Sunday, December 30, 2007

Beacon-Journal: Is Ted Strickland uneasy about risk? All that political capital, and school funding to solve

Akron Beacon Journal, December 30, 2007
Jon Husted likes to needle the governor. The speaker recently compared Ted Strickland to Bob Taft. Husted explained to the Gongwer News Service that both are ''very risk averse'' in approaching economic problems. He had in mind taking chances politically to do the right thing for the state economy.
Put aside that Taft pushed for a tax cut, and then watched his approval rating plunge into the teens. The description certainly runs counter to the image of a governor determined to turn around Ohio.
Is Ted Strickland averse to risk?
A year into his term, the first Democrat to sit in the governor's office in 16 years, Strickland has played safe in many ways. If that veto on day one was a brilliant stroke, galvanizing allies and disarming adversaries, the governor hardly has traded in the controversial.
Cutting taxes is easy stuff, and there at the top of his list of accomplishments is the expansion of homestead exemption, property tax relief for all seniors. An equivalent step was the freeze on college tuition. Who would object?
Strickland points to passage of the state budget with one dissenting vote, Republicans and Democrats embracing the plan. Such agreement suggests something less than difficult choices. Republicans advanced the cause of higher education, finding money to cover the shortfall due to the tuition freeze. If the governor won a greater investment in health care, the budget stiffed hundreds of school districts, state money remaining flat.
The governor deserves much applause for avoiding the rancor that can prove debilitating at a Statehouse. He took the lead in the complex matter of electricity restructuring. All of this has translated into an approval rating of 69 percent — with 65 percent of Republicans joining in the huzzahs.
Utterly unTaftian?
Don't be so sure. If Taft eventually careened off a cliff, he ended his first year at a similar stratospheric level. By April 2000, the Ohio Poll found Taft with an approval rating of 69 percent.
The challenge for the governor and his team is how to avoid what happened to his predecessor. Put another way: Will Strickland make effective use of all that political capital?
In a year-end interview with the Dayton Daily News, the governor all but removed a tax increase from the list of options. He did so even as the budget tightens, threatening his achievements in health care, in particular.
A governor resembles a standup comic to a degree. Almost everyone in the audience wants to laugh. They want the comic to succeed. Thus, Ohioans first listened to Bob Taft, and now they have warmed to Ted Strickland. What Strickland must avoid is the timidity that gripped Taft.
That may seem odd to say about a governor who has set in motion Eric Fingerhut to bring new energy and focus to higher education. The chancellor of the Board of Regents already has provoked a heated and worthwhile discussion in this corner of the state. His strategic plan is due by the spring. Put the state's universities on an unquestioned path to excellence, and Strickland will have much more to champion than an expanded homestead exemption (which now means tax relief for the wealthiest seniors at the expense of dental care for the poor).
Then again, the governor set the bar for himself. Worth recalling at the end of this first year are his words in the campaign about the inadequate, inequitable and inefficient way the state pays for public schools.
Yes, an old saw. Yet Strickland could not have been more emphatic: ''I am going to be a law-abiding governor, and I'm going to make Ohio a law-abiding state. . . . That means we take seriously what the Supreme Court has said. . . . The funding for elementary and secondary education by Constitution is a state responsibility.''
More: ''I don't know, quite frankly, what Bob Taft doesn't understand about the word unconstitutional.''
Still more: ''I am so committed to solving this school-funding issue that, if I become governor and I do a lot of wonderful things, but I fail to address this school-funding issue, I will have been a failed governor.''
Finally: ''I think the people of Ohio are ready to deal with this problem. It's the anemic, the perhaps for lack of a better word, the cowardly political structure that is unwilling to take the bold action that needs to be taken.''
Cowardly political structure.
That doesn't suggest risk-averse.
Strickland has been cagey about addressing school funding, arguing he won't be rushed, cautioning against ''another proposal that is doomed to failure.'' He uses an accounting gimmick to claim (over and over) that the state share of school funding has increased from 48 percent to 54 percent. He wants a consensus to form, knowing that Democrats and Republicans must address the problem together for the remedy to stick. He rightly talks about the state doing a better job spending its school money.
The governor understands that many Republicans are eager for him to try — and fail. That is part of the box in which he finds himself. Another element is the temptation to succumb, as Bob Taft did, signaling that this puzzle is too hard to solve, reaching for the rationalization that the issue hasn't been decisive in elections.
That overlooks how the funding system paralyzes districts to the detriment of all Ohioans. It neglects that impressive 69 percent approval rating, inviting the question: If not now, when? It leaves the last word to Jon Husted, who acknowledged that Ted Strickland is ''very talented politically,'' something you wouldn't say about Bob Taft.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at
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