The panel consisted of Ohio 17th District Sen. John Carey, who is also running for State Representative of the Ohio 87th District; Ohio 87th District Rep. Clyde Evans; Nick Gatz, representative of U.S. Sen. George Voinovich; Elizabeth Scott, representative of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia; Gallia County Commission Vice President Justin Fallon, who is also the Democratic candidate for the Ohio Senate 17th District seat; Gallipolis City Commission President Jim Cozza; Ohio 86th District Rep. David T. Daniels, who is also the Republican candidate for the Ohio Senate 17th District seat; Harold Montgomery, Republican candidate for Gallia County Commissioner and Jason Sherrill, Democratic candidate for Gallia County Commissioner.
Each candidate had approximately two minutes to speak, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
The effect of State budget cuts on Gallia County topped the list of concerns by the audience.
Stephen Thomas, C.E.O. of Ohio Valley Behavioral Health questioned the legislators on the future of State funding for drug and alcohol abuse programs.
“We have what I would consider an epidemic here of heroin and other opiate use, as well as prescription drug abuse,” said Thomas. “We have experienced over the last few years horrendous budget cuts with the funding for alcohol and other drug abuse provision of services.”
“I think it is a priority and is a crisis,” said Carey, who went on to say he was disappointed in the amount of money earmarked for such programs in the State budget. “One of the things that disturbed me was the elimination of disability medical assistance which serves the people that you talked about.” Carey said he has introduced a bill to reinstate that medical assistance and told Thomas that the expectation of additional funding was not realistic.
Scott said Governor Ted Strickland is very passionate about the drug abuse problem and is currently working on legislation that would put a stop to rogue pain clinics.
A task force has been formed to deal with those pain clinics and the long term problem of drug addiction.
“It is a very sensitive passionate subject, and we are trying to work with members across the aisle, as well as our family in the medical community to come to an agreement,” said Scott.
Fallon said he has been fortunate to have been educated about the drug abuse problem over the past months.
“This is a grave concern we need to attack,” said Fallon, who went on to say, besides the affects on the residents of Southeastern Ohio, the drug problem is hurting the area economically. “Employers do not want to come here because people can’t pass a drug test. They can’t maintain their workforce.”
Daniels said he recognizes the value of the services offered through businesses like Ohio Valley Behavior Health and said one of the key elements to battling the problem are good jobs and hope.
“There’s no better social program than a good job,” said Daniels “If you have hope of employment and hope of a good living, that’s going to take care of some of the problems we see out there.”
Daniels said the only way the State is going to get out of the budget crisis is by putting people to work.
The next question revolved around people wanting benefits without paying more taxes. The audience member said there was too much dependence on the government to fix all of the State’s problems.
“Nothing pulls a community together better than a crisis,” said Daniels, who said communities need join together to help each other in harsh times.
Fallon said the key was investing into the community, especially small businesses in the form of low or no interest loans.
“We need to give people the marketing tools and the ability to invest back in the community,” said Fallon.
Montgomery said financial responsibility at the government level is the first step.
“We need to clean up our own house,” said Montgomery. “We talk about spending and cuts, we’re always cutting at the bottom. We need to cut at the top and show the people we are sacrificing. We’re not going ask other people to sacrifice . I think government needs to lead by example.”
Sherrill said making sure the people are heard and work together for a common solution is key.
“From a community’s perspective, my first thought would be let’s not make this a cookie cutter approach,” said Sherrill, who went on to discuss his success with focus group meetings.
“I think the key factor is we had a direct voice from the community there that could specifically say what the challenges were,” said Sherrill.
Gatz said at the federal level, Voinovich takes the deficit very seriously and is working on a solution.
Carey said the State has to prioritize, though it may be a painful process for some.
“We could spend every dime of every dollar on a good cause or good program, there is a limit. We have to prioritize what the state government’s responsibilities are and sometimes those priorities are very painful in not being able to fund certain things,” said Carey.
Evans spoke at length on questions regarding the funding of higher education. Evans said funding of schools, like community colleges, that can keep up with the pace of emerging jobs is key.
“Those schools are experts at pulling training areas out and putting new training areas in and they can do that very fast,” said Evans.
The future of Gallipolis Developmental Center, library funding, location of the high speed railway system and way to see more growth in population in Gallia County were other subjects broached during the program.
Overall, the answers ended with a question mark as the legislators told the audience they are still unsure what the next biennium budget would bring.
Gallia County Chamber of Commerce President Jimmy Wiseman said participation by both the audience and the panel of legislators and candidates was wonderful.
“We look forward to having a bigger and better event next year,” said Wiseman.
Gallia County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lorie Neal echoed Wiseman in expressing her appreciation to both the legislators and public for their participation.
“The Chamber is proud to host the Legislative event as a community service to our area,” said Neal. “The questions that were asked by the audience were exceptional and goes to show how important economic development and legislation are to us here in Gallia County and Southern Ohio.”