COLUMBUS, OHIO — Gov. John Kasich unveiled an austere budget this week that includes painful cuts to close Ohio’s $8 billion shortfall. But in announcing his proposals, Kasich himself was anything but austere. He didn’t grimly warn voters that it is time to sit up and take their medicine. Instead, in a marathon stage show that was part Steve Jobs and part Anthony Robbins, the Republican governor enthusiastically tried to convince Ohioans that the cuts are a good thing — and that they will be better off with less.
Smiling and upbeat, Kasich paced the stage inside the cavernous Capitol Theatre on Tuesday evening, iPad in hand, reading questions that people from across the state had sent in via Twitter.
“We have balanced this budget with no smoke and mirrors, and we have done it in a way that will put Ohio on a path to growth,” he said. “People said: ‘How could you do it? It’s not doable!’ No more kicking that can down the road. Can’t do that anymore in Ohio.”
Despite his best efforts to win over his audience, however, his performance was met with only sporadic applause from the crowd of nearly 900. Kasich received tough questions from Republicans and downright skepticism from Democrats as well as teachers and other public workers who say his proposals would gut schools and government services.
Like other governors across the country whose states are drowning in debt, Kasich is caught between making good on his campaign promises to reduce the size and cost of government, and avoiding an electoral backlash if voters decide that the GOP is cutting too deeply into programs that matter most to them.
“We actually were looking to buy a house, and we stopped doing that because we don’t know what our income is going to be,” said Hope Rummell, a police officer from Alliance, Ohio, who voted for John McCain in 2008 but is alarmed by what Republicans are doing in her state now.
“Nobody gets rich being a police officer or being a fireman,” said Rummell, whose husband is also on the police force. “We’re strong middle class. We went to college, and we do okay. But we have a real fear that this will kill out a large percentage of our middle class in this state.”
Public employees aren’t the only ones balking at proposals in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere to curtail public unions and slash state budgets. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, in the eyes of the public, specific spending cuts and tax increases range from marginally acceptable to extremely unpopular.
Fewer than four in 10 of those surveyed would support reduced spending on roads and infrastructure, increases in state income or sales taxes, or layoffs of state employees. Only about two in 10 would support cuts to Medicaid, closing or limiting access to parks and recreation areas, or reducing aid to public schools. And there is virtually no support for laying off teachers, police officers or firefighters.
There is also no consensus among Democrats, Republicans and independents for budget cuts, complicating any efforts to build broad public support for closing gaps in state finances.
There is, however, wider support for limiting pay and benefits for state workers. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents support freezing wages for state employees, and 51 percent back reducing pension benefits for new state workers.
The Post/ABC telephone poll was conducted March 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“You have a public opinion that I think is at best chaotic,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and message-crafter. “It’s this really dangerous cocktail of cynicism and immediacy. They recognize there’s a crisis out there, and they want politicians to solve it. But they don't like any of the solutions.”
A former nine-term congressman known as a brash, sometimes hot-headed conservative, Kasich is plowing ahead in speaking engagements around Ohio to sell what he says are the upsides of his plan.
Deep cuts in aid to local governments, combined with a proposal to limit collective bargaining for public workers, would give cities and counties more flexibility to balance their budgets, Kasich says. Privatizing liquor sales and prisons would free up assets. Cutting Medicaid spending on long-term care would give patients “more choices” in where to live. Increasing spending on public school vouchers and charter schools would give parents more choices to suit their children’s needs.
The governor’s opponents don’t quite see it that way. Officials with the Ohio Education Association, for example, which represents 128,000 teachers and support staffers, said Kasich’s plans to boost charter schools and voucher programs would come at the expense of public schools. The group pointed out that his proposal would reduce overall spending on Ohio public schools by more than $3 billion over two years.
“We don’t feel he gave the full effect of its impact on school districts in his presentation,” said Matt Dotson, the group’s lobbyist. “We think the presentation and the budget proposal itself is a sleight of hand.”
He added: “When legislators start hearing from all of these key public-service providers and the citizens that they serve, they’re going to see the provisions and measures in this budget as going too far.”
If Kasich makes the sale, he could become a model for other Republican fiscal hawks. If he falls short, it could make life difficult for the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
“Ohio is the most important state for the GOP in the entire nation,” Luntz said.
Kasich seemed to appreciate the peril during his town hall performance Tuesday. The strongest applause of the evening came as he walked onto the stage.
“You obviously haven’t seen the budget yet,” he quipped. “That could be the last standing ovation I ever get.”
Staff writer Aaron Blake, polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.