was doing heading into July, compared to 57 percent a month earlier.

And Strickland isn’t the Democrats only worry.

The Democratic U.S. Senate primary between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is also shaping up to be a long, ugly one based on wrangling that erupted last week over the source and validity of a series of tax questions posed to Brunner.

As the issue burgeoned, Republican Senate hopeful Rob Portman, a former Bush budget director, reported a fundraising total for the second quarter that exceeded what Fisher and Brunner had raised combined.

Portman leads what is shaping up as a Republican dream team for 2010.

Former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, lately a conservative TV commentator, is running for governor. Former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine is expected to jump into the attorney general’s race Wednesday against incumbent Richard Cordray, who was elected after predecessor Marc Dann resigned in scandal.

Incumbent Auditor Mary Taylor will run for auditor on the GOP side, state Sen. and former House Speaker Jon Husted for secretary of state, and state Rep. Josh Mandel, an Iraqi war veteran, for treasurer.

Green said Strickland’s fate — and, by extension, that of other Democrats — is not at all sealed, however. If the economy improves, Democrats may succeed in taking the credit.

A Quinnipiac poll out in the midst of the budget debate showed Ohioans strongly supported getting to vote on the slots plan themselves — but they did like the slots plan.

Green said Ohioans, like their governor, may have changed their minds about gambling as a budget option because of the economy.

But wildly successful ‘‘racinos’’ could also prove a double-edged sword for Strickland at election time, Green said. What if gambling is flourishing and the governor’s education reforms are barely visible by next fall?

‘‘What kind of tangible improvements will there be in the schools that the governor can point to by then?’’ Green asked.

‘‘By the governor’s own admission, any real success in education won’t be immediately apparent. But it’ll be easy to go down to the racetrack and see what’s going on with the slot machines.’’

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.