Messing With the State Constitution?

Submitted by Kevin Cronin on Tue, 04/19/2005 - 10:51.

Messing With the State Constitution?

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell wants to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit public governing bodies, the state, local and school board spending combined, from spending greater than the Midwest Consumer Price Index, population growth, inflation or 3.5% above spending for the prior year.  Sounds complicated? This a formula for gridlock, a procedural requirement that will tie the legislature and the Governor in knots, an odd goal for someone who wants to govern.

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, concerns for writing a complex formula to limit spending into the state Constitution, a measure that can only be waived when the General Assembly, Senate, Governor and voters all agree to over-ride the measure, but even then, only on a one shot deal/temporary basis (when have all of those entities agreed on anything?).  Oh, and any citizen in the state would be empowered to sue any jurisdiction asserting a violation.  This is a procedure that could tie legislators and governors in knots for years to come. 

But let’s leave those troubling implementation details aside for a moment to look at the practical implication of the Blackwell restriction.  The Assembly just went through an exhausting budget cycle, with measures now awaiting action in the Senate.  Many legislators and organizations complained of steep cuts imposed by the Republicans who run things in Columbus.  Assuming the provision was in place for this budge cycle, what would spending look like?  Just how would the state deal with cutting $3 BILLION from the budget (or $19 BILLION, if the restriction were in place since 1995).  The state would have to cut:

* $900 million from elementary and secondary education (teacher/pupil ratios in Ohio would rise to among the worst levels in the country);

* $500 million from health programs (Medicaid coverage for kids or prescription drug benefits would be eliminated);

* $450 million from colleges, universities and higher education (what would that mean for the brain drain and our ability to compete with other education institutions around the country and other regions or countries for 21st century jobs?);

* $350 million from state public safety (prisons across the state would have to close); and

* $700 million from other state services (energy, environment and research programs, like the Third Frontier concepts to invest in new technologies to create industrial and commercial opportunities would be scrapped faster than the Secretary of State could say “Elect Me Now!�)

Blackwell’s idea would chain Ohio to its unsuccessful past, forever preventing legislatures from increasing spending to address urgent priorities.  Our underfunded schools would continue to languish.  Community plans for school reform would face additional hurdles and expense, as would school reconstruction, banishing our kids to inadequate facilities.  Further, in the event of a catastrophe, manmade or natural disaster, Ohio would lose the ability to respond appropriately, limited in the resources it can devote to any project, regardless of need or priority.  Our state would be locked into its current disadvantage, compared to other states around the country, unable to respond or create remedies to propel the state forward. 

Like term limits and balanced budget amendments, Blackwell proposes a procedural rule as a substitute for political will, priority setting and decision-making.  In the process, he elevates budget debate into a potential constitutional crisis of monumental proportion. What if the legislature fails to meet the Blackwell restrictive formula, do the courts have to step in to uphold the Constitution?  With the failure to comply with the education funding decisions as our guide, court enforcement seems unlikely.  But by creating this process, Blackwell trivializes both the Governor and Legislature for their law-making roles, as well as the Ohio Constitution. 

Circus entrepreneur PT Barnum is famous for the line, “you never grow broke, underestimating the American public.�  Secretary Blackwell and his campaign seem to have hit on the political equivalent.  A budget straightjacket is hardly the solution to what ails Ohio.  

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