Local Features
6:53 am
Mon November 8, 2010

COMMENTARY: Some advice for Governor-elect Chafee

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Lincoln Chafee walks in his father's footsteps to the Rhode Island governorship. But the junior Chafee's path to success will be much different. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay has some thoughts for our new governor.

Congratulations Governor-elect Chafee. You and your team don't have much time to bask in the glow of a fine campaign. You owe a lot to your theme of bringing Rhode Islanders together and the campaign group that got you to the State House. Campaign managers J.R. Pagliarini and Mike Trainor, Field Director Steve McAllister, Pollster Jim Gaffney and media consultant Tad Devine, who made the best television ads of 2010.

Not to mention the union leaders who worked so hard to push out votes,

Still, you won with just 36 percent in the four-way general election scrum. You inherit a state with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and a state government bleeding red ink. There are other ticking financial time bombs in the budget and they aren't only in the public employee pension benefits that have drawn so much media attention.

Sixty percent of the state budget is in education aid and social services, much of it in health care spending. Conservative lawmakers love to attack the RiteCare program that covers children, but the real bloat in the Medicaid budget is in care for the elderly. Too much money is spent in hospital and nursing home care for the old. Governor Carcieri talked about this, but didn't do much about a culture that houses the elderly in institutions and encourages medical providers to run up costs in the last six months of a person's life.

On this one, you would do well to seek the counsel of Christy Ferguson, governor Lincoln Almond's human services director and Elizabeth Roberts, the Democratic lieutenant governor and health policy wonk. You should also consult the state's new first lady, your wife, Stephanie, a nurse who has served on hospital boards and done much to help the poor get health care.

Then there is the legacy of a state that relied too long on low skill manufacturing textile and jewelry jobs. Compared to our New England neighbors, much of Rhode Island's work force is poorly educated and not equipped for the 21st century. This is a huge millstone around economic development efforts.

In your campaign, you called for a one-percent tax on exempt sales tax items to raise $100 million or so. You also pointed out that this won't be enough to avoid cuts in state programs. So you must finesse these differences and come up with an answer when constituents ask: Hey, you raised the taxes and now you are cutting programs we need?

There is also the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. One of the most important jobs in your administration is going to be director of legislative affairs. You will need someone who is honest, loyal and well-liked among lawmakers, so you would do well to rely on Pagliarini when you put this effort together.

You have to convince lawmakers to put aside their traditional pettiness and self-dealing for the common good. You may even consider joining the Democratic Party.

Your father was governor in the 1960s under the New Frontier and Great Society Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was part of a forward-looking group of New England governors who worked well together. They were Republicans like your dad, John Volpe of Massachusetts and Hugh Gregg of New Hampshire. And they were Democrats Ken Curtis of Maine, John Dempsey of Connecticut and in Vermont, Phil Hoff, the grand old man of New England liberalism, who is still kicking at age 86.

Your have a friend in President Barack Obama, but the federal government is in no shape to be as generous to the states as it was in your father's era. There are glimmers of hope. Our economy is slowing rebounding. Tax revenues are inching up. Some businesses are finally hiring.

Now our fate is yours. Rhode Islanders have little choice but to wish you luck. You are going to need it.