Gov. Kasich: Ohioans Must Get Used To Change

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich has been trying to build support for his budget that includes deep cuts — but no tax hikes — in order to eliminate a projected $8 billion budget deficit. Kasich wants to sell five prisons to the private sector.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Ohio state legislature has become the latest to restrict the ability of public employees unions to negotiate contracts. The state's new Republican governor, John Kasich, says he will sign the bill. Labor officials say the measure is an effort to destroy unions in Ohio. But Governor Kasich says it will help struggling cities and counties save money as their revenues from the state decline.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been following Governor Kasich as he promotes the labor bill and his plan to solve Ohio's projected $8 billion deficit.

DON GONYEA: In this week when the controversial collective bargain bill was working its way through the Ohio legislature, Governor John Kasich was out pushing his own recently unveiled budget, which contains its own share of controversial proposals, from big cuts to education and to cities and other services.

On Monday he took the message to the city of Marion, where he visited a juvenile detention center that's one of five prisons he wants to sell to the private sector.

(Soundbite of applause)

Governor JOHN KASICH (Republican, Ohio): When this prison is sold, it will become a revenue-producing institution for our community and there will be more people hired.

GONYEA: Then yesterday Kasich signed the bill funding the Ohio Department of Transportation. He used the moment to raise another topic: his hopes of privatizing the Ohio Turnpike.

Mr. KASICH: If we could lease the turnpike for around $3 billion and have approximately $2.5 billion free and clear, you could put a billion dollars in infrastructure.

GONYEA: The governor says this is the most reform-minded budget in the state's history, with changes to how public schools are run and to Medicaid. And just about every time Kasich steps up to a microphone anywhere, there's a good chance you'll hear some variation of this...

Mr. KASICH: Ohio must get used to change if we are going to survive. The old way, the status quo, weak, avoiding decisions, is not acceptable.

GONYEA: Which brings us to the legislation dealing with collective bargaining. It has angered labor unions and triggered large demonstrations, though it's not actually part of the governor's proposed budget. He argues it will help local government save money. It does so by ending the ability of public sector unions, including police and firefighters, to negotiate their health care and pension provisions. The governor says it's time to bring public employees in line with the private sector, where workers pay a much larger share of their health care costs.

Again, this week protestors gathered at the capitol building.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Hey, John Kasich, don't sell us out. Hey, Ohio, stand up and shout.

GONYEA: Courtney Johnson is a public schoolteacher in Columbus. She says Senate Bill 5 goes well beyond cutting costs. She calls it an attempt to destroy unions.

Ms. COURTNEY JOHNSON (Teacher): We're not being asked to contribute, we're being silenced, and that's the difference. They're not asking us to contribute more. They're saying you cannot have a voice in the workplace.

GONYEA: Sixty-five-year-old Dwight Landis is a retired city worker who joined the latest protests. He did admit that he has long admired Kasich as a smart numbers and finance guy.

Mr. DWIGHT LANDIS (Retired City Worker): I hate - I'm going to say it, right -I voted for him and I liked the idea of getting our house in order. We do have to get our finances right. But it doesn't have to be predatory. And that's where this is headed. That's the way I see it.

GONYEA: Landis is an independent voter but says Governor Kasich has lost his support for good.

Polls show that Kasich's approval rating has plummeted. One new survey puts it at just 30 percent. The governor's reaction...

Mr. KASICH: I am not at all pleased to hear that somebody that voted for me, you know, now thinks I've lost my way or whatever. But it's just not true. I mean, I can look in their faces and understand their fear. I come from a union family. But it is my job to be a leader, to bring prosperity back to Ohio.

GONYEA: Governor Kasich has been in office less than three months. It's been a contentious time and there's no sign of it quieting down as formal debate on his budget gets underway and as unions prepare for a ballot initiative that they hope will prevent Senate Bill 5 from every going into effect.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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