State house stalemate

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 12, 2007

Getting from here to there
It defies reason to think that state government couldn’t operate more efficiently — and who, after all, could oppose that?
In the real world, however, streamlining a big, change-averse bureaucracy is very difficult even under the best of circumstances.
Add the bitter state of relations between the governor, on one hand, and the legislature and its constituent unions on the other, and the outlook for progress gets a lot more uncertain.
Making things still more complicated is how some important posts in state government — such as those of food inspectors and probation officers — have been shown in recent years to be understaffed, in contrast to the stereotypical public perception of a bloated state workforce. A lot of Rhode Islanders might be all for cutting the state workforce, in theory at least — until they lose some service important to their own lives.
URI’s Moakley doesn’t dismiss the possibility that privatization could yield some beneficial savings in state government, “but it has to be done in a careful way.”
The legislature sounded a similar message when it passed a measure earlier this year that made it much more difficult for Carcieri to move forward with attempts at privatization. With the new General Assembly session slightly less than four months away, legislative leaders remain skeptical.
“Privatization is not always a bad thing,” House Majority Leader Gordon Fox says in a statement, “but we need to see how it reduces expenses for the state. If saving money is the goal, then we also need to give the workers who would potentially be displaced by privatization the opportunity to meet or exceed the proposed savings.
“That’s why we put a process in place through our legislation,” Fox continues. “Why go through the exercise of privatizing if you don’t really save the state money? We have already seen many related problems with privatization between Smart Staffing and private firms that have contracted with various state departments. An open and systematic evaluation of the contracts is crucial.”
Neal says that Smart Staffing, and the company in place before it, DataLogic, represented a money-savings for taxpayers. In another case in which the administration received considerable unflattering attention in the Providence Journal — that of a clerk-typist contracted, with a six-figure cost, to the state Department of Transportation, in a mostly federally funded program — Neal credits the administration with having corrected the situation after it was unearthed and considerably reducing the cost.
Be that as it may, these episodes probably contributed to the significant fall in Carcieri’s approval rating in this week’s Brown University poll. Just how well the governor does in making progress from here on the related budget matters will have serious consequences — for Rhode Island as a whole, and for the eventual race to be his successor.

Ian Donnis can be reached at Read his politics + media blog at

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