The fiscal crises that ignited pitched partisan battles in states across the country in the recession’s wake are beginning to ease, leaving Republican governors in several crucial swing states struggling to overcome the political damage caused by past efforts to repair their budgets.
As the National Governors Association gathers for its winter meeting here in Washington, the economic landscape in some long-suffering states is improving, lifting tax revenues and, in some cases, allowing for small surpluses.
But the forceful budget action taken last year by Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, including severe spending cuts and moves to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees, have left them deeply unpopular as the economy has improved.
This may make it more difficult for the GOP to win these states than it appeared just a few months ago, as polls find growing numbers of Americans who believe the economy has begun to recover.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker faces a recall election in the coming months, just over a year after his move to curtail collective bargaining rights for most public employees in the state brought him national attention, as well as huge protests.
In Florida, opinion polls found Gov. Rick Scott to be the least popular governor in the country, after he initiated deep cuts in state education aid last year.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is struggling with one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the country after voters in November overturned a law he supported to end collective bargaining rights for that state’s public employees.
In addition to cutting bargaining rights for government workers, Kasich, supported deep reductions in state aid to local school districts, while pushing a series of tax cuts that provided the largest benefits to Ohio’s wealthiest taxpayers.
Like the other Republican governors, Kasich said his moves were necessary to repair the state’s finances. Kasich boasts that he closed the state’s yawning budget gap without raising taxes. But with the state’s economy now improving, voters have grown impatient with austerity, and his approval rating now stands at 40 percent
“Kasich has badly damaged the Republican brand in Ohio,” said Dale Butland, communications director of Innovation Ohio, a progressive think tank based in Columbus.
The economic rebound also poses a political problem for GOP presidential candidates, who are staking much of their case against President Obama on what they call his mishandling of the economy.
Kasich has mostly remained on the sidelines as GOP presidential candidates have come through Ohio in advance of its March 6 primary, which will be one of the closest watched Super Tuesday contests.
Although overall, state tax revenues remain below pre-recession levels, there has been a marked economic improvement in the nation’s Midwestern manufacturing belt, where jobless rates are typically below the national average.
In Ohio, the unemployment rate in December, the latest month for which statewide statistics are available, was 8.1 percent, well below the national rate of 8.5 percent for that month. In some areas of the state, unemployment is moving toward pre-recession levels.
The rebound in manufacturing that has led the national recovery has driven jobless rates down in heavily populated northeastern Ohio, home to some 10,000 factories. The jobless rate in Cuyahoga County has tumbled to 7.1 percent, down from 9.9 percent over the past two years. In Lorain County, the unemployment rate is 7.3 percent and in Lake County, joblessness has declined to 6.6 percent.
At Astro Manufacturing & Design, a custom manufacturer that makes precision products from beds for CAT scanners to torpedo parts, business is booming.
The company’s Eastlake plant now has 165 workers, 20 more than it did two years ago. Jobs are returning from China, and a sharp increase in aerospace and medical equipment work has transformed a company that once survived mainly by making parts for automobile assembly lines.
“We could grow by another 10 or 15 workers if we could find qualified workers,” said Rich Peterson, Astro’s spokesman. “When politicians talk about the bad economy around here, they are really talking about the past. Things are getting much better.”
Although polls show voters remain anxious about the economy, the improving landscape has undercut some of the harshest criticism of Obama’s economic stewardship, while making it harder for political leaders to defend steep budget cuts.
“Last year was going to be a very difficult year for any governor,” said Curt Steiner, a Republican political consultant based in Ohio. After a tough campaign, Kasich found himself in a situation where he had “to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.”
In some cases, governors are moving to reverse those cuts. Saying the worst of his state budget crisis is over, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is using a projected 7 percent increase in revenues to raise state aid to public schools and higher education.
In Florida, Scott has proposed reversing course and wants to increase state aid to education in the current spending plan.
But not every state has the luxury of strongly rebounding revenues, making more pain necessary. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, earlier this week proposed a budget that cuts services, reduces pensions for state employees and slashes Medicaid costs. Those proposals come a year after he imposed a state income tax increase that raised the rate from 3 percent to 5 percent.
Meanwhile, California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed increasing sales taxes, while raising state income taxes for families making more than $250,000 a year to close a budget gap.
And while many state economies are improving, voters still worry that the gains of recent months can slip away. “The whole issue of gasoline prices is on fire right now,” said Terry Casey, a GOP political consultant in Ohio. “People really notice them. Higher energy prices ripple through everything you buy every day.”
As the governors meet in Washington this weekend, they plan to focus on ways to continue growing the economies in their states. “The most important priority for us as governors is job creation,” said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinman (R), chairman of the governor’s association. “Economic growth is the key to our future.”