Scott MacKay Commentary
5:02 pm
Thu January 2, 2014

Scott MacKay Commentary: Hello To The 2014 General Assembly's 2013 Hangover

Rhode Island’s General Assembly convenes a new session Tuesday. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why this year’s legislature may sound a lot like last year’s.

Credit RIPR FILE

By now, most of us have cleared our heads of those New Year’s  hangovers. That’s not the case for Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers.

The 2014 Assembly that convenes tomorrow will resemble nothing so much as the …2013 Assembly. The reason for this is all too evident:  As has too often been the case, the Smith Hill Crowd decided not to decide some big, prickly issues last session.

An obvious one:  how to handle the fiasco that was 38 Studios, the ill-fated $75 million bond guarantee to Curt Schilling’s bankrupt video game company that left taxpayers on the hook for $100 million or so. The first $2.5 million payment on those bonds is due in May. Lawmakers in their wisdom opted to make that payment but made no decision on the much bigger next installment of $12.5 million that becomes due in the budget  year that begins in July.

All lawmakers are up for election this fall. Any incumbent who votes to pay the Schilling tab may face an opponent who argues that the state ought to walk on this debt. There are few things lawmakers dread more in an election year than taking a tough vote. You can argue that the state’s bond rating requires that the state pay this bill and avoid the taint of being labeled a deadbeat, minor-league Detroit in the credit markets. But anyone who thinks that is going to be an easy sell with taxpayers believes in the Easter Bunny.

Another topic with no simple answer is the Sakonnet River Bridge toll. That one nearly crashed the annual budget negotiations last year as Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, faced a rebellion from lawmakers from the east side of Narragansett Bay.

The vote-counting aspect of this one is pure regional politics. Yet there is a much larger issue at stake. When it comes to costly infrastructure projects, should  all Rhode Islanders share the costs, or should we finance these necessities with user fees?

Should people in Burrillville, Foster and Glocester  pay for a bridge they hardly ever drive over?  Or in our tiny state, should all taxpayers or motorists contribute to multi-million dollar transportation construction that provides economic betterment for us all?

Lawmakers ducked that crucial question last year, so it is back on their plates.

The state budget hole is about $100 million, less than in most previous years. An improving economy may well coax out more money. At any rate, the bottom line on this one won’t really be known until the May revenue estimating conference.

With Gov. Lincoln Chafee not running for reelection, the 2014 governor’s race will provide a backdrop to the legislative session. As Chafee sails into the sunset, he won’t be much of a factor. He has few carrots; his only real stick is his veto pen.

Health SourceRI, the state’s Obamacare insurance program, will probably get close scrutiny as legislative leaders come to grips with how much it will cost state taxpayers as federal subsidies decline.

In the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, there was much strum and drang about tightening our state’s gun control laws. While some cosmetic changes were made, nothing meaningful was done about such crucial issues as clamping down on sales of guns to people with mental health conditions.

While public opinion surveys show most Rhode Islanders favor stronger regulation of guns, the State House gun lobby has proven over the years to be a formidable obstacle. There is scant reason to think the gun issue will be any different this year.

The top issue for the last several years in the recession-strained  Ocean State has been the economy. That will be the case again this year as the Assembly grapples with one of the nation’s  highest  unemployment rates.

Lawmakers too often grasp for economic game changers at the expense of long-term thinking. There is a serious question about what the legislature can do in the short-term to juice an economy that is part of a 21st Century global village.

The latest flavor of the moment is reducing or even eliminating the state’s 7 percent sales tax. While some conservatives believe this will spur economic growth down the road, no one seems to have a reasonable answer to the question of how to make up in the short-term  for the loss of hundreds of millions in sales tax levys that flow to the state.

Our lawmakers enact such one-time panaceas the Schilling deal and then-Gov. Donald Carcieri’s income tax cuts for the wealthy, Rhode Island’s economy continues to trail our New England neighbors, particularly Connecticut and Massachusetts. Carcieri said famously that dropping income taxes on high-earners would lead to economic growth; that was a chimera. (The economy is actually worse now than when income levies were higher).

While Rhode Island government tinkered, Connecticut and Massachusetts lawmakers invested in workforce development and education. The result is that except for Maine, Rhode Island has New England’s worst educated workforce. What's incredible to those of us who are baby-boomers is how much debt college students carry nowadays. Those of us who went to state universities in the 60s, 70s and 80s were lucky; an America that believed in strong public investments and a hand up for the next generation has become greedy and solipsistic on helping all boats rise via public education.

Because 2014 is an election year, lawmakers won’t want to hang around all summer. It is probably too much to ask for, but it would be nice for a change if lawmakers would vow to take up meaningful business early in the session and avoid the ridiculous rush to adjournment, with post-midnight confabs where hundreds of bills that have received scant scrutiny win approval.

Humans are a last-minute species, as anyone who has been to the mall on Christmas Eve, the post office on April 15 or a singles bar at last call can attest. Yet for years our lawmakers have too often made fools of themselves and  the taxpayers who pay them with eleventh-hour chicanery. Why not make this year the session with no last-minute excuses, where thorny issues get tackled early on.

It happened last year with one huge emotional issue, same gender marriage. Lawmakers got to it early, held marathon hearings and ensured it did not get mixed up in other topics. In a historic vote, the Assembly approved same sex-marriage. Some were upset with this outcome. Yet  by the time the vote was taken, no one could say they didn’t get a fair hearing or that lawmakers took a vote they didn’t understand.

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

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