Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Economy divides Ohio politicians

By Julie Carr Smyth
The Associated Press
Posted Sep 22, 2009 @ 12:05 PM

COLUMBUS — Ohio can breathe a sigh of relief. Gov. Ted Strickland finally appointed a permanent replacement last week to succeed Lee Fisher at the helm of the Ohio Department of Development.

Economic development ship righted. Yellow brick road to the Emerald City of prosperity straight ahead.

Right? Well, not exactly.

No sooner had Strickland answered attacks from the Ohio Republican Party over the state’s many months without a development director by appointing Lisa Patt-McDaniel than GOP lawmakers called a series of press conferences across the state Monday.

Their focus was to attack him and fellow Democrats in the Ohio House for being lackadaisical about tackling Ohio’s economic woes.

Republican lawmakers pointed out that one economic competitiveness index places Ohio 49th of 50 states. Forbes rated the state 47th in its prospects for growth in areas such as job creation, income growth, business openings and venture capital investments (despite another ranking that put Ohio tops in the nation in such investments two years in a row).

The lawmakers took particular aim at the House Economic Development Committee, which they say has failed to conduct regular hearings or pass a single substantive bill.

“So far, Democrats have not shown that they are willing to make any important decisions regarding economic development within our state,” said state Rep. Dave Hall. “How many more businesses and young people need to flee the state before the Democrats decide they need to act?”

Republicans, who control 46 of 99 House votes, laid out a series of proposals they believe could help create jobs and stop businesses from leaving the state.

Among them are offering tax credits to companies that hire unemployed Ohioans, creating a small business resource portal online, tracking job placement success and collecting data from companies that leave the state.

The lawmakers failed to note that few bills on any topic have been passed since the session began in January. And chances are, with Democrats leading the House and Republicans leading the Senate, few will.

Another thing that gets lost in the dustup over the state’s development efforts is that the Ohio Department of Development and the House Economic Development Committee may have “development” in their names, but they are far from the only engines of Ohio’s economy.

Some argue they aren’t even the main places where transformative ideas are likely to start.

Joe Shure, deputy director of the State Fiscal Project at the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said state development departments tend to lead states’ PR efforts — not their economic comebacks.

“In a lot of states, it’s really a marketing office, it sends the signal to other states that we’re ’Open for Business,”’ Shure said. “What really matters to a state’s economic prosperity is the quality of education, the transportation network, its environmental regulations, a tax system that’s adequate to raise needed revenue. Those are not really the things development directors deal with.”

Being without a permanent development director for nearly eight months during this historically abysmal economy is certainly unfortunate for the state. And it can’t be ignored that the development directorship is only one of several within Strickland’s administration that have been sidetracked by controversy.

However, according to Shure, the GOP may be overstating the case when it characterizes the Development Department as central to Strickland’s strategy for improving Ohio’s economy.

“Gov. Strickland clearly doesn’t consider job creation a priority,” Ohio Republican Chairman Kevin DeWine wrote in one of his many attacks over the open directorship.

Then DeWine took aim at Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who stepped aside as development director to run for a coveted U.S. Senate seat. “The Strickland-Fisher administration has checked out. It’s no wonder Ohio’s economy is spiraling out of control when the guy responsible for turning it around has no idea what’s going on.”

Shure said whether or not a state has a development director, or even a Development Department, isn’t highly relevant to its economic competitiveness.

“It’s kind of in vogue for states to have highly visible economic development people out there marketing and basically trying to take jobs from other states,” he said. “But no state should think doing that is going to replace slogging it out in the areas that make the most difference. There’s no replacement for doing economic development the old-fashioned way.”

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