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Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher Leads Ohio Economic Development

The Strickland Administration has been in office for a little more than eight months. Gov. Strickland has taken on gaming machines, is pushing renewable energy and changes in higher education. His lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, is leading efforts to improve Ohio's economic climate. So how's he doing?

Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher is 56 years old and a Democrat. He has a law degree from Case Western Reserve. He previously served in the Ohio House and Senate and as the state's attorney general. Like Republican Bruce Johnson, the lieutenant governor before him, Fisher heads the Ohio Department of Development. He says reviving the state's economy is the Strickland Administration's highest priority.

"There is no higher priority than economic development and economic growth for Ohio because a rising tide lifts all boats," Fisher says. "That means that no matter what is important in Ohio, whether it's primary and secondary education, health care, mental health, human services, we will have more resources to deal with those problems if Ohio's economy is growing therefore people's wages are growing and their income is growing."

But the state, Fisher says, continues to face serious challenges. Unemployment around 5.8 percent, higher than the national average, coupled with the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Fisher says his office is working on a huge number of investment possibilities. 200 projects are in the works. 450 prospects are being pursued. They could eventually pump nearly $20 billion into the Ohio economy, Fisher says. In the last nine months, he says the development department has made remarkable progress.

"Just since January 8th, when we took office, we've closed the deal on well over 160 projects that would add well over $4 billion in new capital investment and create about 10,000 jobs and retain about 25,000 positions," Fisher says.

To compete in today's global marketplace, the department operates 13 international marketing offices around the world; the newest in India and Australia. They're there, Fisher says, to lure overseas business to Ohio.

"Our focus is Ohio jobs," Fisher says. "We have no interest in exporting Ohio jobs to other countries. What we want to do is import jobs and export products and that's the focus of these missions and investments and our international offices."

The lieutenant governor recently returned from a business and investment trip to Japan. In July, he visited the Russian city of Magnitogorsk to negotiate with steelmaker MMK. The company proposes building a mill near Portsmouth on the Ohio River. Ohio Chamber of Commerce president Andrew Doehrel says Fisher's role is an attractive addition to business negotiations.

"Well I think that it sends a very good and positive message that you have the lieutenant governor serving in the position," Doehrel says. "Companies realize they're talking to a high ranking government official right next to the governor."

Gov. Strickland spent the day with MMK officials earlier this month when they came to Ohio. Originally the mill was billed as employing a thousand people. Now the number's down to 500. The head of the conservative, free-market-oriented Buckeye Institute wonders why the venture is getting so much attention.

"When everybody's spilling so much ink in the paper or taking so much time wining and dining Russians for what might be 500 jobs, that's just a drop in the bucket," says David Hansen.

Hansen is not so much critical of Fisher. Hansen says its bureaucrats' so-called economic development strategies that do more harm than good.

"Ohio's not moving and the reason it's not moving is because we don't have a vision that's based on economic freedom," Hansen says, "we have a vision that's based on state industrial policy, That I know best as a state elected official.'

Asked if it was the same in the Taft Administration, Hansen replied:

"Yeah, it's really no different. There's really been no significant policy change in that sense."

It's less to do with political party, Hansen says, than with how politicians want to be perceived. It comes down to government picking winners and losers, he says, allocating tax money in a system that's beginning to resemble pork barrel spending.

"A better way to be the development director is to increase economic development in Ohio," Hansen says. "Why don't you make the place attractive to American businesses?"

Lt. Gov. Fisher says the Strickland Administration is working to do that. He says he applauds the tax reforms enacted by Gov. Taft and the legislature. Now, he says, they'll need time to see what works and what does not.

"You can't wave a magic wand and transform the economy," Fisher says. "And to use the analogy of Woody Hayes, very often economic development is three yards and a cloud of dust. It's not the long Hail Mary, it's the blocking and tackling of economic development. But the good news is that we're moving down the field and we're moving down at a pretty steady rate."

Fisher says one change that would make Ohio more attractive to business is eliminating what he calls the onerous tangible property tax.