State house stalemate

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 12, 2007

Are state workers being scapegoated?
While state workers might sometimes be a useful rhetorical target for the governor, they’re also shaping up as the focal point of ongoing clashes between Carcieri and the General Assembly.
 
Already, the stage is set for a court fight over the Carcieri administration’s selection of a private firm, Hurley of America, to replace about 80 state em¬ployees who work as housekeepers at Eleanor Slater Hospital. While the governor’s office says the move — unveiled shortly before Labor Day — will save $13 million over five years, legislative leaders say it violates a measure passed earlier this year that requires more analysis of “all pending awards and pending privatization contracts.”
 
Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says the governor is continuing the process, launched in July, of meeting with his various department directors “to review what each and every department does, what their core mission is, what they must continue doing to fulfill that core mission, and what they might do without.”
 
When the process is over, the results will inform Carcieri’s proposed fiscal 2009 budget, Neal says, to reduce “the amount of state spending in a way to better account for what we expect to take in in revenues.”
 
Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, wonders if the governor’s earlier proposal to cut 1000 state workers is the kind of tactic that resonates with voters while distracting attention “from the fact that job growth and economic growth have been flat and stable” as other states fare better.
 
“He keeps talking about this,” notes Moakley, referring to Carcieri’s efforts to cut state government, but “no one ever looks at the income side of the ledger.”
 
At any rate, it won’t be surprising if the Democrat-controlled General Assembly once again pours cold water on the Republican governor’s efforts to cut the state workforce, in part through privatization. (Somewhat ironically, one of the more recent areas of agreement between the governor and the legislature was on legislation to lower taxes for the richest Rhode Islanders.)
 
Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Murphy, noting how there are fewer state workers now than during the state credit union crisis of the early ’90s, puts the blame on how, as with Social Security on the federal level, fewer workers are supporting retirees than in the past. Although he declined to offer specifics, Murphy says he plans to unveil an initiative in about a month meant to address part of the state’s structural budget deficit.
 
A few years ago, Carcieri and legislative leaders worked together to pass a pension reform plan, but that now seems like a long time ago. In the absence of more common ground, Rhode Island may be poised for yet another ugly budget season, raising the specter of a prolonged stalemate for Carcieri’s remaining three-plus years in office.

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