A feisty, yet reflective Gov. Ted Strickland said Monday that his biggest mistake in 2009 was deciding to rely on revenue from racetrack slot machines that were later sidelined by the Ohio Supreme Court.
It was one of the most controversial decisions the Democratic governor had to make in a challenging year that stretched government finances to their limit and left Strickland a little battered heading into a re-election campaign.
Strickland confronted a collapsed economy, high unemployment, sagging poll numbers, and a botched execution he had to call off about two hours after preparations began. Still, the governor told The Associated Press in a year-end interview in his Statehouse office that he will run for re-election against Republican John Kasich.
Strickland rattled off a number of accomplishments, including an overhaul in Ohio's school funding system, changes to the curriculum and an expansion of health coverage.
Ohio's devastated budget led Strickland in June to reverse a long-held antigambling stance to call for slot machines at the state's seven racetracks. But the Ohio Supreme Court later ruled that the plan is subject to a referendum by the voters, squelching any chance the machines could raise revenue in time to help the sagging two-year budget.
"As it turns out, the biggest mistake was believing that we were going to have access to the video lottery terminal resources at the racetracks, and failing to understand that the Supreme Court was not likely to be sympathetic or helpful to me as governor," Strickland said. "You could call it a mistake or a failure to anticipate what the court was likely to do."
Strickland also sought to send a message to those questioning whether he's running for re-election after such a difficult year. In particular, he referred to an anonymous person spreading "lies" that his health will keep him from seeking re-election. A rumor, fueled by Strickland's failure so far to officially announce his re-election campaign, has been floating around the halls of the Statehouse in recent weeks.
Strickland said he's healthy enough to challenge the rumormonger to a cage fight.
"I am in very good health and I think I could take on that person, whoever they are, and have them cry uncle within the first five minutes," he said.
The state Supreme Court's decision on the slots forced Strickland to switch his position on another policy issue he had repeatedly proclaimed his stance on. After praising a five-year tax overhaul as vital to Ohio's future prosperity, Strickland called for freezing a final, 4.2 percent reduction in income taxes that was part of a five-year, 21 percent reduction.
Strickland said that had he suggested the tax cut delay in his original budget proposal, the outcome would have been the same.
"Those who were opposed to the VLT (slots) proposal were not happy with me, and probably still are not happy with me," Strickland said. "But they are probably the same people, in a sense, who don't like the fact that we've frozen the tax rate. I don't know what the outcome will be. People will make a decision and there will be a full-fledged campaign, and we'll just let the people decide."
Strickland said he is campaigning for Ohio to receive additional federal stimulus money to help weather the downturn. The reliance on stimulus money, and a request for more, are likely to be targets of attack by Kasich, a conservative who has yet to explain much of what he'd do about Ohio's economic challenges.
"Ohio has taken responsibility for itself," Strickland said. "This recession was caused by Wall Street and greed and avarice. And so Ohio is not to blame for this recession and I'm not to blame for this recession."
Strickland made history in September when he called off the execution of Romell Broom after prison officials tried unsuccessfully for two hours to find a vein that would support the flow of lethal chemicals. Broom was stuck with needles as many as 18 times, a few times, he said, into bone and muscle.
"As governor, I swore to uphold the Constitution of the state of Ohio," Strickland said. "(The death penalty) is something that I find personally very troubling.
"Stopping it (the Broom execution) was not a tough decision because not only for Mr. Broom's consideration, but also for the consideration for the staff who were charged with carrying out this awesome responsibility," he said. "I felt like that it would have been unwise, and in fact wrong, to continue that effort after such an extended period of time."