History Thursday: Budget debate led lawmakers to mow Statehouse lawn

By: - July 8, 2021 12:40 am

This photograph of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, was taken in the winter of 1931. Photo from OhioPix.org.

By the fall of 1971, having tried just about everything else to get the state budget passed, Ohio lawmakers turned to their next great negotiating tool: Lawnmowers.

The tardy budget meant state funding cuts. Lawmakers protested by cutting the grass on the Statehouse grounds themselves.

Fifty years later, the Ohio General Assembly would pass a budget with bipartisan support and a few days to spare before the June 30 deadline.

But 1971 was a different story. It proved to be a wild year of Ohio politics, as national tensions mounted over the Vietnam War, Gene Wilder graced the big screen as Willy Wonka and Don McLean sang about The Day the Music Died.

The legislature set records that year for fiscal inaction. State officials openly sniped at one another in the press. Then came the lawnmowers.

‘The work of a madman’

Gov. John Gilligan was just a few months into his first term when it came time to propose his first budget.

The Cincinnati Democrat thought big. The previous two-year budget was around $6 billion. It was expected Gilligan would go just a little bit higher. Instead, he rolled out an expansive proposal topping $9 billion dollars.

“(Gilligan) promised something to every organized group in the state,” Republican Rep. Lloyd George Kerns later complained. Kerns said those in the Statehouse viewed the budget proposal as “the work of a madman.”

The GOP got to work cutting back on some of Gilligan’s ideas. One of the governor’s provisions called for increasing spending for disability services. An Ohio parent of a child with disabilities went directly to the legislative chamber floor to condemn lawmakers for trying to take out this increase. 

“They’re cutting the budget so this boy will continue to live in a zoo,” he reportedly screamed upon being ejected from the building.

“The legislators are saying to the people of Ohio again that (people with disabilities) are third-class citizens, not deserving even the most basic needs of life,” the man told reporters. “I feel if one legislator votes to cut this budget, he should be held for criminal negligence.”

The Ohio General Assembly set a new record in 1971 for passing the most interim budgets without approving a two-year package. This headline appeared in the Marion Star newspaper in September 1971.

The Ohio House eventually passed a $7.8 billion budget but couldn’t agree on how to finance it.

Gilligan wanted to pay for spending increases by instituting a new statewide income tax on individuals and corporate profits.

State senators weren’t interested in the proposed tax hikes. With the June 30 deadline approaching, the Senate turned its attention to passing an interim budget in order to give members more time to hash things out.

July came and went. Gilligan continued to push for his income tax idea, which grew more unpopular with each passing week. The Ohio AFL-CIO and United Auto Workers Union both came out against any tax increases, leading some Democratic lawmakers to join Republicans in opposing the governor.

In August, Gilligan warned there would be “severe cutbacks” in state operations if there was no budget passed by September.

Cleaning up after the amateurs

On Sept. 1, the 170th day of budget considerations at the Statehouse, thousands of state employees were laid off. 

Among them were 1,200 workers for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which temporarily closed 46 state parks until the budget deliberations were resolved.

House Speaker Charles Kurfess, a Republican from Wood County, called the cuts “cheap politics” and said they reflected a “childish reaction” from Gilligan.

“The governor is using his so-called austerity program as a façade to hide his own apparent ineffectiveness in getting the support of even his own party members in the legislature behind his excessive tax and spend programs,” Kurfess was quoted as saying.

Kurfess’ party decided to fight politics with politics. 

Nothing had indicated the Ohio Public Works Department was unable to keep the Statehouse grounds mowed. Nonetheless, some lawmakers thought doing the work themselves would showcase the absurdity of the ongoing budget impasse.

Skilled as they might have been politically, their grounds keeping ability was lacking. On several occasions, Public Works employees had to go out and re-mow everything after the lawmakers packed up.

Public Works Director R. Wilson Neff had enough. 

Thousands of state workers were laid off due to the budget impasse, the Salem News reported.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s about reached its limit,” he told reporters of the publicity stunts. “When you have to go out and clean up after the amateurs, it’s no big help.”

ODNR Director William Nye was also critical. Lawmakers had criticized him for shutting down the state parks, all while they failed to approve a budget to properly fund the parks system.

“I don’t understand how they can cut money from the department’s budget on the one hand and now turn around and urge us to spend money which the state does not have and they know it doesn’t have,” Nye said.

Until the budget is passed, Nye said bluntly, the parks would remain closed.

“Mowing the Statehouse lawn won’t get (the parks) reopened, distributing misleading financial information to the press and public won’t get them reopened and setting records for the length of a non-productive legislative session won’t get them reopened,” he said.

Indeed, the Associated Press reported on Sept. 21 that the 109th General Assembly set a new record for the most interim budgets enacted in one year.

And there was still no end in sight.

‘Last chance bill’

By October, Gilligan was getting desperate. At a private dinner meeting in German Village with Democrats and labor leaders, Gilligan admitted it was futile to keep fighting for the income tax.

The group came up with a new strategy. If Republicans didn’t want to raise income taxes on individuals and corporations, they would have a choice of how to proceed. They could cut spending and potentially face the wrath of voters. Or, they could instead pay for budget spending increases through a sales tax hike, which was equally unpopular.

“(The governor is) going to get the monkey off his back and throw it right in the laps of the Republicans,” a Democratic state senator present at the dinner meeting told a reporter.

A newspaper headline months after the budget deadline had already passed.

The gambit appeared to work. As the calendar flipped to November, a conference committee with lawmakers from both parties and legislative chambers approved a budget featuring Gilligan’s income taxes.

The governor called it a “last chance bill.” 

It wasn’t. Negotiations quickly fell apart. Democrats blamed Republicans. Republicans blamed labor unions. Gilligan, meanwhile, had gained the upper edge.

“State Budget Puzzling All,” read a Nov. 15 headline in the Marysville Journal-Tribune.

“(I)t’s anyone’s guess how the puzzle of a biennial state budget will next be tackled.”

Lawmakers passed one more interim budget to last through December, quietly including a controversial provision that Gilligan quickly nixed. Along with the unending budget talks, the legislature prepared for the once-per-decade redistricting process.

It was expected that redistricting would play out through the courts. Normally, the Ohio attorney general would represent the state in any legal challenge.

With Democrats holding the governor and attorney general positions in 1971, Republicans wanted an alternative. They proposed to allow Ted Brown, the GOP secretary of state, to hire a lawyer to represent his office in any potential apportionment lawsuits. Gilligan vetoed this and insisted the attorney general would handle it.

History would repeat itself 50 years later. The Republican-led General Assembly included a provision in the 2021 budget to allow its own GOP leaders to intervene in redistricting cases. The budget item would have let Republican lawmakers hire their own private lawyers using taxpayer funds.

This time, it was Republican Gov. Mike DeWine who recently vetoed the provision — reportedly at the request of fellow Republican Attorney General Dave Yost. The current party circumstances are different than in 1971, but DeWine and Yost made the same argument that it should be the attorney general’s job.

After nine full months of bitter debate, lawmakers finally passed a budget bill in mid-December 1971. It included hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending and, notably, included Gilligan’s income tax proposal.

It had been a very frustrating year. But when Gilligan signed the bill while surrounded by his cabinet members, he was pictured wearing a big grin.

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.

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