Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Political-Economic Reality and Myth

Jan 31, 2014

Every serious candidate says Rhode Island’s poor economy is the top issue in this year’s governors’ race. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for Rhode Island to sort economic myth from reality.

What's really to blame for the state of Rhode Island's economy?
Credit Don Boorman / RIPR

Say hello to any of the five major candidates for governor and you’ll get a marathon run of rhetoric on the need to create jobs in our struggling state.  On the Republican side, Ken Block and Allan Fung have both talked about ushering in a better business climate, lowering taxes and looking for ways to save taxpayer money.

Democrats Gina Raimondo, Angel Taveras and Clay Pell have all concentrated  their opening forays on the dire need for a better economy in a state that has the awful distinction of having a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the nation’s worst.

Voters this year, more than ever, should beware of candidates who refuse to answer tough questions or rely on the poll-tested banter that will flood television ads.

We need to watch those running who do little more than criticize the incumbents. Even if you view Gov. Lincoln Chafee as more caretaker than leader, remember that he isn’t running. And that he inherited a mess and that unemployment has come down about three points since he took over from Republican Donald Carcieri, he of the Curt Schilling-38 Studios fiasco.

Much the same goes for the General Assembly. You may feel the Assembly is responsible for the parlous state of our economy. That it’s time for wholesale change on Smith Hill.  Rhode Island history shows that isn’t likely to happen. The Democratic Party, which has had an iron grip on the legislature since the one-man, one-vote U.S. Supreme Court decisions of  the early 1960s, is not likely to lose control this year, even if some incumbents are tossed out.

So far, no candidate has in any credible way addressed an issue that threatens to seriously decimate the state budget. That’s what to do when Massachusetts decides to build a casino that threatens Rhode Island’s third largest source of state tax money, the more than $300 million in gambling taxes generated by our two legal gaming venues, the slot-parlor at Newport Grand and the casino at Twin River in Lincoln.

The latest specter haunting our gambling haul is a proposal by Connecticut-based Foxwoods to place a Las Vegas-style casino in Fall River. This $750 million plan has been endorsed by Fall River’s mayor. It needs voter approval, but that shouldn’t be a hurdle in a city with chronic unemployment and an economy worse that Rhode Island’s.

Such a project would include hotels, convention space, glitzy shopping malls and more than 20 restaurants. Twin River has none of those fancy amenities and not even a hotel. Newport Grand, a tired slot emporium in a city where voters rejected table games, has been struggling for years. It is difficult see how it could survive a casino a few miles up the road.

Because Fall River hugs the East Bay of our state, some Rhode Islanders would probably be among the 3,000 to 5,000 jobs the casino might bring. But that wouldn’t make up for the loss of gambling revenue.

So what do we do about this, gubernatorial candidates?

Don’t let them switch the topic to every candidate’s swim in the warm pool of nostalgia. This is the belief that we are going to bring back the thousands of manufacturing jobs that have been lost to low-wage locations overseas and in the American south. Those  positions aren’t coming back, as everyone from economists to that musical working-class philosopher Bruce Springsteen asserts.

Manufacturing is done those days with far fewer employees and more technology than the low-skill mills of the 20th century.

Too many candidates adopt the sentiment of the University of Rhode Island fight song. You know, the one that goes, ``We’re Rhode Island born and Rhode Island bred and when we die we’ll be Rhode Island dead.’’

The cliché of recent elections is that Rhode Island is so bad that my kids can’t get jobs here when they graduate. All the good jobs are in Boston, goes this nostrum.

Rhode Island, for better or worse, is an accident of history, a state that takes two gallons of gas to drive across. In a global 21st Century economy, it is not a self-contained  economic unit.

What’s wrong with a job in Boston, one of the few places in the world where new ideas and technologies are conceived.  It’s 45 minutes from Providence.  Rhode Island should have invested in high-speed trains to Boston years ago.

It’s time to end this Ocean State parochialism. There is no guarantee anywhere of getting a job in the state you grew up in. That this is even an expectation in the 21st Century is another of those convoluted ironies of Rhode Island politics.

Ask the general treasurer where her husband Andrew Moffit works? ..…Boston. And ask all three Democratic candidates where they got their education. The answer : A college you may have heard of. It’s in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Morning 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 commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at