Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) has already used his state’s budget gap to justify stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, slashing education spending, and gutting health care services. At the same time, he’s proposed a slew of giveaways to corporations, including a tax break for oil companies and opening up Ohio’s state parks to oil and gas drilling.
Now, Kasich is proposing a fifty percent cut to funding for the Office of Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), which represents Ohio citizens in disputes with utility companies. Kasich’s office is using the shabby state of Ohio’s budget to justify the move:
“That something might be a worthy cause or important program doesn’t change the fact that Ohio’s broke,” Kasich spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp said in an e-mail. “If we want to start creating jobs we have to stop believing we can balance the budget with imaginary money and once again respect the honesty of hard choices.” Asked how cutting OCC’s budget helps fix Ohio’s financial problems, she replied: “It’s all taxpayer money.”
But the catch here is that that the OCC is not funded with taxpayer dollars: it’s entirely funded by assessments on the utility companies themselves. “If you cut our budget, that money goes back into the pockets of the utilities,” said attorney Janine Migden-Ostrander, who leads the OCC. “It does not go back to the citizens of Ohio.” Even if the utility companies passed the savings on to consumers, they would total less than $1 per taxpayer per year.
Nearly the entire OCC budget goes to paying salaries and benefits of the OCC staff, so cuts to its budget simply means that it will handle fewer cases. Over the last two years, the agency’s advocacy has saved consumers about $54.5 million. “It is a disgrace to cut their budget in half when it is money not taken from the state coffers,” said state Rep. Vernon Sykes (D). “It cripples the people’s advocate against the law firms and economists hired by the utility companies.”
The Columbus Dispatch noted that Ohio’s utility companies “contributed heavily to Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign.” Anthony Alexander, a top executive for First Energy “was among the top individual donors.”