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John Kasich’s mixed legacy as Ohio governor: editorial

January 13, 2019

John Kasich’s mixed legacy as Ohio governor: editorial

Ohio Gov. John Kasich leaves office this week with a legacy of good and bad that can best be summed up in our editorial board’s very mixed assessment of him over the last eight years:

We endorsed Kasich both times he ran for governor -- and lauded the mixture of political dexterity, clear-eyed financial calculations and compassion that underlay his engineering of Medicaid expansion in Ohio without putting GOP lawmakers to the test with a vote. Yet we have repeatedly lambasted him for local government cuts starting in his first term that foisted the hardships of state budget-cutting on municipalities instead of on state government itself.

We applauded his administration’s strong push for Lake Erie protections, but decried its failure to reposition Ohio education spending and other state investments for the future, vesting economic development instead in a nontransparent JobsOhio. 

And as Kasich in his second term spent less and less time in Ohio and more and more of it on national television, positioning himself for a possible 2020 presidential run, relationships with the GOP-run state legislature frayed. Yet amid our caution flags to him, we also lauded his willingness -- unlike the vast majority of GOP elected officials in Ohio -- to divorce himself from the hurtful politics of blame and recrimination of President Donald Trump.

How has he done overall? Looking back over his legacy, we award John Kasich at best a C+.

He has failed to position Ohio to pull out of its long-term economic mire grounded in an undereducated workforce, an aging population, a less-than-dynamic economy and a continuing decline in good-paying, middle-class jobs.

Yet at the same time, he leaves important legacies for Gov.-elect Mike DeWine to preserve and build upon, including the Medicaid expansion, which halved the number of Ohioans without health insurance and expanded the resources and treatment available to drug-addicted Ohioans in the midst of a terrible opioid tsunami.

John Kasich’s first term opened ignominiously. Three months after his 2011 swearing-in, he and his backers rammed Senate Bill 5 through the General Assembly to bust Ohio’s public employee unions, including police and fire unions. That didn’t work out well. Ten months into Kasich’s governorship, 62 percent of Ohioans voting on the measure killed the bill. 

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Yet despite SB 5, that seemingly didn’t apply to Kasich, thanks to a reviving economy and the political alliances he formed later in his first term that lay behind his successful Medicaid expansion. Concurrently, Kasich also bolstered state finances, albeit on the backs of local needs. Ohio’s rainy-day fund totaled 89 cents when Kasich succeeded Democrat Ted Strickland toward the end of the Great Recession. It’s now $2.7 billion.

As he sought a second term in 2014, Kasich also benefited from an exceptionally weak challenger in Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. Kasich beat FitzGerald by almost 950,000 votes, carrying 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Cuyahoga.

And while presidential ambitions may have distracted Kasich in his second term, he also won Ohio’s 2016 Republican presidential primary. Still, Kasich’s criticisms of Trump cost him: They sparked the unseating in 2017 of then-Republican State Chair Matt Borges, a Kasich ally, by Trump-backed Jane Timken, of the Canton industrial dynasty. And last month, a lame-duck GOP-run General Assembly defied Kasich on a range of issues.

As former Gov. Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat, told Andrew J. Tobias of cleveland.com that “John has had more of a problem with his own party than I think he’s had with Ohio citizens generally.” 

Still, the bottom-line question about Kasich’s governorship may be akin to one Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 on his way to the presidency: Are Ohioans better off now than they were eight years ago? The data suggest that a number in the state might answer no.

Cleveland.com’s Rich Exner found that Ohio under Kasich still lags the nation in the major indicators of economic health -- jobs, wages and population growth -- and inched up in only a few categories relative to other states. Annual average pay wasn’t one of them. Ohio ranked 24th in the nation last year in average pay, at $49,153. And the trend lines are troubling: Ohio ranked 23rd in 2010, right before Kasich took office, and 22nd in 2006, Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s final year.

Under Kasich, Ohio cut its income tax (and eliminated it on the first $250,000 of self-employment or business income). But on top of the slashed aid to local governments, Ohio also boosted its sales tax and ended taxes that benefited only localities or local schools, such as the estate tax and, via Kasich’s accelerated phase-out, the tangible personal property tax. That forced cuts in services and/or increases in local taxes. As for funding public schools, Ohio continues to patch rather than replace a bald tire. 

Medicaid expansion is a godsend to hard-pressed Ohioans. But Exner’s data suggest that the middle class, Ohio’s backbone, is, at best, treading water. Bettering the circumstances of those men and women, salt of the Earth Ohioans, is among the unfinished business that John Kasich has bequeathed to Mike DeWine.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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