Amid the gloom, a one-man optimism offense

Chins Up Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 24, 2010

Seven or eight years ago, with the state's economy aflutter and Providence in ascendance, Scott Wolf thought Rhode Island was finally starting to shed its inferiority complex.

But alas, he says, the Great Recession has the body politic engaged in the old ritual of self-flagellation: we are, once again, an economic backwater, a cauldron of corruption, a bloated bureaucracy, the little engine that couldn't.

The sentiment, naturally, has bled into the media's storyline about the state. A last-place finish in a Forbes magazine index of business-friendly states got plenty of play. The slightest surge in unemployment figures is front-page news. And the Providence Journal's resident curmudgeon, Edward Achorn, routinely publishes columns with headlines like "Rhode Island is out of whack with the rest of America."

There is, of course, good reason for much of the negativity. Rhode Island is in trouble. And Wolf, himself, acknowledges the state's many shortcomings. "I think we are a dramatic underachiever," he says.

But in recent months, with a pair of columns in the ProJo and a string of emails to civic-minded types highlighting those pieces, Wolf has launched a lonely bid to pull the state out the doldrums. "I see the pessimism deepening at the same time that I think we need to play to our strengths more than ever," he says.

A recent op-ed argued that state and local government are not nearly as bloated as many Rhode Islanders imagine. And in the fall, in an op-ed titled "Misleading business-climate rankings," Wolf noted that some of the lowest-ranking states on the Tax Foundation's list — New Jersey, New York, and California — have among the highest per-capita incomes.

While improving Rhode Island's business climate with tax and pension reform is important, Wolf added, the state should not become "so obsessed with pursuing lower taxes and spending that we conclude that nothing else is important in shaping our economic future, including targeted investments in our key built, natural and human assets."

Among his prescriptions for growth: reinstituting a targeted state historic tax credit for rehabilitation of historic commercial buildings, exploring an ocean-research corridor with Massachusetts and Connecticut, and expanding public transit. "We've been pursuing an austerity agenda more than a prosperity agenda," he says.

Wolf, a former Democratic operative who ran for Congress in 1988 and 1990 and served in Governor Bruce Sundlun's administration, has taken some heat for his upbeat outlook.

Leonard Lardaro, a sharp-tongued economics professor at the University of Rhode Island who has long bemoaned the state's poor economic leadership, wrote a response arguing — among other things — that Wolf's proposals, whatever their merits, would have little impact in a state that has fallen so far.

But Wolf insists he is no Pollyanna. He has worked in states across the country, he says. And the rest of the nation is not as efficient, corruption-free, and prosperous as Rhode Islanders would imagine.

Besides, he says, the constant comparison to states like Florida — often depicted as a haven for tax-weary Rhode Islanders — is intellectually dishonest. Rhode Island is a cold-weather state with an older infrastructure. It's a different kind of place that will require different kinds of approaches.

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