Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Pols And Media, Drop The Ratings Games

Jul 13, 2018

Rhode Island politics is once again enveloped in the economic rating game. Some national rankings show the state’s economy to be doing well, while others don’t. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay is skeptical of all the rankings, ratings and lists.

The CNBC business network recently ranked Rhode Island at 45 out of 50 on its 2018 list of the top states for business. Business Insider's web site put Rhode Island much higher, stating it has the ninth best business climate in the country.

Then came the bankrate.com rankings, which show Rhode Island to be the 34th best state in the union in which to retire. What these ratings tell us isn’t much, given the widely different measures each uses to get to their conclusions. But that hasn’t immunized the state’s politicians from the disease of rampant "ratingitis."

As the campaigns slog toward the fall elections, politicians somehow feel the need to respond to these ratings as if they meant something. Their flacks churn out press releases, filling media inboxes with nonsense.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, Democratic governor aspirant Matt Brown, House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, all weighed in on the CNBC rankings. Ditto for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Republican Leader Patricia Morgan, who are vying for their party’s governor nomination.

Ok, so the best state in which to retire… South Dakota. Guess they think most retirees want to spend their golden years watching wheat grow and freezing in the winter. This rating used taxes and cost of living as 40 percent of its measure. Health care quality accounted for just 15 percent. The one thing we’re sure about life is that nobody is getting out alive. So if you’re old and get sick, wouldn’t access to quality health care mean more than sales tax rates?

The top four states in the CNBC rankings were Texas, Washington, Utah and Virginia. Why would anyone compare Rhode Island’s economy with Texas? Even at low tide, it would take 200 Rhode Islands to fit into Texas, a state with vast oil deposits and a big manufacturing economy. And do you really want to be in a place that is akin to living in a sauna four months of the year, and where men above the age of 12 wear Stetson hats and cowboy boots with spurs in public?

Can’t some pol just say that such comparisons are bogus? And when will a candidate point out that about one in 10 children in Texas lack health insurance, and that more than one in four children lives in poverty?

The CNBC ranking showed Vermont to be the best state in which to live. Vermont is a wonderful place, with billboard-free highways, natural beauty and little crime. But does everyone want to live in the nation’s most rural and one if its whitest states, where the largest city has just 40,000 people? Not to mention that even locals joke that the state has only three seasons –winter, mud season and July 4th. Gotta love cross-country skiing to church on Easter Sunday.

Taking these ratings seriously is both silly and sad. Voters should look askance at any candidates who tout rankings that compare Rhode Island to states with totally different cultures, natural resources, labor laws and demographics. This means that we should be aware of tax rates, wage laws and business costs in neighboring New England states. We compete with them for business. But there is nothing more disingenuous than using North Dakota or Texas as measuring sticks. We aren’t ever going to have an economy based on oil derricks or fracking.

When it comes to politics, this state rankings game should be sinking faster than Joe Trillo’s boat. The local media should also do some soul-searching. Has anybody noticed that Boston media pay scant attention to these ratings?

If candidates want to twist their knickers over a ranking, let’s go to Rhode Island Kids Count's latest listings. Rhode Island ranks 28th in educational  attainment. The state is behind such New England neighbors as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, which are all in the top 10.

Now that’s a problem. Voters should be asking the pols, what’s your solution?

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