Scott MacKay Commentary: Providence Hosts Governors as RI Lawmakers Fiddle

Jul 14, 2017

The National Governor’s Conference brought leaders from around the world to Providence to discuss such topics as trade, climate change and the opioid crisis. RIPR Political analyst Scott MacKay says this was a sharp contrast with Rhode Island, where lawmakers can’t even figure out how to approve a state budget. 

Governors from across the nation jammed the Rhode Island Convention Center to discuss an issue that has ruined lives in every state – the opioid epidemic. Gov. Gina Raimondo was one of those lamenting the lack of progress being made against addiction and its fatal byproduct, overdose deaths.

Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker talked about dealing with families who have lost loved ones . There is disturbing evidence, for example: every 25 minutes in the United States, a baby is born suffering from opiate withdrawal.

A day before the conference, Raimondo issued an executive order designed to fight opiates. But she said she was ”disappointed” the General Assembly has not approved a passel of measures to combat addiction, make treatment more available and create youth drug awareness and education programs. Raimondo’s aims are laudable, but without Assembly action, there won’t be a foundation to allocate money that will be needed.

Rhode Island lawmakers aren’t oblivious to this problem that’s sweeping the nation.

But the leaders of Rhode Island’s dysfunctional General Assembly became ensnared in an 11th-hour snit and shut down the legislature more than two weeks ago without passing a budget. This ego-driven dust-up between House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio of North Providence sacrificed at least five measures to fight addiction along with many other items that could make our state a better place.

The opioid legislation was approved by the Senate, but was put on hold when the House adjourned. That’s not all. School money to cities and towns has been delayed, the state’s job-creating historic preservation tax credit program is in limbo, and communities have been left in the lurch over car taxes and hiring issues.

If you haven’t paid attention, some quick history.  Just before the state’s new fiscal year began, a last-minute dispute between Mattiello and Ruggerio shut down the Assembly before a budget was approved. The battle appears to have been over a late amendment the Senate tried to tack onto Mattiello’s pet project –beginning a six year phase out of the unpopular car tax.

The amendment would have halted the phase-out if the state couldn’t afford it. The Senate has a point. The House budget, stuffed with accounting gimmicks, never did find the money needed to finance the $26 million for the first year or the phase-out.

Yet, the Senate never publicly raised the issue until the last day of the session. The Senate Finance Committee approved the House budget version without the car tax yellow light.

What happened next is truly remarkable, even in the long history of Rhode Island politics. Mattiello said Ruggerio broke a private hand-shake deal. Then the blame-laying began. The façade of how Statehouse business is conducted was ripped away.

Leaders were admitting what many long suspected –that much of what happens in public at the Statehouse is a show concocted for the television cameras.  The real decisions that govern life in the Ocean State are made secretly behind thick oak doors in the capitol. A wink here, a nod there, a hand-shake over drinks in a back room.

Most disappointing has been the silence of almost every  lawmaker, particularly the so-called Democratic progressives. Where is the news conference on the State House steps?

One of the few profiles in courage has been Sen. Josh Miller of Cranston, who has said publicly that both leaders need to bring lawmakers back to work.

It’s about time that Rhode Islanders from Block Island to Burrillville and Harmony to Hog Island, contacted their lawmakers and tell them what Bill Belichick tells his Patriot players –“Do your job.”

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:4 5 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org