The Buckeye Way

While we watch the continuing showdown in Wisconsin between Governor Scott Walker and the state’s public sector unions, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board says (subscription required) we should also pay attention to what’s happening in Ohio and the important lessons it has to teach those who believe in reforming government.

Like Wisconsin, Ohio is considering a bill that would limit collective bargaining for state and local public employees to wages. The bill would also tie salaries to merit rather than seniority, require more employee contributions towards health benefits, prohibit public employees from striking, and reform binding arbitration for union contract negotiations. Some commentators call these proposals extreme, but what Ohio is proposing is less radical than what has been in effect in the private sector for years; for example, the bill would require that workers pay 20% towards health benefits, three percent less than what private sector workers in Ohio pay for their health.

Reform to collective bargaining is part of Governor John Kasich’s plan to revitalize Ohio, a state that was once the center of the nation’s industry. Ohio currently faces budget deficits totaling $8 billion over the next two years and has one of the ten worst state and local tax burdens in the country. If the bill were already law, the Kasich administration estimates that it would have saved $216 million for the state last year and $1.1 billion for local governments. 

Also, like in Wisconsin, Ohio has attracted huge protests and threats of political payback at the ballot box fill the air in Columbus. However, Kasich and his fellow Republicans, who control the General Assembly, have stood firm against the onslaught. On Wednesday, the State Senate passed the bill 17-16 despite howls from the throngs of protestors surrounding the State House. The bill is now before the lower house of the Assembly.

What the Buckeye State teaches us is that to properly reform government, policymakers must be willing to propose serious reforms to the fundamental structures of government and see them through despite the odds. The public sector is a strong, entrenched interest that seems intent on preserving the status quo. To stop these reforms, the public sector has used its tremendous financial and political resources to generate opposition. Policymakers, unfortunately, tend to succumb under this pressure, which leaves the status quo in place. They do so out of fear of electoral consequences. But, as former Michigan Governor John Engler showed the country during the 1990s, tough reforms can pay policy and political dividends. After reforming welfare, reducing taxes, and cutting government, Engler won reelection by a huge margin.

But in order to reap dividends, policymakers must succeed. If policymakers in Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states don’t carry out the reforms that the public has demanded, the public will conclude that those policymakers are just another bunch of ineffective or, worse, lying politicians. The public tends to turn out of office politicians who are fickle or deceitful. As the Journal wisely notes, “Traumatic as it can be trying to reform government, it is lethal to try and fail.” Let’s hope that policymakers in Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere see through the trauma and don’t fail to reform.