A lot more than just the minutiae of $6.6 billion in state spending will be on the line when the General Assembly soon presents its response to Governor Donald L. Carcieri’s latest budget.
On the face of it, just the need to reconcile a two-year structural deficit pegged at about $243 million — at the same time that the House is backing a tax-cut package geared to 1700 people who earn more than $250,000 — poses a considerable budget challenge, not to mention fundamental questions of economic Darwinism.
Advocates maintain that Carcieri’s proposed human-service cuts (increasing childcare subsidies, reducing eligibility for health-care programs, and trying to reduce the number of welfare recipients, among others) are unjust, shortsighted, and will be deeply harmful if implemented. The governor and his conservative supporters, on the other hand, pointing to how state spending has grown faster than inflation, contend that more fiscal discipline is required to get the state’s house in order. The backers and opponents are just as divided, of course, on the merits of tax cuts for the wealthy, alternately describing them as a misguided giveaway or a useful step for enhanced economic competitiveness.
The resolution of these questions in the budget could be something of a bellwether — showing whether Rhode Island is committed to maintaining its social safety net (and such innovative programs as RIteCare), or whether a more conservative strain of political thinking is leading the state in a different direction.
Similar themes are already playing out in the early stages of the 2006 gubernatorial contest. Carcieri is seeking to position himself as the advocate for typical Rhode Islanders, while the Democratic candidate, Lieu¬ten¬ant Governor Charles Fogarty, is tapping upset over the governor’s budget among various constituencies to tout himself as a more competent alternative. In a preview of the intensifying campaign season, the increasingly hot nature of this emerging rhetorical war is steadily bursting into view.
Unveiling his reelection campaign at the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich on June 7, Carcieri trumpeted a litany of accomplishments and, as is his wont, skillfully set himself against the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and its affiliated bogeymen. “Rhode Island stands today on the brink of tremendous progress . . . or the brink of going back to the old politics . . . ” the governor roared. “The old political machine is making a big play to recapture the power and the position of preference that it has long enjoyed. They are trying once again to make state government their private playpen. And they will fight me with everything they have, because I will never do their bidding.”
Fogarty, meanwhile, pointing to Carcieri’s record on job growth, increases in the percentage of uninsured children and adults, and rises in poverty and college tuition, among other indicators, charges that the governor “has failed to take responsibility for his ineffectiveness and inability to lead Rhode Island through difficult times.” In a statement, Brett Smiley, Fogarty’s campaign manager, adds, “Rhode Island needs a leader who will deliver results and not just rhetoric. We need a governor who will take action, work to reform government and [who] understands the needs of all Rhode Islanders. Charlie Fogarty is the change Rhode Island needs.”