Governor: Ohio must embrace future, change image

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Wednesday the state must change its rust belt image and embrace new technologies on all fronts.

While manufacturing will always be important in Ohio, the state must move away from the idea of building another factory that produces things people don’t need anymore, Kasich said at an annual forum sponsored by The Associated Press.

“We also want to change the image of Ohio from the rust belt to the knowledge belt,” Kasich said.

The Republican governor defended also Ohio’s approach to the drug addiction epidemic that is killing thousands annually. He noted the numerous programs to fight drug abuse, and said expanding Medicaid — the state and federal health care system for poor children and families — is important in the battling this scourge.

But Kasich said the ultimate solution is not top-down.

“We’ve given them the tools; they need to use them,” he said.

Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted, both Republicans expected to run for governor next year, said they believe the addictions epidemic is worsening.

Kasich also dismissed talk of being a lame duck, saying he’ll continue to work through the end of his term next year. The governor, who ran an unsuccessful bid last year for the GOP nomination for president that went to Donald Trump, said he wants to be known as “a uniter, not a divider.”

“Where do we think we’re going when we hate?” said Kasich, who didn’t support Trump in his successful general election campaign.

Also during an earlier panel discussion, Ohio lawmakers from both parties signaled skepticism about some aspects of the tax policy in Kasich’s new spending plan, introduced Monday.

Kasich’s proposal to tax oil-and-gas drilling proceeds will likely be unpopular with many members of the GOP-controlled House, Rep. Ryan Smith, the House Finance chairman, said.

Smith said the budget is much tighter this year and means the basics — education, roads and safety — must come first.

“It’s a tight budget, so we have to get creative,” Smith said, a Gallipolis Republican.

Kasich’s budget includes a 17 percent income tax cut, a two-year college tuition freeze, and tax increases on alcohol and tobacco products.

The $66.9 billion proposal also would impose a half-percent increase in the state sales tax, from 5.75 percent to 6.25 percent, and extend it to additional services, including cable TV subscriptions, elective cosmetic surgery and lobbying.

Joe Schiavoni, the top Democrat in the Ohio Senate, criticized the governor’s proposal as “tax shifting” without making meaningful investments in top priorities.

“A tax policy like this nickels and dimes lower income people,” said Schiavoni, of Youngstown.

House minority leader Fred Strahorn also criticized the plan, saying Ohio faces “a death spiral” without proper investment, starting with schools.

Senate Finance Chairman Scott Oelslager said Senate Republicans are open to changes in tax policy. “Tax climate does make a difference in the state,” said Oelslager, a Canton Republican.

All four lawmakers agreed that the state’s number one priority should be fighting the drug addiction epidemic, which has led to thousands of overdose deaths a year, but they again differed on whether Kasich’s budget addresses the problem effectively.

“There is an effort, but it is woefully short,” Strahorn said.

Smith called it an “all-hands-on-deck” crisis. “We need to look at this comprehensively and really make a push. Everyone knows there’s no silver bullet,” he said.

Covering the two years beginning July 1, Kasich’s budget would spend $4.3 billion less in state general revenue than the previous budget. The final result would include GOP lawmakers’ own priorities.

The budget calls for modest additional spending for K-12 schools, higher education and prisons, while delivering flat funds or cuts to a number of other agencies.

Balancing the budget relies on $200 million from a new monthly premium that would be charged to Medicaid beneficiaries who are childless, not pregnant and have an income level above the poverty level.

Also at Wednesday’s forum:

— Kasich said he’ll be open with the Trump administration going forward. “If I disagree, I’m going to say something. If I agree I’ll let them know, too.”

— Newly elected Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken said her goal is to unify her party. “I’m not in the business of keeping score. If I’m going to be an effective chairman, I can’t do that,” she said. Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper said his party will run as change agents in 2018.

— DeWine, Husted and GOP Auditor David Yost said municipalities that identify themselves as sanctuary cities must follow federal law but have some discretion beyond that.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press