Hinckley buzzards

Originally posted Tuesday, October 26, 2004:

I have been sending these articles to a rather diverse group living all over the country, and so
far I’ve dealt only with national matters. However, it’s probably time to deal with some Ohio issues. The rest of you can take a break if you like.

Here in northeastern Ohio, we have a wonderful natural phenomenon that never fails to bring out the TV crews. Every year on the 15th of March, turkey vultures–buzzards–return to the Hinckley reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. Buzzards are ugly birds, so we shouldn’t be surprised that, while a pretty song was written about the swallows’ annual return to San Juan Capistrano later in March, nobody writes songs about buzzard love.

The TV crews are fond of saying that it’s a mystery why the buzzards come back every year; but it’s not hard to figure out. They come back to Ohio every year because what buzzards do is to circle high in the sky above things that are dying; and Ohio is on life support. Experts differ on what started our decline, but there’s pretty good consensus on the status quo.

1) Ohio’s population is getting poorer, older, and dumber. Incomes declined between 1990 and 2000, and our young people–particularly those with college educations–leave the state in record numbers. Since 2000, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs made matters worse. The population left behind is more likely to need medical care, prisons, and welfare.

2) Everybody agrees that part of the solution is better education, but nobody seems to have a clue how to achieve it. With our richest school systems spending about a dollar for every quarter available to our poorest schools, the state has a serious equity problem. Since 1992, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times in the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case that Ohio’s school funding system is unconstitutional. Last year, in their final DeRolph ruling, they said that it was still unconstitutional, told the legislature to fix it–and then threw up their hands and gave up jurisdiction over the case.

3) The major target of DeRolph is a school system that depends on local property taxes to raise the major part of school district funds. In its rulings, the Court directed the General assembly to find a way to fund public schools that ended the dependency on local property taxes; today, school funding is as dependent on property taxes as ever. In the November 2 election, 44% of Ohio’s school districts have at least one tax issue before the voters; fifteen have more than one. Speaking of education-funding inequities, author Jonathan Kozol recently said, “Ohio is, perhaps, the most shameful example in the nation. The entire system is archaic, undemocratic and ultimately unfixable.”

4) Most honest observers acknowledge that in order to improve the system, additional funding must be found. But all observers–honest or not–remember that the way Democrats became the minority party in Ohio was by raising taxes. So if you listen carefully, the background noise of Ohio politics is the waffling of politicians of both parties as they try to say, without sounding silly, that they’ll somehow find new money without actually raising it.

5) Meanwhile, Ohio provides more tax dollars for nonpublic schools than any other state in the nation. Those tax dollars fund vouchers for Cleveland students and a wide variety of charter schools, including for-profit charters and online charter schools in which the students never actually meet their teachers.

6) So far, I’ve been talking about Ohio’s K-12 school systems; our support for higher education is far worse. Studies generally indicate that Ohio’s funding of its public colleges and universities is ranks 49th among the states. Our percentage of college graduates is among the lowest of industrialized states, and compared with other states, we make it more expensive for our citizens to get degrees.

7) Ohio needs to reform its business tax system: Ohio’s tax structure is archaic, unfair, complicated, and counterproductive. According to a recent series in The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, businesses frequently choose not to locate in Ohio because our business taxes are among the highest in the country. To hear the business lobby tell it, they can’t make a nickel, our highways are paved with silver, and our schools made of marble. They aren’t, of course, because legislators and businesses have enacted a thicket of exceptions: if a company hires the right tax lawyers, it can pay no business taxes at all. The net result is that Ohio businesses typically pay about average taxes, but they have to go through all sorts of corporate contortions to take advantages of the various loopholes that have been built in to the system. What a deal: businesses hate us, and we still get mediocre revenue.

8) Even for people of great good will, finding a solution to such complicated problems would take tremendous legislative skill. Ohio’s legislators generally don’t have it. One reason is that in 1992, Republican leaders persuaded voters to impose term limits on legislators. Legislators in Ohio can’t hold their jobs longer than eight years, so they’re constantly jockeying for new positions and their turnover rate is incredible. More important, they aren’t on the job long enough to learn complicated subjects like school finance or business tax law. Generally they just give up and either wait for the next political job or get ready to leave politics and go back to their careers.

9) If it’s possible, things are made even worse by a group of right-wingers whom even mainstream Republicans call the Caveman Caucus. While the state’s economy circles the drain, this group pushes for creationism in the public schools, concealed weapons carry, a “defense of marriage act,” and (as if that weren’t enough) a constitutional amendment (Issue 1) that, if passed, will make it illegal for any public employer to offer benefits to unmarried couples.

10) The net result is that progressive businesses that have a chance of locating anywhere see a state with unfair business taxes, a troubled educational system, a shrinking supply of educated workers, regressive laws, and a neanderthal legislature, and locate elsewhere. The businesses that remain consist disproportionately of the ones you don’t want to have.

11) Ohio’s only hope is the wholesale replacement of its elected officials. The only force powerful enough to make that happen is the rage of an aroused electorate. I do see some signs of increasing public alarm, but things may have to get significantly worse before they’ll get better. Since the Republicans have essentially owned the state for the past fifteen years, the simplest way to register outrage is to vote Democratic on all the downticket contests.

Ohio’s legislators and governor have a lot of issues to work on, but only one–education–has the potential to lift the state out of its quagmire. They evidently aren’t motivated to improve the situation. One solution would be to elect a Supreme Court that would enforce its previous rulings. I’m starting by voting for C. Ellen Connally for Chief Justice, since incumbent Thomas Moyer voted against all four DeRolph rulings. I’ll vote to re-elect Justice Paul E. Peiffer, a DeRolph supporter who is running unopposed. I’ll pick William O’Neill to replace Terrence O’Donnell and Nancy Fuerst over Judith Lanzinger.

Ohio is a wonderful place to live, with an incredibly diverse population, a proud history, breathtaking scenery, valuable natural resources, and a terrific location. But if we don’t work out some very serious problems, we may have to remind the last Ohioan leaving to turn out the lights.

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