Parsing Chafee's final budget

Jan 17, 2014

Governor Lincoln Chafee has delivered his final state budget proposal and given his final State of the State speech. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses Chafee’s Last Hurrah.

The cliché says: show me your budget and I’ll figure out your priorities. When it comes to Gov. Chafee’s final budget, that may be a trite description, but it’s true.

Lincoln Chafee is no orator, but in his State of the State address and budget plan, he couldn’t be clearer. In a measured speech at the State House, the governor outlined a proposal that fits with both his persona and political philosophy:  steady, deliberate and focused on a few major proposals.

The budget has a spending increase of about 4 percent, to roughly $8.5 billion in combined state and federal outlays. There are no increases in sales or income taxes, the broad-based levies Rhode Islanders care most about.

The governor proposes more investments in education, both in Kindergarten through 12th grade and in higher education. The increased higher education spending would freeze tuition at the state’s public colleges, the University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

Chafee is also asking the General Assembly to put to voters  in November ballot questions that would bond for $275 million in investments in roads, bridges, environmental projects and a new engineering school at URI.

Much of Chafee’s tenure has been focused on reversing the policies of his predecessor, Republican Donald Carcieri. Among those are pumping more money into education and aid to communities, items that were cut by Carcieri and the Democrats who control the Assembly. Chafee has also changed course on Carcieri’s Red State social issue stances, ushering gay marriage into law in Rhode Island and pushing changes in state regulations that allow the children of illegal aliens to attend state colleges and pay in-state tuition.

Chafee’s speech struck a conciliatory tone on immigration. It’s one an older, suburban generation of Rhode Islanders may not want to hear: that by 2040, 41 percent of Rhode Island’s residents will probably be people of color, with Latinos totaling a quarter of the population. For a generation, most of our state’s population growth has come from folks of color.

There is nothing new about this; Rhode Island’s culture and politics have long been limned by immigration. By 1905, a state census showed that the Ocean State was the first state in the U.S. with a majority Roman Catholic population.

Chafee was greeted with applause by lawmakers, but his plan was not popular in all precincts. The usual interest groups had complaints: the Hospital Association of Rhode Island is upset at about $19 million in human service cuts.  The conservative R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a critic of Obamacare, wants the state to shut down the HealthSourceRiI online insurance exchange. And Rep. Jan Malik, D-Warren, a sales tax foe, wants Chafee to cut sales tax rates instead of lowering the corporate tax.

Then there are the sticky issues Chafee didn’t  talk about. He is on record as favoring continuing to pay bondholders the $90 million or so on the Curt Schilling-38 Studios fiasco, another mess Chafee inherited from Carcieri. That’s going to be a tough sell to some lawmakers, who in an election year are loath to vote to give $12 million in taxpayer money to Wall Street speculators.

Chafee spoke about diversity and the need to confront   growing economic inequality, but didn’t even mention raising the minimum wage. That  legislation that will be pushed by organized labor but will surely generate opposition from the business community.

It’s hard to argue with Chafee’s plans for new spending on roads, bridges, the URI engineering school and clean-water projects, but the $275 million in new state debt may be too much for lawmakers to swallow in one year.

The governor seemed relaxed and confident as he gave his speech. He even ended on a puckish note with the ``man, I love Rhode Island’’  quote from Taylor Swift, the zillionaire pop singer who summers at an ocean side mansion among the swells of Watch Hill.

Chafee didn’t talk about his overarching challenge: His lame duckness. As the months dwindle until voters choose his successor, it will inevitably get harder for Chafee to use his diminishing clout to sway lawmakers.  In politics, it’s usually better to be feared than liked.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ Blog at