Ohio GOP moving fast on its agenda

Changes made this year will have an impact on nearly all of the state’s 11.4 million residents.

COLUMBUS — Senate Bill 5 has received most of the attention, but Republican Gov. John Kasich and the GOP-controlled legislature are moving quickly on broad-based changes that will touch the lives of nearly all 11.4 million Ohioans.

The legislature, with blessings from Kasich, fast-tracked bills that would limit collective bargaining for 360,000 public employees, require 1.2 million government employees and retirees to pay more toward their pensions, force 8 million registered voters to have state-issued photo IDs at the polling place, sell five prisons to private vendors, lease liquor sales to a private nonprofit that isn’t subject to the same disclosure laws as government, lift a cap on online charter schools and quadruple the number of tuition vouchers for private school students.

Kasich has pushed more change, more quickly than any other governor in recent history. House Bill 159, the voter ID requirement, passed the House just eight days after it was introduced. And while it is far too early to say what impact any of the changes will have, early indications are that voters don’t like what they are seeing.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed only 30 percent of registered Ohio voters approve of how Kasich is handling his job. The numbers were even lower for women and independent voters.

The last governor to post such low initial approval ratings was Democrat Richard Celeste in April 1983 when unemployment hovered above 13 percent, according to The Ohio Poll. Kasich is aware of the poll numbers, but doesn’t seem concerned about them. “I think it’s a time of upheaval in America,” he said last week. “I really think that people want change but they’re not sure what it should look like.”

The rapid-fire approach may be triggering some of the negative responses, according to the governor.

“When you’re dealing with real change and when the headlines every day are about change, it unsettles people,” he said. “But I said from the beginning that this was going to be a time of big change and that there would be people that didn’t like it. I have to tell you that I’m in a good mood. I stand strong and we’re doing the right thing. And all I do everyday is I say my prayers and I say, ‘Lord keep me on the right track.’ ”

That track was set last fall when Republicans seized control of the U.S. House, won a number of governorships from Democrats and swept all statewide races in Ohio, including the governor’s office. Perhaps as important, the GOP regained control of the Ohio House, which eliminated any effective opposition to Republican-initiated proposals.

Despite the decisiveness of the November contests, however, Kasich won his election against Democratic incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland by just two percentage points, 77,127 votes out of 3.85 million cast. That narrow result adds perspective to Kasich’s poll numbers. He won, but by a relatively narrow margin. The quick changes, national publicity over similar collective bargaining proposals in Ohio and Wisconsin, and some unflattering headlines haven’t helped his standing with voters.

Two former governors — the Democrat Strickland and Republican Bob Taft — said last week that the don’t-blink agenda is unsettling for some Ohioans.

“Although the economy is gradually recovering, it’s still tough economic times. So I think that’s a factor,” Taft said. “And the decisions of the budget are tough ones to make. Those decisions, although they’re going to be popular with some people, when you have to cut the budget, there are consequences to that. It’s not necessarily popular to cut a lot of programs that have different kinds of public support across the state.”

Strickland said Kasich risks alienating those who will most feel the brunt of the decisions in Columbus.

“It doesn’t take a lot of issues like that to convey an impression that could have a lasting effect on how the public views this legislature and this administration,” Strickland said. “I think there is a cumulative effect.”

Republicans have argued that salaries and benefits to public employees are unsustainable, and that they have to give local governments tools to manage their budgets in the wake of revenue shortages. But not all the action in the state Capitol is geared toward budgeting and cost controls. Last week a state House committee narrowly approved an abortion bill that supporters say is the most restrictive in the nation. Kasich is anti-abortion but has not said whether he backs that bill.

Stanford University Political Science and Communications Professor Jon Krosnick, who researches how attitudes are molded and change is absorbed, said voters form lasting impressions of politicians early in their terms and just before an election. “They never let go of that impression,” he said.

Krosnick said Kasich may be more interested in making the changes he sees as necessary than in rehabilitating his public image. But if he wants to turn around his numbers, the governor should take time to educate the public in an honest, genuine and informative way about why his reforms are right for Ohio, Krosnick said.

Last week, YouTube footage of Kasich calling a police officer an idiot got attention after Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Central network, did a segment making fun of Ohio’s governor for the diatribe that was captured on tape. Kasich’s selection of a nearly all-white Cabinet also made some national shows. And in the early months of his administration, he’s backpedaled on some media rules, such as his initial announcements that he would be sworn in at a private ceremony and would ban TV cameras and tape recorders from a press conference unveiling his $55.5 billion budget proposal.

After media objections, Kasich quickly backed off both decisions.

University of Dayton political science lecturer Dan Birdsong said business executives and political leaders often try to limit media access to themselves or events to control coverage.

But it can backfire, he said, shifting the narrative away from the intended message.

“It gives us the question of ‘if we can’t see what’s going on, what is he hiding?’ ” Birdsong said. “A swearing in ceremony? What exactly is he hiding there?”

About the Author