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Spending charges fly in Ohio Senate battle

Spending charges fly in Ohio Senate battle
© Greg Nash

Republicans are making Ted Strickland’s spending as Ohio governor an issue in a race that will help determine the Senate majority this fall.

They say Strickland oversaw cuts to the state budget, including significant cuts to mental health and addiction services, even as he spent money on the governor’s residence.

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While governor of Ohio in 2009, Strickland, a Democrat who is challenging Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanKellyanne Conway joins Ohio Senate candidate's campaign OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms Mallory to lead White House environment council | US emissions dropped 1.7 percent in 2019 | Interior further delays Trump rule that would make drillers pay less to feds Senate confirms Biden's pick to lead White House environmental council MORE (R), spent $263,000 of public funds to build environmentally friendly bathrooms in the governor's home.

The spending is featured in a new ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee titled “Flush.”

Republicans are also slamming Strickland’s use of a private plane.

During the first three months of 2010, according to a report at the time by alternative weekly The Other Paper, the Beechcraft King Air plane used by Strickland during his term made more than two-dozen trips from the Ohio State University Airport to the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

The trips saved Strickland time getting to and from the governor’s mansion, because the Glenn airport is about 15 minutes closer. Use of the plane cost taxpayers $400 per hour.  

The Republican Party in Ohio will host a conference call with reporters on Monday to highlight both issues.

Strickland’s campaign is pushing back at the GOP attacks, emphasizing that the bathrooms at the residence were constructed for the visiting public and that most of the renovations were paid for with private funds.

His team says that spending on services related to mental health and addiction in Ohio increased during his tenure, and Strickland aides in turn have raised questions about Portman’s office expenditures, including $32,000 spent on a staff retreat.

David Bergstein, Strickland’s campaign spokesman, says Republicans are trying to distract attention from Portman’s record.

“The panic and desperation behind these false attacks shows how concerned Republicans are about Senator Portman’s reelection chances and that they’ll say anything to distract from Portman’s own record of pushing the agenda of the rich and powerful at the expense of Ohio’s working families,” he said.

Recent polls show Portman ahead of Strickland in the Senate race, which both parties are fighting hard to win.

Democrats need to net four Senate seats to win back the majority if they hold on to the White House, and they are targeting Ohio as a prime pickup opportunity.

Republicans can’t afford to lose Portman’s seat, and he so far has been a strong candidate, outperforming GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Taylor Greene defends 'America First' effort, pushes back on critics MORE in polls.

The GOP attacks against Strickland are playing out against the backdrop of an opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of thousands of Ohioans.

In 2009, Strickland’s two-year budget for the state cut funding for treatment services at the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services by 31 percent and 29 percent for fiscal 2010 and 2011, respectively, sparking public protests on the steps of the Statehouse.

But Strickland’s campaign argues that from the time he was sworn in as governor in 2007 to when he left office in 2011, funding for the entire Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services increased from $181.3 million to $188.7 million.

Several Ohio-based experts on opioid addiction were critical of the state government’s response to the opioid addiction when Strickland was governor.

“He did, in our opinion, surround himself with people that did not understand the magnitude of not supporting the behavioral healthcare system,” said Terry Russell, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonpartisan group, speaking of Strickland. “It’s a fact that we had concerns over the loss of funding during that administration.”

Others suggest the blame lies less with Strickland and more with governments at large being slow to recognize the spread of opioid addiction.

Lori Criss, the associate director of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers, said, “In general there hasn’t been an adequate policy response and resource investment in prevention and treatment services, historically.

“Overall there has been a lack of investment in the infrastructure for addiction treatment services and prevention services for that matter."

She said the government’s response to opioid addiction has improved since Strickland left office, mirroring a growing realization by public officials around the country that drug addiction should be treated more as a health crisis than a criminal issue. 

“In the past four of five years, we’ve seen a significant shift in that mindset and a recognition we need to invest more in the healthcare aspects related to addiction. That is a new perspective in Ohio,” Criss said.  

The biennial budget Strickland implemented in 2009 cut funding for treatment at the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction services by $11.9 million, 31 percent, to $26 million for fiscal 2010. It increased the amount slightly to $26.8 million for fiscal 2011, a number well short of the 2009 level of $37.9 million.  

Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said the state budget faced across-the-board cuts because of the 2008 recession, which wreaked havoc with state and municipal finances across the country.

William Denihan, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, said Strickland’s decision to keep many staffers from the Republican administration of his predecessor, Bob Taft, was a mistake.

“We expected a lot more out of Strickland in delivery of services because of his background, and that was very important,” he said, referring to Strickland’s earlier career as a psychologist at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.

He praised Strickland for trying to get a new state hospital built in Cleveland but noted that the hospital was built in Summit County, outside the city, where many people struggling with addiction live.

Sandra Stephenson, who served as director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health under Strickland, called his record in fighting the opioid crisis “excellent” and highlighted his efforts to close down "pill mills," where people could obtain illicit prescriptions and drugs in exchange for cash.

The debate over opioids has also put Portman’s record under the microscope, with some Democrats going on the attack.

Chillicothe Mayor Luke Feeney and Pike County Judge Paul Price told the Chillicothe Gazette in February that Portman did not give local communities the proper funding to fight drug overdoses when he voted against an omnibus spending package last year. The package included money for prescription drug monitoring programs.

Russell of NAMI Ohio, however, gives Portman high marks for pushing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act through Congress this summer.

“His last initiatives are gigantic for people facing the opioid crisis in Ohio,” he said.