Scott MacKay Commentary
8:49 am
Mon May 23, 2011

The biggest little state of profusion

PROVIDENCE, RI –

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union, a watery sliver of southeastern New England hardly big enough to qualify as a county in most of America.

But when it comes to government and quasi-government agencies our state is the biggest little state of profusion.

Rhode Island has 155 separate pension systems, 77 fire departments, 36 school superintendents, more than 100 water systems, 6 local tourism and visitors bureaus and scores of other governmental relics of the horse-and-buggy age.

Our state is well-prepared for the 19th Century, but not so much for the 21st.

Of course, ideas and institutions never sprout from virgin soil.

Deeply embedded in our state's psyche and colonial political heritage was a healthy mistrust of central government, which hails to the 1780s, when Rhode Island rebelled against signing on to the new federal Constitution.

What developed was what historian Patrick Conley calls a legacy of democratic localism, which emphasized local control and citizen participation in government. Later, a movement for local home-rule charters for communities argued against a strong state government.

As always, the state's sharp-elbowed ethnic politics played a role. The Protestant Yankees who founded the state held on to their power long after were a majority by enforcing property qualifications to vote in city council, but not mayoral elections. In this manner they made being mayor a largely ceremonial post subject to the parochial whims of council members.

There were good reasons a century ago for many fire companies. The sleepy town of Burillville has five fire departments, one for each of the old textile mill villages that once gave the community its economy and character.

They were organized during a time when the siren had to be heard to summon the firefighters to a blaze. And it had the virtue of promoting volunteerism and local responsibility, those assets that French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville so praised during his 1830's foray to a young United States.

But over the years this localism has morphed into a Byzantine system of expensive agencies straight from the Department of Redundancy Department. The Scituate Reservoir serves more than 60 percent of the state's water needs, but some water agencies take water from Scituate and resell it at a profit to other communities. Why is there a Providence Water Supply Board and Kent County Water authority both getting their water from the same reservoir? And a Narragansett Bay Commission to deal with the reservoir's outflow into the sewer system.

And can our tiny state really afford 36 separate school districts?

As for the 155 pension systems, de Tocqueville had some prescient thoughts. "The American Republic will endure,'' he said. "Until politicians realize they can bribe people with their own money.''

Our oversupply of pension systems put too much power and too little accountability in the hands of politicians who traded generous benefits and cost of living allowances for support at the polls.

And if you think the business community has all the answers, well, ask them why there are 34 Chambers of Commerce in Rhode Island?

One sad thing about our state is that too many citizens cling to nothing so tenaciously as the status quo. Former State Representative Nick Gorham of Coventry called for consolidation of municipal services in the rural western part of the state. The thanks he got was being voted out of office.

What worked well in the 19th Century is obviously a millstone around the state's neck in the 21st. Lots of State House pols talk a good game when it comes to consolidation, but what are they doing about it? So far .not much.