Local Politics: Ohio is not a progressive state

Despite Gov. Mike DeWine’s insistence to the contrary, the state’s regressive policies are contributing to an ongoing brain drain

Craig Calcaterra
JobsOhio has started a campaign to lure businesses to Ohio and that includes billboards in several cities such as Boston.

My daughter is a high school senior, and while I will admit I'm pretty biased on the subject, you can take my word for it when I tell you that she's a pretty bright kid who gets good grades and seems to have a pretty bright future ahead of her. That future, however, is almost certainly not going to involve her living nearby, as none of the colleges to which she has applied are in Ohio. Her brother is still only a junior but at the moment he says he's looking to leave when he graduates, too. They want to leave despite their family being here. They want to leave despite all of their friends being here. They want to leave despite the fact that each of them was born here and has lived here their entire lives.  

My kids are not alone in this, of course. Like a lot of Midwestern states, young people have been increasingly leaving Ohio for large cities like Chicago and Atlanta, rapidly growing cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, and, of course, the traditional urban power centers on the coasts. Ohio has been hit particularly hard by this kind of brain drain and the state’s failure to attract young, diverse professionals to replace those who leave.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mike DeWine attempted to address the problem by paying to put up "Move to Ohio!" billboards in places like California, attempting to sell our low cost of living, low corporate tax rate and relative lack of traffic as lures. When the governor announced the ad campaign, he said, “We want to position Ohio as the place to be. … Ohio is a welcoming place. I don't care who you are, we want you to come to Ohio. It's a progressive state.”

Except it's not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Ohio is a state that, the governor's sales pitch notwithstanding, is regressive in almost all matters that are important to young people like those its leaders say they want to attract and retain. To wit:

-Our legislature has gone out of its way to show its hostility to the LGBTQ+ community.

-It has made it clear that it doesn't care a lick about the poor and, in fact, that it is quite hostile to the poor.

-It has proposed and will inevitably pass some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation.

-It has, for years, dealt setback after setback to clean energy and other environmentally sound policies that are overwhelmingly supported by young people.

-It has made voter suppression and gerrymandering a top priority and has sought to implement measures to that effect in ways that are seemingly tailor-made to disenfranchise younger, urban-dwelling voters.

-It has considered and passed all manner of measures that would hamstring public schools, which makes the idea of staying in or moving to Ohio to raise a family seem even more unappealing than it already is.

-Finally, as I've talked about over and over again in this space, it has been so hostile to even the most common-sense measures aimed at fighting the pandemic that it's not unfair to say that the State of Ohio is, as a matter of policy, pro-COVID.  

If Ohio's leaders really wanted to attract young people with promising futures to the Buckeye State, they'd rethink policies that are massively unpopular with them and actually, you know, pass laws young people like. There seems to be little chance of that happening, however. Instead, their latest effort in that regard is to offer tax breaks to businesses that hire paid interns or apprenticeships, as well as to college graduates who relocate here and stay for three years. It's also offering forgivable student loans to out-of-state students.

It's a proposal that, I suppose, at least stands as evidence that the state acknowledges the existence of the brain drain problem, but one that assumes twentysomethings make decisions on the same basis as CEOs of mid-sized companies who know what the terms "tax nexus" and "pass-through entity" mean. There's zero evidence that young people decide on where to live based on their tax rates. There is, however, copious evidence that young people prefer urban areas, almost all of which tend to reflect political and social values that differ sharply from those espoused by Ohio's public officials, and that they are sharply more politically progressive than them, as well.    

Given the conditions on the ground in Ohio and given how much more conservative and regressive Ohio's leaders clearly desire the state to be as reflected by their policies and proposals, it's no surprise that promising young people are leaving and why progressive, diverse professionals aren’t moving here. So far there is little evidence that billboard ads and TV spots touting our low corporate tax rates are changing that dynamic. I likewise do not suspect that the prospect of even more tax breaks to businesses and a temporary income tax break in one's first three years of earning are going to work any better in that regard.

If you want young people to stay in or move to Ohio, you must make Ohio a place that makes them feel welcome and valued. Since doing that would require Republicans jettisoning virtually their entire platform and agenda, I'll make sure I save up my airline miles so I can go visit my kids wherever it is they settle in a few years.