Judging by the sounds and sights coming from the Ohio Statehouse last month, it seemed like an early fireworks show when Gov. John Kasich introduced his biennial budget. Some are calling the show one of the most intense displays of budget and policy skyrockets that Ohio has seen since the early 1970s.
Many people wonder why the governor would tackle so many firecracker issues just two years before the next statewide election. For me, the answer is simple: he cares first and foremost about what is best for the state and is willing to set aside what's best for himself. As a former Democrat state representative and one of the ranking members of the House Finance Committee, I am impressed with the governor's courage and his heartfelt drive to create long-term economic growth for our state. His budget is indeed fair and balanced, and I'm certain his appetite for reform will keep my former Statehouse colleagues busy this spring.
The most surprising decision to unfold in this budget is the governor's move to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income Ohioans. The governor says this will help create a better workforce, hold Ohioans' premiums in check, support our regional hospitals and keep our federal tax dollars here in Ohio. His is exactly right and I value his open mind - and faith-based compassion - in addressing this important issue. On this issue, Gov. Kasich should get strong Democratic support.
A few days after the budget announcement, at his State of the State address in Lima, the governor spoke convincingly about his desire to create more jobs. That goal goes hand-in-hand with his tax reform plan, which I believe is a crucial next step to further invigorate in the economy.
Let's face it, the governor does have a proven track record of fiscal responsibility, having led - and won - a battle to balance the federal budget during his time in Congress. In fact, in his State of the State address, Gov. Kasich noted that the 89 cents he found left in Ohio's ''rainy day'' savings account when he took office may reach $1.9 billion within the next few months.
During my many years in the Ohio House of Representatives, education issues were always among the most controversial. While some teachers and superintendents have focused on the relative subsidy levels each district will receive, I think the most encouraging news for schools is the governor's proposal to remove mandates and lift barriers that impede success.
I also believe his $300 million innovation fund will help schools transition to new, modern day efficiencies that make their dollars go further and increase effectiveness in the classroom. At the end of the day, the governor's commitment of more than $1 billion in new state support for local schools brings Ohio's schools to the highest level of state funding in history.
At the same time, the governor has been trying to improve results in Ohio's primary and secondary schools, he has also empowered state-supported university and college presidents to develop a new funding formula that will produce more college graduates in our state to meet workforce demands. Amazingly, every one of those presidents endorsed a plan that will align more state support for their universities based on the number of students who graduate and complete courses.
A key component of the new state budget - funding levels needed to pay for Ohio's transportation needs - is also being debated in Columbus. And the centerpiece of those discussions has been the governor's proposal to issue $1.5 billion in bonds for the Ohio Turnpike backed by future toll revenues.
The governor listened to those of us in northern Ohio who feared a lease of the turnpike and he arrived at a very fair and reasonable solution to address the state's important transportation needs. He agreed to allow most of the bond funds for infrastructure projects to be used in the counties adjoining the turnpike. Without improvements to our transportation infrastructure, every facet of Ohio's economy - commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, small business - will suffer and we'll lose our ability to attract and retain jobs.
There is little doubt that February's fireworks will continue into May and beyond at Ohio's Statehouse. But, there is real substance to all the sound and light of this budget debate. Gov. Kasich should be commended for lighting the fuse with his five bold areas of reform to encourage long-term job creation and economic growth.
If he is successful, we will all benefit from a more prosperous Ohio. And that will be an achievement well worth celebrating with fireworks.
Verich is a former Democrat state representative from Warren and currently serves as the Trumbull County commissioners' legislative liaison.