Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Building a Better Ohio


By Amy Hanauer

Dear Governor Kasich,

As you begin your term, it is a perfect moment to rethink priorities and map new paths. With high unemployment, big budget shortfalls, and continued erosion of our industrial base, our problems might feel overwhelming.

But during and after our toughest economic time – the Great Depression – Americans created Social Security, wove our safety net, established unemployment insurance and encouraged other innovations that generated the world’s first real middle class, with four decades of improvements to prosperity, equity, living standards, education levels, and life spans. Later we passed the Clean Water Act in response to the burning Cuyahoga, enacted civil rights, and committed resources to public schools and colleges.

Throughout the 20th century, we moved forward. At times far less prosperous than today, we still invested in education, the environment, infrastructure, workers, and families. The result was a state with greater equity, more entryways to the middle class, and cleaner, safer communities.

Good public policy has the power to increase education, productivity, safety, and security. But bad policy can do the opposite. In the past generation, we allowed economic inequality to reach Depression-level heights. We ignored manufacturing and let job quality deteriorate. We deregulated, allowing toxic mortgages, loans, and food to be marketed and sold to Ohio families.

We watched suburbs gobble green space, resulting in an ever-greater need for polluting and imported fossil fuels. We let cities, counties, and states engage in mutually self-destructive competition to slash taxes, starving public budgets everywhere.

Governor Kasich, you can recommit to what made Ohio and America great. At times far less prosperous than today, we nonetheless invested in education, the environment, infrastructure, workers and families. The result was a state with greater equity, more entryways to the middle-class, and cleaner, safer communities. The 20th century moved us forward. Despite new challenges, we must build on past accomplishments, not let them erode. Here are a half dozen ways you can lead us.

1. Restore revenues: Together with other changes, the 2005 remake of the tax system is costing Ohio $2.1 billion in annual net revenue, straining our ability to provide security, education, and basic needs. With the legislature, you can restore the highest income tax bracket, get rid of exemptions and abatements, and ensure that the new corporate tax system generates the revenue that the old one did.
2. Shrink some spending: Most of what the public sector does is needed, and the fiction that we can have a better state while delivering less is just that. Roads, transit, schools, universities, and a safety net cost money and enrich our lives. But some policies cost more and deliver less: sentencing non-violent, low-level offenders to costly prisons, giving new tax abatements despite now-low corporate tax rates, and shifting elderly residents from more economical at-home care to nursing homes. You’ve voiced interest in fixing some of these – we can help.
3. Invest in energy: You are right to support the advanced energy standard, which is creating new markets for Ohio products while reducing emissions. You can also commit to commuter transit. Workers and employers rely on these systems, which vitalize cities and reduce energy use. Ohio could have a great supply chain in transit manufacturing. Also, most buildings remain inefficient so you could put Ohioans back to work on building retrofits. We’d be happy to provide a toolkit for how to renovate communities.
4. Advance assets: Through legislation and referendum Ohioans tried to eradicate exploitative payday loans but these lenders still prey on poor families. Get rid of payday lending once and for all, put in place a state Earned Income Credit to help working families, and establish some structures to help families build savings.
5. Target training, work on work: Too many Ohioans are out of work, as you have rightly lamented. Work with your friend Speaker John Boehner to ensure more federal aid for re-employing Ohio. Retain public workers -- they fill important needs while stabilizing our economy. Strategize with employers and unions about how best to retrain workers for future jobs and guarantee job quality. One first step – bolstering labor law enforcement would improve workers’ lives and ensure that Ohio gets all tax revenue owed by employers.
6. Educate: As you know, about 90 percent of Ohio children attend public schools. Provide solid funding, support innovation and teacher training, and strengthen the public system so that it works for all Ohio students. “Ohio has tremendous parks, neighborhoods, lakes, libraries, and people,” Hanauer concludes. “Governor Kasich, what you do will determine whether these assets thrive or wither.”

Ohio has tremendous parks, neighborhoods, lakes, libraries, and people. What you do will determine whether these assets thrive or wither. Good luck!
Hanauer is executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Ohio Forum. 1/11