Many Rhode Islanders take an almost visceral delight in those occasions when a state worker is shown to be goofing off on the public’s dime. Beyond the undeniable news and entertainment value, such episodes chip away at public confidence and offer anecdotal justification for Governor Donald L. Carcieri’s efforts to cut what he has characterized as an overly large state workforce.
Yet when viewed in proportion to our population, the number of state workers in Rhode Island is the smallest among the six New England states and just the 40th-largest in the country, according to US Bureau of Labor statistics used in an analysis compiled by Governing magazine.
In contrast to regional leader Vermont, which has 301 state employees per 10,000 residents, the magazine’s sourcebook found, Rhode Island has 164 state workers per 10,000 residents. The comparable numbers for the other states: Maine (221); Connecticut (196); New Hampshire (188); and Massachusetts (187).
This is not to suggest that Rhode Island lacks a serious imbalance between revenue and spending. And with a $306 million structural deficit projected for the next fiscal year, Gary Sasse, executive director of the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), puts part of the blame on the relatively high cost of state workers in Rhode Island.
After being easily rebuffed by the General Assembly earlier this year in his effort to cut 1000 state employees — an initiative, marked by a lack of specificity, that was unfurled near the end of the legislative session — Carcieri is now regrouping with additional initiatives to cut the size of state government.
The stakes are high for the Republican governor, particularly considering how he came into office after a campaign touting reform and heightened economic vitality. More than four years later, Car¬cieri couldn’t have been pleased this week when a poll by Brown University’s Darrell West showed that his approval rating has taken a sharp hit since the start of the year — falling from 59 percent to 44 percent.
More ominously, the poll found that only 31 percent of Rhode Islanders (down from 50 percent in January) think the state is headed in the right direction.
Such tidings are clearly unwelcome for any elected official. And while the 2010 gubernatorial election still remains a long way off, this rising level of dissatisfaction, if sustained, could help Rhode Island Democrats to regain the governor’s office for the first time since Bruce Sundlun yielded the reins in the mid-’90s.
For now, the larger implication — that Rhode Island, at a time when many states are flush with surpluses, can’t get its fiscal house in order — is bad enough.
Are state workers being scapegoated?
While state workers might sometimes be a useful rhetorical target for the governor, they’re also shaping up as the focal point of ongoing clashes between Carcieri and the General Assembly.
Already, the stage is set for a court fight over the Carcieri administration’s selection of a private firm, Hurley of America, to replace about 80 state em¬ployees who work as housekeepers at Eleanor Slater Hospital. While the governor’s office says the move — unveiled shortly before Labor Day — will save $13 million over five years, legislative leaders say it violates a measure passed earlier this year that requires more analysis of “all pending awards and pending privatization contracts.”
Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says the governor is continuing the process, launched in July, of meeting with his various department directors “to review what each and every department does, what their core mission is, what they must continue doing to fulfill that core mission, and what they might do without.”
When the process is over, the results will inform Carcieri’s proposed fiscal 2009 budget, Neal says, to reduce “the amount of state spending in a way to better account for what we expect to take in in revenues.”
Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, wonders if the governor’s earlier proposal to cut 1000 state workers is the kind of tactic that resonates with voters while distracting attention “from the fact that job growth and economic growth have been flat and stable” as other states fare better.
“He keeps talking about this,” notes Moakley, referring to Carcieri’s efforts to cut state government, but “no one ever looks at the income side of the ledger.”
At any rate, it won’t be surprising if the Democrat-controlled General Assembly once again pours cold water on the Republican governor’s efforts to cut the state workforce, in part through privatization. (Somewhat ironically, one of the more recent areas of agreement between the governor and the legislature was on legislation to lower taxes for the richest Rhode Islanders.)
Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Murphy, noting how there are fewer state workers now than during the state credit union crisis of the early ’90s, puts the blame on how, as with Social Security on the federal level, fewer workers are supporting retirees than in the past. Although he declined to offer specifics, Murphy says he plans to unveil an initiative in about a month meant to address part of the state’s structural budget deficit.
A few years ago, Carcieri and legislative leaders worked together to pass a pension reform plan, but that now seems like a long time ago. In the absence of more common ground, Rhode Island may be poised for yet another ugly budget season, raising the specter of a prolonged stalemate for Carcieri’s remaining three-plus years in office.