GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES: After taking the state by storm as a political novice in 2002, Carcieri has run into a thicket of challenges, including dubious state spending and dismal budget forecasts.
In the six months since he slipped back into office by a mere 7803 votes, Governor Donald L. Carcieri has been treated to a crash course on why second terms can be a decidedly mixed blessing.
For openers, Carcieri returned to a State House devoid as ever of fellow Republicans. Voters handed every other major office to Democrats. And worse, Democrats, more than ever, appear to be a permanent majority in the General Assembly.
Carcieri’s first headache has been the state budget. It’s a mess, thanks to the ever-increasing cost of government, combined with the loss of potential revenue because of tax cuts engineered by Carcieri and legislative Democrats.
In turn, the governor has endured months of bitter criticism from supporters of programs he wants to cut — pushing vulnerable young persons from state care at age 18 instead of 21, for example — tarnishing his public image as a good-natured grandfather.
Carcieri’s management skills are also being tested. The former banker and corporate CEO stormed into office in 2003 on the premise that, because of his real-world experience, he could put Rhode Island on a business-like footing and weed out government waste. But the headlines this spring have been about the opposite sort of stories: multi-million dollar overruns in revamping the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and Senate hearings into whether the state pays too much for privately contracted workers.
Especially embarrassing has been the Providence Journal’s disclosure about the outsized premiums going to a private firm supplying workers for a Department of Transportation traffic monitoring center — including one typist whose work cost $102,000, something that Carcieri himself termed “outrageous.”
As the governor looks to the rest of his four-year term, all of this suggests a question similar to the one that Ronald Reagan used to pose when leading his national Republican revolution:
Will Rhode Islanders be better off at the end of Donald Carcieri’s second term than they are now?
The more things change
The hurdles facing Carcieri are daunting.
One of the most difficult is the continuing problem of the budget. Most experts, including those in the administration, say state finances remain out-of-balance.
Forecasters predict that the same kind of “structural” shortfalls that Carcieri and the legislature are wrestling with — $400 million — will recur every year that he’s in office.
Among potential problems is the state’s addiction to gambling revenues. Gaming is the state’s third largest source of income, but it’s a risky bet that the money will keep pouring in. A new casino in Massachusetts, for example, could lure betters away from slot machines in Lincoln and Newport.
At the same time, critics maintain the governor is failing to produce enough good jobs, which, in turn, would help the tax base. They point out that he has yet to make good on his promise to provide 20,000 new “good” jobs by the end of last year.
Related to the jobs picture is whether Rhode Island schools are turning out enough skilled and well-educated workers to attract new businesses.
The schools themselves need more money. But the local property taxes that pay much of the cost of education are extraordinarily high in Rhode Island. Reformers say the state itself contributes too little to the tab, and some Carcieri critics fault him for not taking the lead on reordering school-funding formulas.
Carcieri himself acknowledges these challenges and more. But the ever-optimistic governor says his first term got off to a good start in tackling them, and that progress will continue in the more than three years remaining in his last term. “Right now, we are poised at what I think is a transformational point,” he tells the Phoenix during a recent State House interview. He says Rhode Island is neck-and-neck with New Hampshire in job growth, school scores are up, and that Rhode Island’s national reputation is turning positive.
“There are always issues,” Carcieri says. “But it doesn’t lessen my enthusiasm one iota. It hasn’t lessened my drive. I’m more committed that I ever have been. I’m more of a believer than ever in terms of what I see happening in this state.”
The cost of division
This is not how some outside the State House see things, including Robert L. Carl Jr., the tough-talking administrative chief under Carcieri’s GOP predecessor, Lincoln C. Almond.
“I think the state is in big trouble, because we are not creating lots of new jobs, lots of new opportunities,” says Carl. “I don’t think we’ve made much progress.”
The former aide says the legislature — and many others in public life, himself included — may share some of the blame with Carcieri. However, Carl says, it’s happening “on his watch. If you run for office, part of the reality is you’re responsible if you win.”
Carl portrays Carcieri as talented, but divisive. “I think he’s probably the best politician I’ve seen in the State House in all my years,” says the former Almond lieutenant, who is now the CEO of the Homestead Group, which provides services to developmentally disabled persons. “He turns everything into a press event, and he’s effective in manipulating the press.”
But Carl faults Carcieri for creating low morale and a “dysfunctional” state government during his first term, a period in which labor leaders say the governor scapegoated unions and state workers.
Although Carcieri has succeeded in trimming state employee payroll costs where others had failed, Carl says: “He did it at what short- and long-term cost? What’s the cost of having your employee base lose confidence in your leadership? What’s the cost of having people antagonistic to the administration, and who spend all their time in fear and worry?”
As might be expected, labor leaders, including George H. Nee, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, whose members include thousands of government workers, say the same thing. “What bothers a lot of us is that there’s been this constant drumbeat of, you know, just attacks and denigration of the state workforce, and this playing one group off the other,” says Nee.
Nee says labor has a respectable track record on economic development, backing proposals such as the Providence Place Mall, reform of injured workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance.
Nee contrasts Carcieri’s style with that of another former governor, Bruce Sund¬lun, who came into office in 1991 while facing a severe budget crisis. Sundlun actually went to AFL-CIO headquarters to ask for suggestions. Out of that, says Nee, came “Sundlun days,” in which workers gave up some immediate pay for later benefits when conditions improved.
(The state and the unions are in secret negotiations about the current budget, which no one, at the time of this writing, would discuss in detail.)
Similarly, Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Associa¬tion-Rhode Island, says that Carcieri has talked about making education a centerpiece of his second term, but has not reached out to teachers. “I think it’s hard to get the type of reform he likes to talk about without involving people on the front lines,” Walsh says.
“He had the potential, when he went into the job, to really make a positive name for himself,” Walsh says. “That potential has yet to be realized, and it’s a shame.”
On the school-funding issue, the legislature last year formed a joint panel to try to pin down the cost of education and then find a fair way to pay for it.
Later, a coalition of groups often at odds with each other hashed out a plan. The ef¬fort included the two big teacher unions, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Coun¬cil, the Education Partnership, and the Rhode Island Association of School Com¬mittees.
“Governor Carcieri has played no role in advancing the state aid to education formula development, unless he has played a role behind the scenes,” says Marcia Reback, executive director of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.
But Carcieri says his administration has participated in the legislative panel’s talks, and that he saw no reason to duplicate the effort once it began and is about to announce a big look at other education issues.
Carl, the Almond administration official, sees parallels between Carcieri and President George W. Bush, both of whom preside over divided governments (a mostly typical situation in Rhode Island for the last 20 years), and are skeptical about government’s role in solving problems.
“If you are against government, I think it is challenging to be good at it,” Carl says.
A new political star
Personable, energetic, and hardworking, Carcieri made a stunning impression on the state when he jumped into politics in 2002 after helping to run the former Old Stone Bank and later serving as CEO of Cookson America.
He was a dynamic contrast to the outgoing Governor Almond, a tall, lumbering former US attorney, whose State House accomplishments were unfairly masked by the perception that he favored a nine-to-five schedule and weekends on Cape Cod.