MEDINA, Ohio - Ohio Gov. John Kasich used his annual State of the State speech Monday to pledge a new round of tax cuts, propose using casino money for a plan to boost ties between communities and schools and said state higher education funding will be tied to course completion and graduation.
Kasich also pushed the importance of vocational training as an alternative route for some students, proposed giving veterans free academic credits for training and experience they received during their military service, and promised a new fight against smoking in the state.
In a dramatic moment, Kasich presented his annual courage awards to three women who survived a decades-long captivity in Cleveland before being rescued in May when one of the women pushed her way through a door to freedom.
Kasich called them "three extraordinary women who, despite having the worst in this world thrown at them--rose above it and emerged not as victims, but as victors. They are an inspiration to us all."
Kasich embraced the women as they came on stage and the audience was on its feet for more than two minutes cheering, the longest ovation of the night.
"Is that just unbelievable?" Kasich said to GOP House Speaker William Batchelder and GOP Senate President Keith Faber as the applause continued.
As he got his speech underway, Kasich pushed a plan to drive Ohio's tax rates under 5 percent for individuals and businesses.
"When Ohioans have more money in their pockets, we're being true to the fundamental idea that made our nation great," he said to applause. "Government works for the people, not the other way around."
Education was a key theme of the address, which took place at the Performing Arts Center in Medina. This marks the third year in a row Kasich has taken the speech outside the Statehouse in Columbus.
Kasich spoke of his belief that students need access to vocational options perhaps as early as seventh grade. He also proposed a plan to spend $10 million to get communities more involved with schools and parents more involved in their children's education.
Kasich said returning veterans ought to be able to use the top training they get from the Armed Forces when they come back to Ohio.
"If you've driven a truck from Kabul to Kandahar I think you've earned the right to drive a truck from Columbus to Cleveland," he said.
Kasich will introduce a midterm budget bill soon that could be the vehicle for the policy priorities of the fourth and final year of his term. He has signaled the bill may provide a mechanism for further reducing state income tax rates. He said during his 2010 campaign that he supported eventually eliminating the tax.
"Our great purpose will continue to be helping every Ohioan have a chance to find a job that lets them fulfill their purpose," he said.
The $62 billion, two-year state budget Kasich signed in June cut Ohio's income tax rates by 8.5 percent in 2013, another half percent in 2014 and another 1 percent in 2015. These were Ohio's first downward revisions since 2009.
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Kasich's Democratic gubernatorial rival, has criticized Kasich's tax changes as disproportionately benefiting wealthier Ohioans while giving Ohioans in lower income brackets an amount about equivalent to the price of a pizza.
Kasich's choice of Medina as the site of this year's speech honors Batchelder, who's winding up a 46-year career in public service this year. Batchelder represents the 69th House District, which includes most of Medina County.
Kasich announced Monday the Medina state patrol post would be renamed after Batchelder.
Many of the new ideas the governor was advancing Monday face their toughest audience in the Republican-controlled chamber, where Batchelder holds sway. The Ohio House blocked Kasich's proposed tax hike on oil and gas drillers, for example -- an idea that state lawmakers are now revisiting.
The local Chamber of Commerce arranged tours of local manufacturers for state lawmakers on Monday, along with private receptions at area restaurants ahead of the speech.
The labor-backed We Are Ohio organization planned to discuss Kasich's policies at a site near the speech, arguing the governor has made it harder for working and middle-class families. The group led the successful 2011 ballot repeal of collective bargaining restrictions for public workers.
FitzGerald planned to watch the speech from his hometown of Lakewood.
Several dozen protesters gathered outside before the speech to protest Kasich policies.
"Everything that he has done so far has been against the working class people of this state," said Jamie Fant, of Dayton, a retired corrections officer.