By Marc Kilmer
Ohio is only a few months into the new fiscal year and the state is already facing a budget deficit. On one side are the governor and some of his legislative allies, proposing to close the deficit by raising taxes. On the other side are some legislators who want to close the deficit by consolidating government services. The idea of raising taxes in order to keep afloat a bloated state bureaucracy should be a nonstarter, but many in Columbus are choosing bureaucrats over taxpayers in this fight.
First, we need to be clear about something — Governor Strickland’s tax proposal is a tax increase, pure and simple. He wants to raise tax rates that have been in place since January. It’s not a “postponement” of a scheduled tax cut; it’s an increase in tax rates that are already in place. The governor wants to call it something other than a tax hike since he has loudly opposed raising taxes in the past, but there’s no avoiding the simple fact that his plan increases the state’s current income tax rates.
The governor says the only alternative to this tax hike is to cut education spending. Legislators should welcome the opportunity to examine just how well the state is spending taxpayers’ money on educating students. Student spending has steadily risen over the years but there is no evidence students are getting a better education. If they were so inclined, the governor and legislators could work together to seek more effective ways to fund education. But this probably won’t happen.
A good alternative to the false choice of cutting taxes or reducing education spending is the proposal to consolidate state government agencies. This would merely eliminate some redundant state agencies and departments and move their functions to another area of the government. It would not cut any government services. The projected $1 billion in savings would come from the staff reductions and savings on rent, equipment, and supplies.
Public employee unions claim the state government is already going through an “unprecedented downsizing.” It’s hard to see how this is true. In 1998, the state had 174,000 full-time and part-time employees. In 2008 that number had swelled to over 187,000. State taxpayers fund the salaries and benefits for all these workers. If the business of state government can be accomplished just as well with fewer workers, then legislators of both parties should embrace that goal.
Some object to this consolidation measure on grounds that it would not produce the savings projected or that these savings would not happen quickly enough to affect the current deficit. There is probably merit in both these claims. However, the fundamental reason to consolidate state government is not the monetary savings it will produce, but the reduction in unnecessary government bureaucracy. This would be a good idea even if it produced no savings to taxpayers. The fact that it will certainly save some money (and do so quickly depending on when the restructuring begins) makes it a great idea.
Saving taxpayer money is more than a function of just trimming government spending. State policymakers need to rethink how the state and local governments spend taxpayers’ money, which may mean restructuring state government, ending public sector unionization, reducing taxing districts, and other similar steps. Only through fundamental reform of how state and local governments operate can Ohio restore its economic strength. This state government reorganization proposal is a good first step.
Marc Kilmer is a policy analyst with the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a research and educational institute located in Columbus, Ohio.