Once in a blue moon, you find a politician willing to do the right thing even if it means his popularity will plummet. Recently elected Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, has announced a new budget for his cash-strapped state, and voters are none too happy. Polls show his approval rating at 40 percent, less than three months after he assumed office.
Ohio's budget is more than $8 billion in the red, thanks to a poor economy, overspending by Kasich's predecessor, and an unfriendly business environment that has pushed jobs out of state. Ohio has lost 400,000 jobs in the last four years alone. And, like other states that received money from the 2009 federal stimulus, that money saved mostly public-sector jobs -- and on a temporary basis only. Now, school districts and other state and local agencies propped up by federal dollars will have to make do on their own.
But what is different about Kasich's approach is that he's doing more than cutting spending -- he's out trying to sell his plan to a skeptical public. He could have simply released his budget, held a press conference, and then got down to the work of twisting legislators' arms. Instead, he took his plan on the road, holding a big public forum in which voters could ask questions in person or on Twitter. And he did it in his characteristic hard-charging, upbeat style. He's shown that he's willing to lead on this issue.
Kasich's budget includes both cuts in spending and innovative reform that may make those cuts less painful and more effective. On education, for example, he's capping increases in college tuition at 3.5 percent, a modest hike, but he's also insisting college professors teach one extra class every other year to keep costs down.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average college teacher spends 12 to 16 hours per week in the classroom, plus another three to six hours in the office to meet with students. According to a 2008-2009 survey by the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for full-time faculty was $79,439 -- and most teachers have three months off in the summer.
Of course, Kasich has also taken on public-employee unions in his state. He wants to drop the requirement that government pay so-called prevailing wages for school construction and other jobs, a euphemism for paying union scale for jobs where actual wages would be lower if set by market factors. And he opposes binding arbitration, which often forces untenable pay increases and higher benefits for government employers when they reach an impasse in collective bargaining.
His budget also includes a $1.1 billion hike in public-employee pension contributions over the next two years, forcing public-sector workers to contribute an additional 2 percent to their pensions. Most state and local employees would be forced to make contributions equal to their employers' for the pensions. But these 2 percent hikes would also apply to local police and fire, as well as state troopers, who currently receive up to 26.5 percent from their employers toward their pensions.
Kasich's budget would also privatize some low-security prisons and sell off five state prison facilities. And he favors rethinking laws that send men to state prison for not paying child support or for certain non-violent drug offenses.
"Why do I want to put somebody that doesn't pay child support in a state prison ... instead of putting them somewhere and forcing them on a work detail or home confinement or county jail, in a place where the public is safe and yet we can get our costs?" he said recently.
He'd also like to sell off management of the state's lottery and lease the state's liquor sales operation. Frankly, state lotteries are a disgraceful exploitation of the poor and the ignorant, who waste billions per year they could put toward savings or paying down their own debt.
Kasich's task over the next several months won't be easy. He has to convince voters that cuts now will mean higher job growth in the future. But he's a natural salesman -- and if he spends the time to educate and talk to voters, I'm betting those poll numbers will turn around. And most importantly, so will the economy of Ohio, which will be the final test of Kasich's leadership. It's the kind of leadership we could use in Washington.
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