Scott MacKay Commentary: Parsing Out Gov. Chafee's Final Budget Proposal

Jan 20, 2014

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has delivered his final state budget proposal and delivered his final State of the State address. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay parses Chafee’s last hurrah.

Governor Lincoln Chafee at his final State of the State Address.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

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 Statehouse, 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. After past failed attempts, 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 on the November ballot questions that would bond for $275 million in investments in roads, bridges, environmental projects and a new engineering school at URI. That may be too much new state debt for lawmakers to swallow in one year.

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 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.

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 HealthSourceRI 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 $12.5 million in taxpayers’ 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, legislation that will be pushed by organized labor but will surely generate opposition from the business community.

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.

And Chafee didn’t dwell on 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 morning at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and again at 5:45 on All Things Considered. You can also follow him at the “On Politics” blog at RIPR dot ORG.