ELYRIA — Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald said Saturday that his top budgetary priority if he’s elected governor will be to restore state funding for local governments, which has been slashed in Gov. John Kasich’s budgets.
FitzGerald said Lorain County governments have lost about $33.8 million in funding that used to flow from the state into local coffers. The county’s schools have lost another $14.6 million, he said.
“There’s been a very particular price that’s been paid by Lorain County because of this administration,” FitzGerald said during an interview at The Chronicle-Telegram.
FitzGerald is widely seen as the frontrunner in the May Democratic primary against Larry Ealy and is expected to face the incumbent Kasich in November. Kasich is unopposed in the Republican primary.
Four years ago, FitzGerald said, Kasich was elected on promises that he would create jobs, fix the state’s battered economy and cut taxes. But Cuyahoga County’s top elected official said the results haven’t always been good for the average citizen.
“Things have gotten tougher for the average person in Ohio, except for a small group of people, and I think that’s why this race is as close as it is,” he said.
The local government funding cuts are a prime example of that, FitzGerald said. It has concentrated power and resources in Columbus at the expense of local communities, he argued.
“I think taking away 50 percent of the local government funds was an enormous mistake,” FitzGerald said. “It hurt Elyria. It hurt Lorain County in general.”
He said Kasich made good on his promise to cut income taxes by cutting money for local governments. But that’s only been a significant benefit for the wealthy, he argued.
It’s also meant a surge in local efforts to raise taxes to provide government services.
“They intend to defund local government to the extent that they can and sticking everybody with higher property tax bills,” FitzGerald said.
Lorain County commissioners have unsuccessfully tried three times in recent years to convince voters to pass a sales tax increase to counteract the loss of local government money and other blows to the county’s revenue stream.
At the same time, FitzGerald said, the state sales tax has been raised. That’s not something Kasich disclosed when he was running for office four years ago, he said.
He also said the economic growth Kasich promised and has praised as the “Ohio miracle” hasn’t been as good as the governor claims.
“The job creation rate in this state is anemic,” FitzGerald said, pointing to a March figure that showed a net gain of 600 jobs across the state.
And while the state’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.1 percent in March, compared with 7.3 percent a year prior, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family services, FitzGerald contends that has more to do with people dropping out of the job market than with them finding work.
He said the state has only gained back about half of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.
Kasich also has trumpeted the work of JobsOhio, the state’s private economic development arm, but FitzGerald is highly critical of the organization and its reputation for secrecy.
If elected, FitzGerald said one of his first acts will be to open up JobsOhio’s books to the public. Kasich has worked hard to keep most of what the agency does out of the public eye and even championed legislation that blocked Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, a fellow Republican, from auditing the agency.
FitzGerald said his philosophy is, “If it’s public money, it’s the public’s business,” something he said can be seen in how Cuyahoga County’s economic development fund, the Western Reserve Fund, operates. He said that organization conducts its business, including deliberations over which companies should receive funding, in public.
“You’ll be a better agency if you have to defend to the public the investments that you’re making,” he said.
He also said that in his travels around the state he’s talked to numerous local officials who have told him they’ve had little or no interaction with JobsOhio. He said he thinks it’s a mistake to have a top-down economic development strategy.
FitzGerald said he prefers to spread out economic development efforts to focus not just on the larger metropolitan areas and to try to attract a mix of small- and medium-sized businesses across the state.
He also said that the Greater Cleveland area should focus on growing its own businesses in addition to trying to attract and retain large companies.
For instance, he said the area is already well known in the medical field and should work to encourage spinoff companies in industries that could support the medical technology in use at the region’s hospitals.
Although the election isn’t until November, FitzGerald said he’s hopeful about the signs he’s seeing in the race. He said his name recognition across the state has risen from 10 percent a year ago to around 35 percent now.
He also said he’s encouraged by a recent poll released by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling that showed he and Kasich in a dead-even race. Just because PPP leans Democratic, doesn’t mean its figures should be discounted, he argued.
In 2010, he said, the poll consistently showed Kasich leading then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat.
FitzGerald said he’s only now starting to spend money on the race, with a radio ad buy that’s in response to a television marketing push by Kasich’s campaign. He also said he’s been spending a lot of time on the road and that will mean more visits to Lorain County as the campaign unfolds.
“We’ll be in virtually every city in Lorain County,” he said.