Mike DeWine is entitled to start with a clean slate as the state’s new governor pursues his vision of a better Ohio.
But, the veteran Republican politician does not wade into his governorship amid a vacuum.
DeWine must deal with the legacy of governors — and lawmakers — who came before, most recently the eight years during which John Kasich served as state CEO.
As he prepares to give his first State of the State address Tuesday, DeWine inherits a state — the nation’s seventh-largest — decidedly mid-pack, or worse, on a number of key measures affecting Ohioans’ quality of life.
DeWine’s mission is to build upon momentum from last year, when Ohio recorded its best jobs growth since 1997, while also addressing a host of stubborn social ills.
"I don’t think you will find any big surprises," DeWine said in advance of his remarks before a joint session of the General Assembly at the Statehouse, where the traditionalist wanted to return after Kasich took the show on the road for the past seven years.
"We’re going to talk about the things we have been talking about," the governor said, listing priorities such as ramping up early-childhood education and fighting the opioid addiction and overdose death crisis.
Starting out of the gate with a transportation budget seeking an 18-cents-a-gallon increase in the 28-cent gas tax to address Ohio’s deteriorating roads and bridges, DeWine will follow with his two-year general revenue state budget proposal March 15.
During his speech he is expected to further make his case for the $1.2 billion annual gas tax hike, as well as outlining some of his children-first priorities to surface in the budget.
So what is the "state of Ohio" as the familiar DeWine steps to the rostrum in the chambers of the House of Representatives on Tuesday?
For the first time since 2010, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s last year in office, Ohio’s job growth outpaced the national average in 2018. The state added 113,100 jobs during Kasich’s last year, the 2.03-percent growth ranking 16th in the nation, which saw 1.79 percent growth, according to federal figures.
About 567,000 jobs were created on Kasich’s watch from 2011 through last year, a growth rate nearly a fourth lower than the national average, placing the state 24th during those eight years.
While dropping from 4.9 percent a year earlier, Ohio’s unemployment rate of 4.6 percent remains among the worst in the nation at 44th and above the national rate of 3.9 percent. An estimated 265,000 Ohioans are without jobs as employers continue to lament a lack of qualified candidates for openings, which DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted want to address with improved workforce development programs.
Ohioans continue to generally work for less money than many of their friends and relatives in other states, federal statistics show.
Ohio’s average weekly wage grew 2.9 percent last year to $1,005 as Ohioans’ pay ranked 24th among the states and continued to trail the average wage nationally (which grew by 3.7 percent) by $147 a week, or 15 percent.
The state’s median household income — half earned more, half earned less — continued to widen from the national median. Ohio’s household income stood at $54,021 after an increase of $574 or 1.1 percent that placed Ohio 35th in the U.S. Nationally, median household income grew 2.6 percent, or $1,516. Ohio’s figure is $6,315 or 10.5 percent below the national median.
Ohio’s economy has been throttled, in part, by stagnant population growth. More people equals more consumer purchasing to, in turn, help create more jobs. Ohio’s population only increased by about 31,000 people last year — growth of 0.26 percent as compared to the national rate of 0.62 percent. In the longer term, the state’s population grew by about 174,000 to nearly 11.7 million between 2008 and 2018, placing the state’s lackluster growth 41st in the nation for that period.
The state’s poverty rate ticked down slightly last year from 14.6 percent to 14 percent, but remains above the national average of 13.4 percent. An estimated 1.58 million Ohioans, including 290,000 families, were considered impoverished — $12,752 or less in annual income for an individual and $25,283 for a family of four. Poverty was the highest among African Americans (28.8 percent), Ohio’s slice of Appalachia (17.2 percent), urban inner-cities (26.3 percent) and among female single parents (39.7 percent).
Nine years after ranking fifth in the nation, Ohio’s K-12 schools are rated much lower but improved slightly over the past year, according to the respected Quality Counts report card from Education Week, an education trade publication. But Ohio’s rate of improvement lagged behind other states’ as its score of 79.9 (B-minus) dropped Ohio’s ranking one spot to 23rd in the U.S. The national average was 79.0 (C+).
The year prior, Ohio’s school system received a score of 74.2 (C), exactly matching the national average. Debate continues over how to best fund public schools while accounting for varying property-tax wealth and local tax effort.
State investment in public colleges and universities has trailed off over the years, placing more of the burden on tuition rates and student loans. The average full-time student pays $7,958 a year in tuition, nearly $1,400 or 17 percent more than the national average, ranking Ohio 29th for college affordability, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Large health challenges remain in Ohio. The number of infants dying before their first birthday has fallen a bit overall, but rose slightly among African American infants. Overall, black infants die at nearly three times the rate of white infants. The state may have finally turned the corner with a 21-percent drop in opioid-fueled overdose deaths from mid-2017 to mid 2018, but the state’s per-capita death rate for calendar year 2017 was the second-worst in the nation with 4,854 deaths.
Some argue more money — aka higher taxes — can help heal Ohio.
"To build a stronger economy that works for everyone, Ohio needs to invest in the basics — reliable infrastructure, strong schools, and healthy communities — but after a more than a decade of tax cuts, Ohio continues to struggle to make these needed investments," said Nick Bates, policy director for One Ohio Now, a coalition of dozens of statewide advocacy groups.
However, Republican lawmakers predictably have shown no desire to increase taxes amid talk of another potential income tax cut by the likes of Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina.
Advocates of higher state spending on schools, higher education and social programs point out that Ohio has foregone billions of dollars in needed revenue by cutting Ohioans’ income and other taxes, including $5 billion in reductions under Kasich and the GOP-controlled General Assembly. A $1.1 billion annual cut in income taxes for small business owners and entrepreneurs, who pay no tax on their first $250,000 in income, is derided by Democrats as a giveaway that has not spurred job growth.
Local governments, whose state aid has been slashed over the years, point to the state’s $2.7 billion rainy day fund and question why it cannot be tapped to help address local programs and the opioid crisis. DeWine has said he has no plans to spend money from the reserve.