Opening the Year with Fatal Steps
If you felt a dip in the collective intelligence of Rhode Island life, yesterday, it was probably because the General Assembly is back in session, gleefully lighting the fuse of 2010 with no indication that legislators intend to turn the state around. The first spark came with a veto override bonanza, including the legislation that arrogates to a union-heavy unelected board the power to define healthcare benefits for teachers across the state, mandates that districts offer that coverage (even in charters), and vomits on the principle of separation of powers.
Prudent school committees will have no option but to adjust for the control that this power grab has taken from them in the salary column, which is probably one reason that binding arbitration is so high on the union lobbyists’ list. With healthcare effectively off the table, unions will offer up impossible pay demands and look to arbitrators to split the difference in favor of slightly less impossible remuneration packages.
From the General Assembly’s press release on the override, one would never suspect that this board is much more than another investigative committee with no real power. It is more than that, and when the tally for yesterday’s vote is available, I’ll take this legislation as an opportunity to inaugurate a “legislative stooge” list of people for whom you should not vote under any circumstances. As issues in the range of “do or die” for Rhode Island come up, I’ll add to the list, as merited, and explain each inclusion.
Another spark lit the caverns of the State House when 41 of 75 members of the RI House of Representatives signed on to the following letter, penned by Rep. Amy Rice (D – Portsmouth):
Dear Governor Carcieri,
We write to you today to assert our opposition to your proposed FY2010 Supplemental Budget. Rhode Island, like almost every other state in the nation, is facing a deep fiscal deficit due to the national and global economic crisis. How we deal with the economic crisis now will determine Rhode Island’s future economic well-being. As such, we need real, honest leadership from your office as we strive to work together to fix our state’s budgetary problems.
Your supplemental budget, which you proposed without serious consultation with municipal leaders or the General Assembly, depends mostly on slashing $125 million in aid to Rhode Island’s cities and towns. Let there be no doubt about it: This drastic mid-year cut is nothing more than a passing of the buck to our municipalities. Rhode Island’s municipalities have already done so much to balance their budgets in these difficult times, including eliminating after-school programs, renegotiating collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees’ and teachers’ unions, laying off employees including police officers and firefighters, and, of course, raising property taxes – the most regressive tax.
Your claim that your proposed mid-year cuts to cities and towns will not result in raising property taxes is either cynical or an exercise in self-deception. Rhode Island already has an exceptionally upside-down tax system that results from our over-dependence on property taxes and our low rate of state support for school funding. Your Supplemental Budget proposal would severely exacerbate this imbalance by increasing our reliance on the property tax – the worst thing in this recession.
To disinvest in our communities and the public infrastructure and institutions that form the foundations of a strong economy, is not the forward-looking leadership we need. Given that the bulk of our deficit is due to decreased revenue, we must find responsible and balanced ways to raise new revenue. We need to create opportunities for success for all Rhode Islanders.
We realize that there are no easy solutions but urge you not to choose the worst option. We look forward to having you collaborate on this with the General Assembly and our municipal leaders.
From this bit of political literary theater, one would never suspect that the General Assembly has any budgetary authority at all, let alone the final determination of what the budget is. Rice’s letter perpetuates the utterly farcical spin that the General Assembly is not centrally responsible for the collapse of our state. The appropriate response from legislators to a budget with which they disagree is a better budget, not a political pronouncement to hide their collective incompetence.
Especially disappointing was to see Congressional candidate John Loughlin’s name as the sole Republican to sign on to the letter. Happily (although it took a bizarre and disconcerting email exchange to get the information), I can confirm that Loughlin was on the right side of the above-mentioned veto vote, although he did vote for the insurance board the first time around.