Amy Eddings: A lobby day in Columbus shows we all have special interests

For all the derisive talk from the presidential campaign trail about lobbyists, I half expected Tony Giesige to have two horns and a pointy tail.

But there he was, in a denim shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, and no devilish accoutrements in sight. If I were to see anything coming out of his head, it would probably be steam, so worked up is he about his property taxes.

“From 2007, it went from $5 an acre up to $60 an acre on the same piece of ground,” he told me, his voice bouncing off the marble floor and high dome of the rotunda at the state Capitol in Columbus. “And the prices are going down for the crops at the same time.”

Giesige owns 150 acres of farmland in Henry County, in the Great Black Swamplands north of Leipsic and west of Bowling Green. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat. He was one of about seven farmers from northwestern Ohio who drove to Columbus to meet with their elected representatives and press them to change the formula used to calculate the CAUV, the every-three-years Current Agricultural Use Value assessments for farmland property taxes.

There he was, along with Linda and Mel Borton, of Ottawa, with farmland in Fulton County. There weren’t any horns on them, either. David Hutchens was there, too. He farms near Bellefontaine. They sat in the stiff-backed black lacquered chairs of the Ulysses S. Grant Senate Hearing Room, listening to their senator, Republican Cliff Hite, tell them about the bill he’s sponsoring to tweak the CAUV. He said he hopes to change it just enough to provide farmers with some relief without hurting townships and counties, which are relying more and more on property taxes to fund their schools and projects as state aid vanishes.

“My grandfather used to say, farming is legalized gambling, and I’m inclined to agree with him,” quipped Sen. Hite, who comes from a farming family. “But this has gotten out of hand.”

It’s gotten so out of hand that the Bortons have seen a 329 percent increase in their property taxes from $2,821 in 2008 to $9,289 in 2016. The increases are due to factors such as basement-level interest rates and low corn, soybean and wheat prices that have distorted the CAUV formula. They’re also due to the General Assembly’s passage of a budget in 2013 that ended certain property tax reductions and rollbacks in order to help Gov. John Kasich close an $8 billion deficit.

That is a story for another day.

The story today is that people like the Bortons and Tony Giesege and David Hutchins still believe enough in our system of government to engage it.

Tony Giesige stood up and showed Sen. Hite a sheet of notebook paper, on which he had written down an accounting of his taxes over the last nine years. The paper trembled slightly in his hand. Linda Borton, a former leader of the Ohio Farmers Union, also came armed with a list of the taxes her family has paid on their farmland.

“You’re our senator and we hope you’ll do something about it,” she calmly told Sen. Hite.

Here they were, local farmers, lobbying for their so-called special interests, just like the people who are part of the political influencing machine that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have criticized from their podiums. And the farmers were not alone on Tuesday. There at the state Capitol were moms and dads of people in prison who oppose Ohio’s death penalty. There were bankers, like the ones who have helped me apply for a loan and open a checking account, maneuvering through the Capitol’s honeycomb of hallways.

Lobbying is not limited to the professionals on K Street or on Broad Street, with their dark skirts and suits and their power-red ties and pocket squares. We all have the power and the right to make our needs known to the people we ourselves have sent to Columbus and Washington, D.C. We all have our own “special interests.”

How many of us exercise those rights? I was born and raised in Ohio, and in the intervening 52 years, I’ve never been inside my state Capitol until Tuesday. Not even for a school field trip. I’ve never written a letter to my congressman or senator, choosing instead to criticize their decisions over lunch with friends and colleagues, or laugh at their foibles along with late night talk show hosts.

I’m humbled by the folks who are doing something more than grumble. I’m impressed by people who take the time to engage with government, rather than withdraw from it. And in the midst of this bitter, drawn-out, presidential campaign, I an encouraged by the hope that lies behind Linda Borton’s lobbying and her simple request.

You’re our senator, our elected representative. Here’s my situation, my need. I hope you do something about it.

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By Amy Eddings

[email protected]

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.