SUDDES: ‘Community projects,’ drag-show legislation loudly signal re-election push

Credit: LARRY HAMEL-LAMBERT

Credit: LARRY HAMEL-LAMBERT

In case anyone didn’t already know it, here are several sure-thing signs that all 99 seats in the Ohio House of Representatives, and half the state Senate’s 33, will be on November’s ballot. Both chambers are now Republican-run and, thanks to gerrymandering, likely to stay that way.

One signal is headline-grabbing for Looney Tunes legislation, notably some legislators’ obsession to restrict if not altogether ban drag-show performances in Ohio, which – if you believe some people – threaten the American Way of Life.

Another example, even more telling politically, is the General Assembly’s frenzy to spend gazillions of dollars in state money for hometown construction projects to draw publicity – via ground-breakings and such – to a district’s state representative or state senator. You know, they’re the Statehouse people who are always yammering about state “overspending” and demanding tax-cuts.

Time was when the only construction the state government financed was for highways (funded by the gasoline tax); and, funded by general revenues (originally, the sales tax, later joined by the state income tax), to build state offices; state prisons (notably, in the 1980s, during Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste’s administration); some college facilities; and accommodations for special-needs Ohioans, such as the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

(Eventually, most states, including Ohio, sharply reduced in-patient mental health care with, in some instances, dire results, e.g., growth in the number of homeless people in the United States.)

But then came Ohio’s boom era under Ohio’s borrow and spend governor, Columbus Republican James A. Rhodes (1963-1971 and 1975-1983), who set a pattern subsequent governors and General Assembly members bought into:

Use Ohioans’ tax money (via bonds they must repay) to build stuff that people can see, which they’ll interpret as state government actually doing things besides producing hot air on Capitol Square.

These are often called “community projects,” and some indeed are just that, public improvements that, on its own, a county, city or township cannot afford, though some are sports or cultural amenities that local opinion leaders rally behind as quality-of-life issues or tourism magnets they want everyone else to pay for.

And for state officials, there’s a publicity bonus. After all, the average Ohio voter might – might – know the governor’s name, but likely has no idea who his or her state senator or state representative is. Still, local media do typically cover ground-breakings at proposed public facilities, and their dedications or openings, and you can be sure public officials will be in self-congratulatory pictures.

True, state funded construction pays the wages of many building trades workers and boosts the bottom lines of building supply providers. True also, when ground is broken or a ribbon cut, for state-aided (that is, taxpayer-funded) construction, you can be sure that state Sen. Blowhard and state Rep. Blatherskite, the local legislators, will be front-and-center in local news photos and videos.

But you’d be left waiting if you’re expecting to be told what a project’s all-in cost is (land, building total principal and life-of-bonds interests). But hey, in our term-limited legislature, “tomorrow” is a synonym for “who cares?”

Besides, today’s General Assembly members, given months of hard, understated and underappreciated work in Columbus to protect Ohio banks, insurance companies and utilities, not to mention defending Ohio against cross-dressers, deserve some feel-good hometown publicity courtesy of tax-funded bricks-and-mortar.

Meanwhile, look around the celebrity circle at ground-breakings or ribbon-cuttings for General Assembly-authorized community projects. You won’t see Jane or John Taxpayer in the pictures. But they, not “the state,” paid the tab.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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