Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and House Speaker Armond Budish claim to be Democrats. But in the biennial state budget they approved in 2009, they gave Ohioans more reasons to wonder whatever happened to the Ohio Democratic Party that once billed itself as “the party of the people.”

Trickle-down Dems?

In recent years, state Democratic leaders have endorsed tax cuts for the richest Ohioans. Strickland boasts of his support for the across-the-board, 21% income-tax reductions enacted in 2005 by Republican Gov. Bob Taft and the then-Republican General Assembly. The cuts were to be phased in over five years, and Strickland has protected them since becoming governor in 2007.

Moreover, in his first year in office, Strickland expanded Ohio’s homestead exemption to include wealthy older Ohioans, even billionaires. The exemption excludes property taxes on up to the first $25,000 of a home’s market value, and previously applied only to older Ohioans making below a certain income level.

Because of the change, reduced property-tax revenue for education and other public services – hundreds of millions of dollars annually – has had to be replaced by sales and income taxes paid by Ohioans of all income levels.

Democratic support for reducing the wealthy’s taxes has been given notwithstanding the serious harm the policy has inflicted on the state’s finances. It also has been provided despite the fact that, over the past few decades, the rich have been acquiring a higher percentage of the nation’s wealth and paying lower tax rates than they did in times when the nation’s economy prospered.

There’s no evidence the tax cuts have benefited Ohio’s economy, which has continued to deteriorate. Nevertheless, in preparing the current state budget, Democratic politicians seemed as determined to protect the wealth and tax rates of the rich as any gung-ho subscriber to Republican trickle-down economics.

Dems kill their own

To balance the budget, Ohio’s Democratic officials chose to slash numerous programs serving the poor, the disadvantaged, and the middle class.

For instance, they significantly reduced funding for public libraries, job training, subsidized child care, home- and community-based care for the elderly, child-support enforcement, mental-health treatment for abused children, and services for adults with alcohol-, drug-addiction, or mental-health disorders.

Additionally, food banks were denied funding necessary to meet spiraling needs. Support for higher education was cut. Public universities were permitted to increase tuition rates that are already too high for many poor and middle-class Ohioans to afford college. And 60% of public schools will see decreases in state support.

Partly separate from the state budget process, Strickland’s policies have forced a roughly 18% cut in the budgets of state schools for the deaf and blind. These schools must reduce the number of teachers and other staff. They also have to make widespread cuts on matters such as textbook purchases, equipment that helps students communicate, athletic programs, and expenditures for food.

In a further effort to balance the state budget on the backs of the disabled, the Strickland administration took $2.8 million from two funds that Ohio’s drivers voluntarily contribute to. When renewing their licenses, Ohioans are told that donations to the funds will be used to prevent blindness and encourage organ donations. But after learning from the media about the misappropriation, Ohioans will be less likely to give to these funds.

Strickland and other Democratic leaders not only shredded the social safety net by billions of dollars, but disingenuously claim that their budget doesn’t raise taxes. In fact, the budget increases about 140 fees imposed by state government. Strickland himself said in 2007 that “higher fees are higher taxes.” Many of the increased fees, like those for drivers’ license renewals, temporary tags, and replacement plates, are paid by lower-income Ohioans.

It’s hard to imagine how this budget could have been better calculated to protect the haves and stiff the have-nots. The rich must be thinking that with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans? And that’s what Strickland seems to want them to think.

A continuing sellout

Strickland’s shafting of the poor and middle class, and catering to the rich, have been continuing themes of his so-called Democratic administration. One of the most egregious examples has been his favoring of utility companies over consumers, including thousands of poor Ohioans who have to choose between heating and eating.

Strickland had a chance to lower consumers’ utility bills shortly after coming into office. But he sided with utility companies and their lobbyists, and has continued to do so.

In April 2007, then-Attorney General Marc Dann shrewdly found that three of former Gov. Taft’s appointments to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) had violated the state’s open-meetings law. All three appointees therefore resigned from office.

Consumer advocates viewed the situation as an opportunity for Strickland to appoint members who would strongly support consumers. But he ignored their urgings and reappointed Taft’s people. After being in office only three months, he had already decided to break his campaign promise of ensuring “that the people who are appointed to the PUCO are people who have a track record of being concerned about the needs of the consumer.”

About a year later, Strickland jumped to unwarranted conclusions and worked feverishly to force the “consumer bulldog” Dann from office, based on what many now believe were bogus sexual-harassment complaints against one of Dann’s managers. But Strickland hasn’t been willing to work so hard to protect consumers.

Instead, he bucked consumer advocates again in 2009 by reappointing a utility-friendly PUCO chairman who had been appointed twice by the Republican Taft. The reappointment was announced late on a Friday afternoon, which is usually when sly politicians disclose embarrassing decisions that they hope will receive minimal news coverage.

Dems court well-heeled support

By reappointing Taft’s PUCO members and chasing a pro-consumer Democratic attorney general from office, Strickland has positioned himself to rake in campaign contributions from utility companies and other corporate interests.

Likewise in regard to the state’s tax rates and budget, Strickland’s protection of the wealthy ingratiates him and the party to rich Ohioans who make political donations. He knows that some of his gifts to them return in the form of campaign contributions. Instead of correcting Ohio’s infamous “pay-to-play” system of politics, he has milked it.

If anyone deserves the label “corporate Democrat,” it’s Strickland with his take-from-the-needy-and-give-to-the-greedy agenda. He’s Robin Hood in reverse.

This strategy has helped him amass a fat campaign war-chest. But it’s blood money obtained at the cost of selling out traditional Democratic values and throwing some of the party’s longtime constituencies under the bus.

It’s not your daddy’s Ohio Democratic Party

There was a time when this brand of public policy would have been unthinkable for Democratic leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Hubert Humphrey stated: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the unemployed.”

Under the tests of progress and morality used by traditional Democratic leaders, the budget supported by Strickland and Budish is a heartless and outrageous disaster. The same is true of Strickland’s tax cuts for the rich, his appointments to the PUCO, and his ousting of an aggressive, populist Democratic attorney general.

Strickland and Budish are politicians who are so unlike leaders such as Roosevelt and Humphrey that the Ohio Democratic Party now appears to be a pathetic caricature of what it once stood for.

Strickland, at least, appears to be counting on Democrats not noticing before November 2010, when he is up for reelection. Although he will be listed on the ballot as a Democrat, an increasing number of Ohioans know better.