Ohio Governor Kasich tries to sell his budget cuts to a skeptical public

Gov. John Kasich announces his budget proposals Tuesday night at a town hall event in Columbus, Ohio.
Gov. John Kasich announces his budget proposals Tuesday night at a town hall event in Columbus, Ohio. (The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:05 AM

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."

Poll finds a wary public

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.

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