Scott MacKay Commentary: Rhode Island's Democrats vs. Massachusetts

May 2, 2014

Rhode Island Democrats should look to Massachusetts for some leadership on the economy. RIPR political analyst  Scott MacKay explains why.

RI Democrats could take a page out of Massachusetts' book when dealing with the economy.

Rhode Island is once again ensnared in a noisy political campaign season. The stench of government corruption has led to new leadership on Smith Hill. Gordon Fox is out as speaker and Nick Mattiello is in. Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly by big margins. Yet the historic majority party can’t seem to speak with a coherent voice on our state’s struggling economy.

We also have a Democratic governor, Lincoln Chafee, a lame-duck who isn’t running for reelection. He doesn’t have the clout to convince lawmakers to do much of anything.

The media seems ostrich-like, burying its collective head in the single-issue  sand. There has been an awful lot of attention given lately in both the press and among lawmakers to such minor changes as ridding the state of the master lever. And, of course, the business community and conservative think tank focus on cutting taxes as an economic spur.

Then there are the silly season cries about environmental regulation. This canard reached its apex last week when state Historian Laureate Patrick Conley launched an anti-environment screed on the Providence Journal’s op-ed page.

``The Coastal Resources Management Council, and, especially the Department of Environmental Management are the two greatest obstacles to Rhode Island’s economic growth,’’ opined Conley.

Conley waxed nostalgic about a time eons ago, when Rhode Island had no environmental regulations and textile and jewelry factories provided thousands of jobs to low-skill immigrants. What he didn’t mention was that Narragansett Bay was an open sewer. Or that weak labor laws meant children dropping out of school and losing their limbs in textile mills.

Yes, we have the highest unemployment rate in the country. Why should this be an excuse to revert to an anything- goes regulatory regime? Conley knows our state’s history as well as anyone alive. Yet he curiously avoids mentioning the mid-1950s panacea to replace jobs lost when textile mills moved south. That was to allow an Oklahoma oil company to build a sprawling oil refinery on the northern end of Jamestown.

The refinery was not beaten back by the environmental movement. It met defeat when a group of wealthy Newport summer residents hired a very smart   lawyer to thwart it in federal court. We owe them a huge debt.

How do you think the bay would have been affected by that? Our tourist industry is now worth more than $1 billion annually to our state’s economy. How many boaters and fishing  devotees would flock to a bay where an oil refinery belched pollution?

Then there is the tax cut chimera, another search for a silver bullet.  We’ve been down this road before, back in then-Gov. Donald Carcieri’s disaster of a second administration. Amid a recession, Carcieri and the Assembly insisted on slicing taxes for the wealthy. At the same time, state aid to education and cities and towns was cut? How did that turn out?

Massachusetts has taken a much different route. For the past 8 years, the state’s liberal Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, working with a legislature as lopsidedly Democratic as Rhode Island’s, have forged a much better economy.

Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts has made serious investments in education for two decades. Both at  the kindergarten through grade 12 and in public colleges and universities. When the recession hit in 2008, Patrick and Massachusetts lawmakers went in the opposite direction of Rhode Island government.

Massachusetts raised the sales tax by 1.25 percent so that education and Bay State cities and towns wouldn’t  face huge reductions. Massachusetts embraced universal health care as no other American state has ever done. The result of investments in education and health is a better-educated and healthier workforce than Rhode Island. Massachusetts also enacted public school testing years before Rhode Island so state officials could better evaluate school performance.

And data compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count shows that Massachusetts has fewer children being raised in poverty than is the case in the Ocean State.

While Rhode Island was searching for one-shot game changers, Massachusetts was thinking longer term. The most florid example, of course, is they didn’t do the stupid Curt Schilling deal. Rhode Island lured 38 Studios to Providence from the Bay State with crony capitalism, throwing $75 million in taxpayer money at an untested company. How did that one work out? We got the empty sock.

From a high of 8.7 percent in 2009, Massachusetts now has an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent. Rhode Island still has an 8.7 percent jobless rate, the nation’s highest. And Massachusetts does not have the structural budget deficits that Rhode Island has lived with for what seems like forever.

Massachusetts isn’t perfect. No state is. As is the case in our state, Massachusetts has suffered the scourge of official wrongdoing. On Beacon Hill,  the last three House speakers have all been convicted of crimes linked to public corruption.

As far as the master lever goes, is there really an economist extant who believes shedding it is a panacea for our economically sluggish state?

The lesson is that results matter. Government has a role to play in the economy.  Isn’t about time for Rhode Island Democrats to adopt some attitudes from their neighbors in Massachusetts?

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 our `On Politics' blog at