Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Issues Pols Aren't Talking About

Jun 22, 2018

As the Rhode Island General Assembly session winds down, the political campaigns ramp up. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay talks this week about issues that aren’t getting enough attention from the pols.

Rhode Island’s political campaigns have had a desultory start, with politicians playing the thrust-and-parry game of tossing darts at each other. In the new political order fueled by relentless  feeding of the social media maw, the charges and counter charges come fast and furious.

That means we’re treated to a merry-go-round of which candidate is more appalled at what’s happening in immigration enforcement  on the Mexican border –as if there is anything a Rhode Island state rep candidate can do about it. Or the latest campaign finance dust-up, such as last week’s dueling stories about whether the Carpionato development firm of Cranston was giving more free office space to Democrats or Republicans.

Most politicians don’t like talking about the future. They particularly don’t like to tackle problems to which there are no solutions that fit on a bumper sticker.

But there is no shortage of topics that loom on the Ocean State horizon. One of biggest – the coming municipal pension mess.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has done a fine job diagnosing the problem –local pension funds in community after community that are in deep trouble. Systems in West Warwick, Coventry, Central Falls, Cranston, Johnston, Woonsocket and Providence are in critical condition. One of every four local taxpayer dollars in Providence goes for pension benefits. Since 2005, the city has contributed $723 million to the fund, but hundreds of millions have been paid, for a decline of more than $200 million. On what planet is that sustainable?

It gets worse. Every community has another liability that doesn’t get much attention. It goes by the acronym OPEB: Other post retirement benefits. This is mainly the cost of insuring public retirees for health care. Communities across the state are loaded down with these liabilities, but rare is the task force or Assembly study group that is preparing for the inevitable day of reckoning.

Clean water is likely to become an even more valuable resource in the future. Rhode Island is lucky that we have the Scituate Reservoir, one of the nation’s best water sources. We have more than 100 water systems in the state. And no road map for how to best preserve this precious supply. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza did try to trigger a conversation about water resources when he proposed selling or leasing the Providence Water Supply system to help shore up the city’s pensions. That plan hit a wall at the Statehouse.

At this point, we’re not sure –from a legal standpoint –who owns the reservoir and the distribution system that provides drinking water to more than 60 percent of the state. Providence paid to build it, but some suburban pols say the ratepayers now own it. It’s about time we figured it out.

Another issue that’s gotten little notice beyond the advocacy community is how to get better educate new immigrant groups. Study after study shows low achievement among poor Latino students, but our state’s political hierarchy hasn’t much focused on the issue. These kids are the future workers. Deaths are now outnumbering births among white people in many states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Yet we haven’t come up with a way to better teach children whose first language isn’t English.

Rhode Island taxpayers have been generous supporters over the years for multi-million dollar bond debt. Voters have supported such good works as preserving open space, improving ports and supporting state colleges. Now they are being asked to approve a $250 million school construction program. It’s a needed expenditure. But when is state government going to have a conversation about the level of debt Rhode Island is taking on. We are already one of the highest-debt states in the nation, according to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

This isn’t a comprehensive list. Don’t even get us started about housing, homelessness and poverty. But these are some issues we should all think about before casting our ballots.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org