COLUMBUS: Cue the ominous music and hire the voiceovers. Dress the actors like everyday people. Get the wheelbarrows ready for hauling cash to the TV stations.
A 2014 governor’s race is in the offing and the time for attack ads is near. The de facto campaign was launched on Feb. 4 when Republican Gov. John Kasich introduced a new $63 billion two-year budget.
It is ripe for exploitation, primarily because Kasich wants to expand the state’s sales tax to dozens of services and venues. The attack-ad scenarios for Democrats are endless: A hairdresser telling a blue-haired lady her perm costs 5 percent more, a dog groomer adding 5 percent to Fido’s trim, couch potatoes paying 5 cents on the dollar more for cable television services — all thanks to John Kasich.
The ads wouldn’t mention that Kasich proposes to reduce the sales-tax rate from 5.5 percent to 5 percent, and that his overall budget would result in a net tax cut of $800 million over the two years largely through a 20 percent reduction in the state income tax.
Some who have posited Kasich’s plan as a re-election budget do not understand the creative deviousness of ad consultants. Consider this, too: If Kasich crafted his budget to enhance his chances for a second term, then why are so many legislative Republicans who will be on the ballot with him running away from it? Might they also fear that voting for the sales-tax expansion will invite opponents to paint them with the tax-hiker brush?
In a legislature where there are too few Democrats to matter, the greatest threat to Kasich’s budget comes from Republicans who constantly worry about protecting their right flanks in safely gerrymandered districts. As a result, the justifiable expansion of Medicaid in Kasich’s budget is in jeopardy because GOP lawmakers fear it will invite primary-election challenges from tea partyers who seem bent on society’s regression.
Kasich’s abrasiveness also makes him an easy target. But even his detractors can’t deny that he is a transformational political figure, and his budget only imbeds that image. John A. Begala, a fair-minded former Democratic state representative who now is executive director of the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland, lauded the budget for “an integrity that is far from the norm.”
“It bears the stamp of the governor’s conservatism throughout, but borrows from the political left where he sees a benefit for Ohio,” Begala wrote. “It is, in a word, balanced.”
For that reason, it is being attacked from the left and the right. Legislative ideologues oppose Kasich’s humane decision to take advantage of a federally funded expansion of Medicaid that will provide health-care coverage to 366,000 more Ohioans and save an estimated $404 million over the next two years, a move widely supported by Ohio businesses, hospitals and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.
Kasich’s sweeping tax proposals — including the long-overdue lowering and broadening of the sales tax, a nod to fairness in the modern, service-oriented economy — also invite attacks. Why shouldn’t the sellers of tires and legal services both be subject to the sales tax?
Certainly there is room to question Kasich’s tax proposals, including using the $3 billion generated by broadening the sales tax, along with a modest severance tax on oil and gas, to offset a reduction in the state income tax from a top rate of 5.9 percent to 4.7 percent over the next three years.
With schools and local governments struggling under slashed state funding, it’s fair to ask whether we need another income-tax cut on top of the 21 percent reduction we recently received. And shouldn’t the severance tax be used, at least in part, to fund infrastructure and environmental needs in the communities being affected by the shale-oil boom, rather than to fund an across-the-board income-tax cut for all Ohioans?
Begala said that if Kasich’s budget gets through the GOP-controlled legislature largely intact, “It will be an achievement of historical importance.”
Don’t count on that happening in this era of political cowardice, when any politician who dares to boldly act in the interest of progress exposes himself to intraparty challenges and relentless 30-second attack ads.
Hallett is a senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.