Surviving the Post-Transition

The current news and politics atmosphere has something of the feel of a transition. We’re between the passage of the supplemental and the initial markers presaging the debate over next year’s budget. We’ve seen the parade of interested parties, and we’re well aware that discussion has returned to the back room. What’s next?
Well, the supplemental budget offered some morsels of hope that the General Assembly is beginning to figure out the problems that the state faces — with cash welfare held more strictly to limits, healthcare provision decreased (notably in the gift to childcare providers), and changes to the public sector’s healthcare deal. Some further positive steps are at least receiving a hearing, such as Coventry Republican Rep. Nick Gorham’s proposed reforms of the legislative grant system.
What concerns me is that, although some of the restrained spending apparently represents long-term changes of policy, none of the voices with substantial carriage are calling out proposals to fundamentally change the way RI does business. The cuts in expenditures are money-savers — sharing the pain and meeting our financial obligations. They aren’t being cast as structural corrections. And that doesn’t quite inspire confidence in the direction of the next round in the budgetary arena. We have already heard Senate President Joseph Montalbano declaring that a budget is “really a policy statement,” and we can easily imagine legislators’ claiming that those dependent upon social services and unionization have “already sacrificed.”
“We’ve already stripped the extra fruit from that tree,” one can hear. Thus the powers that be may declare a need to balance the reluctant plucking of low-hanging fruit from those imposing limbs with the unripe blossoms deep among taxpayers’ branches. Moreover, cuts to services and benefits — presented as such — are ripe to be renewed with the first signs of an economic spring, whereas their presentation as structural changes would herald an intention to make Rhode Island a better sort of state.
A truly engaged and well-intentioned government would be announcing studies and bills to address the state’s dreadful business climate. It would be looking to deregulate the many areas in which Rhode Island makes it more difficult than its neighbors to do business. It would be redirecting its limited funds to improve failing roads and bridges — changing the calculation whereby it makes almost no investments in transportation beyond federal funds and dedicated revenue from the gas tax. It would be taking dramatic steps to change the way our schools operate — not only in seeking proof of student learning, but in channeling more funds to resources and services that help those students to be capable of such proof, rather than to work-to-ruling unionists.
With the revenue gap expected to widen, our state needs nothing so much as a change of attitude. Allowing the oppressive largess merely to slip away as minimally as possible will extend the period of decay, while decisive action will spark confidence. For that to be a possibility, those who’ve vested their hopes in extracting gifts and promises from the state will have to begin siding with their fellow Rhode Islanders in the push for change. No longer can they back Their Guy — the one who pushes for their special interests — “even though…”
As for the rest of us, our hope must be that everybody involved is taking this moment of transition not as an opportunity to regroup the troops for another assault, but to reflect on the basics of government and economics, to cast their eyes toward long-term goals, rather than short-term exit strategies.

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