There was good-natured ribbing between two of the hosts, Matt Mayer of the conservative Buckeye Institute and Republican former state Rep. Gene Krebs, now with Greater Ohio.
And genuine greetings, as when the third think tank host, Democratic former state Rep. John Begala of the Center for Community Solutions, welcomed Republican former Gov. Bob Taft.
The attendees sat through panels on government spending, state and local taxes, consolidating government, pension reform and health care – listening to broad perspectives from the left, the right and the center represented.
One of the high points was a luncheon discussion with Arthur Laffer, one of President Reagan’s chief economic advisors and the father of supply side economics, and Alice Rivlin, President Clinton’s budget director and an advisor to the supercommittee that failed to come up with a budget-cutting deal. They were asked for one opinion they each hoped the other would change. Rivlin said the thing she disagreed most with Laffer on was the effect of government spending.
“I do believe, I think more than he does, that much government spending does a great deal of good if it’s well managed.”
Laffer responded with agreement - sort of. “She took the words out of my mouth. I wanted to convince her the other way.”
Among those in the audience - Dennis Conard from Columbus came to the conference in a hat and shirt covered with taped on slips of paper bearing phrases blasting costly ads that he says require candidates to spend more time fundraising than working on the issues, which he says creates the problems.
“Gridlock and partisanship and just terrible government. Really terrible. By which we are dying by thousands of cuts. We need politicians who can see over that and that are not beholden to interest groups.”
Also listening in was Republican state representative John Adams of Sidney, who admits that he sometimes doesn’t know how lawmakers can get beyond the politics.
“I struggle with that. I truly do, I struggle with it. I mean, I try to do things – you just do what’s right, rather than the politics of it. And sometimes politics gets in the way of good policy and that’s, it is just mind boggling and frustrating to me.”
And that raises the question – whether the good feelings from this conference can be taken down the street to Capitol Square, where bitter partisan debate has come into play in everything from the budget to collective bargaining reform to election law changes to the map of Congressional districts.
John Begala says what he heard tells him that change is possible. “If we can get that kind of conversation going seriously among the folks in Congress and I think coming on down to the state and local level, we’d be doing well. So the tone is exactly right. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
And Gene Krebs says the trio of think tanks is committed to trying to make change happen.
“The three amigos, as I call the three groups, are all meeting via phone in the next week and doing sort of like a debriefing, going, ‘OK, what do we do?’ We’ve not decided yet. It kind of depends on what came out of this, what we wanted to see. And now we’re going to start moving forward.”
And Krebs says one lawmaker told him he wants the think tanks to help with some changes in rules on sharing services between agencies – which Krebs says would be a great start.