Governor Strickland came into office promissing to make ethics a priority in the state and after the many ethics violations we saw under the previous GOP administration, Strickland’s tighter restrictions were welcomed by Ohioans.

As I mentioned yesterday, one of Governor Strickland’s first acts was to issue an executive order limiting the gifts that can be received by state government officials and employees. He hoped that such restrictions would prevent businesses and organizations from unfairly exerting influence on the government decision making process. It seems to have worked.

According to the Executive Order:

The job of the officials and employees of the State of Ohio is to serve the people of Ohio. When those who want contracts or grants or other benefits from the State give gifts or meals or tickets or trips to state officials or employees, the people of Ohio have every right to be suspicious that official government decisions aren’t being made based on the merits.

As I also mentioned yesterday, Kasich has thrown away all of those restrictions and returned the state’s ethics policy back to where it was under Taft. For most officials and employees this means that instead of reporting any gifts over $20 they have to report any gifts over $75. Limits on gifts to family members of state employees are also gone. And, most importantly, restrictions that Strickland put in place preventing lobbyists and people seeking grants or loans from the state are now gone.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Kasich had indicated that he doesn’t intend to stop there. It appears at though Kasich is intent on decimating the state’s ethics policy, at least where it applies to his friends. And, as he promised during the campaign, he’s going to start with the Department of Development.

In 2009 the Ohio Department of Development awarded $1.07 billion in loans and grants and $229.9 million in tax credits to public and private organizations and companies.

That’s Billion. With a B.

And if there is any department in the state in which you want to ensure people aren’t unfairly unfluencing the decision making process it’s probably the department that gives away BILLIONS of dollars a year.

Kasich, however, plans to take all of these decisions out of the hands of government employees who fall under the state’s ethics policy and give them to a handful of people in a private organization called JobsOhio.

Kasich’s director of the Department of Development – and the guy who will oversee its ultimate dismantling and privatization – Mark Kvamme explained last week why it’s so important that he and his staff be freed from the ethics restrictions that other state employees must follow. Note: it literally comes down to free lunches.

From Gongwer last week:

The governor’s office described the new approach for DOD as one “rooted in the ways and understanding of the businesses that create jobs.” The new structure would provide “freedom from bureaucratic delays and restrictions that are more common for government agencies.”

Mr. Kvamme cited the example of a state official being required to buy his own lunch at a meeting with business leaders as among things that could be different under the new structure.

And in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Friday Kvamme complained he wasn’t allowed to buy millionaire CEO’s free lunches:

There are also restrictions about travel and expenses in the public sector that we hopefully won’t have to deal with. If a CEO of a major company comes to Columbus, I (as a public official) can’t afford to take him out anywhere but Wendy’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Wendy’s, but I don’t know of a lot of CEOs who work that way.

I wonder if Kasich and Kvamme understand how ridiculous both of these statements sound to the hardworking people of Ohio:

1. I can’t follow state ethics laws because business leaders who want my office to give them loans and grants and tax breaks won’t be able to buy me free lunches.

2. I need taxpayers to give me a big expense account so I can buy free lunches for millionaire CEOs who want my office to give them big tax breaks and loans and grants.

Kvamme and Kasich claim they need to get rid of these pesky ethics rules and reporting requirements because it’s the only way to bring more jobs to the state.

Kvamme and Kasich claim they need big secret bonuses and unlimited expense accounts in order to do exactly the same job that the Department of Development is already doing without the extra costs and with the same oversight and transparency requirements that the rest of State Government must follow.

If it doesn’t make you nervous that billions in state funds are being controlled by people who lack the same oversight as other government employees, it should.

As Governor Strickland said: “the people of Ohio have every right to be suspicious that official government decisions aren’t being made based on the merits.”