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Why Rhode Island is hurting

Bad days are here, and there is little in the past to make the future seem hopeful
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 2, 2008


If the nation’s fiscal crisis confirms that Rhode Island isn’t alone in facing serious economic woes, the state doesn’t suffer from a lack of other challenges that threaten the quest for its long-sought potential.

The seriousness of ongoing budget woes could be seen in revelation last month that the state had ended a budget year in the red “for the first time in modern accounting history,” as the ProJo described it. The unsettled state of affairs makes inevitable another rancorous budget debate — with impassioned testimony about the impact of proposed cuts — after the General Assembly returns in January.

Fallout from the national economic mess can be expected to have a harsher toll in Rhode Island, considering how the state is already bedeviled by high unemployment and a disproportionate effect from the foreclosure crisis.

Twin River, meanwhile, is having trouble paying its bills, a partial reflection of how the golden goose of gambling — the state’s third-largest source of revenue — is proving less reliable in a downturn.

If these budgetary/economic problems persist long enough — and it will be surprising if they don’t — they can be expected to blend into the opportunism surrounding the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Republican Steve Laffey, independent Lincoln Chafee, perhaps, and a Democrat-to-be-named later will hawk their own financial prescriptions.

On the education front, public schools continue to under-perform in many Rhode Island communities, as demonstrated by the abysmal scores reported last week on the state’s first science test. When it comes to higher education, an area in which a greater investment could yield future dividends, the state’s cash crunch is leading officials to plan instead on tuition hikes.

It would be a mistake — not to mention counter-productive — to think that everything in Rhode Island is doom and gloom.

Renewable energy, as with the wind farm announced last week, offers hope for jobs and economic development. The presence of as contemporary a thinker as John Maeda, RISD’s new president, is a good thing. In June, the Milken Institute’s 2008 State Technology and Science Index ranked Rhode Island 10th, up a notch from 2004. The state was last week an-nounced as the winner of $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant — one of 23 in the country — to improve math and science teaching at the middle school and high school level.

Companies, such as Inquest, and Kelly Space and Technology, continue to move here, and the state’s creative ferment enables such pairings as AS220’s Fab Lab, a forthcoming collaboration for innovation with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. On October 21, Neurotech is scheduled to hold a ribbon-cutting for a 27,000-square-foot bio-manufacturing facility in Cumberland. There are plenty of other positive things.

Still, given the number of hurdles facing the state, it’s easy for this kind of good news to get overshadowed.

To name a few other key concerns:

• RIPTA, the public transit system, has a debilitating money crunch when its services are needed more than ever;
• The Rhode Island GOP has proven incapable in recent history of functioning as a meaningful alternative party in the General Assembly;
• Operation Dollar Bill, the federal probe of legislative-influence peddling, has seemingly run out of steam;
• And the Providence Journal, which has long played an important watchdog role in Rhode Island, continues to shrink, preparing to implement what are believed to be the first economic layoffs in its long history (see “Journal job cuts: Practical or self-destructive?,” This just in).

Raising the focus on RI’s strengths
More than anything else, the magnitude of the budget problems facing the state fostered heightened agreement between the legislature and Governor Donald L. Carcieri in the last session. Since the same issues remain, something similar can be expected to happen this time around, at least in facing the most imminent needs.

The specter of gridlock hovers near the surface, though, with conservatives taking legislative Democrats to task for a lack of long-term budgetary acumen, and with liberals faulting Carcieri’s emphasis on illegal immigration as a distraction from the state’s most serious issues.

This happens at a time when the state desperately needs leadership and a measure of consensus on a plan to restore a better economic footing for the future.

As it stands, says Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, “A lot of this is what goes for democracy in Rhode Island. People are getting from our state’s economy exactly what we have demanded from our leaders, which is nothing.”

For his part, Lardaro, who has anticipated some of the state’s economic woes, has come to believe that Rhode Island “must have a full-time legislature, dramatically downsized from its current size, with four-year terms and a limit of two terms.” Cost savings would enable the creation of research staff to allow due diligence, and he favors a line-item veto for the governor.

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  Topics: News Features , Don Carcieri , Scott Wolf , Leonard Lardaro ,  More more >
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