Scott MacKay Commentary: Will RI's Business Community Help Raimondo Or Just Complain

Dec 11, 2014

Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo is meeting with Rhode Island business leaders as she shapes her new administration. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay hopes the business hierarchy steps up to help her.

Governor-elect Gina Raimondo will inherit a stronger economy than Lincoln Chafee did, but will local business leaders step up to help improve the climate?
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Raimondo is taking over a state government that is much better off than the one Gov. Lincoln Chafee inherited from Don Carcieri four years ago. Unemployment was 11.4 percent; now it’s at 7.4 percent. The state budget deficit is much lower and cities and towns are not hovering over bankruptcy. Even Central Falls is out of receivership.

Yet the Ocean State has not sailed out of the economic  doldrums. Our state still has the highest jobless rate in New England and is well behind neighboring Massachusetts in building opportunities in such 21st Century sectors as high-technology and bio-technology.

The new governor has already been speaking to businessmen and women. She met privately  earlier this week with the board of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the business-financed government research group.  John Simmons, executive director of RIPEC, said the confab was a good one.

Raimondo, Simmons said, was candid and said she was wanted to build relationships with the business community. She is slated to speak with more business people  Tuesday in what she labels a summit to discuss creating jobs and helping middle-class Rhode Islanders.

These are all smart p.r. moves.  Raimondo said emphatically throughout her campaign that she wants to be the ``jobs governor,’’ which was  savvy campaign rhetoric but is more slogan than policy; Carcieri, too, ran as the`` jobs ‘’candidate.  Remember how that turned out. (Raimondo’s  Inauguration plan is called `Make It in Rhode Island. ‘ Former Massachusetts Gov. Edward King had a similar theme, which was ridiculed on bumper stickers that stated `Barely Making it in Massachusetts’ or `Not Making it in Massachusetts’).

Cementing relationships with business is necessary, yet hot air, hugs and handshakes aren’t going to solve problems. Chafee got off on a sour note with the business establishment in the state and never recovered.

In a recent interview, Chafee traced the beginnings of his frosty relations  with much of the business community to the 2010 campaign and, what else, the infamous 38 Studios fiasco. Chafee was the most vocal critic of the ill-fated $75 million taxpayer subsidy to the pipe dream that was Curt Schilling’s video game company.

While Chafee aimed most of his salvos at Carcieri he was also publicly skewering  the Economic Development Corporation board that included top business executives, almost all of whom voted to approve the 38 Studios deal.

As it turned out, these business execs  made a very dumb decision, gambling recklessly with the taxpayers money. But they didn’t appreciate it when Chafee publicly made them look foolish.  He was right but he paid a political price.

Then, he proposed lowering the top sales tax rate and extending it to goods and services that historically had not been taxed in our state. The  business establishment rose up in opposition, aided by the state’s largest newspaper, the Providence Journal, which would have faced a 1 percent sales tax under the proposal.

Now is the time for Rhode Island   business leaders to come forward with constructive and creative ideas for our new governor. Too often business interests do little more than say no. Or complain about high taxes or such abstract nonsense as a ``lack of leadership.’’

Are there business folks who have specific  ideas about curbing our state’s runaway Medicaid costs? Or bringing highly-educated young workers to our state? Maybe some have insights about how to consolidate government services in a politically palatable manner? How about filling the Superman Building?

Maybe the business community  and  Raimondo should go back to the future – like those who helped former Gov. Lincoln Almond bring Fidelity to Smithfield. Banker Terry Murray, who is now retired, was crucial in shaping a tax policy that lured the company to consider moving some operations to Rhode Island from Boston. And the deal got done when Almond intervened with state business, political  and labor leaders to smooth the construction process. Labor leaders Frank Montanaro, George Nee, construction executive Bill Gilbane and ex-House Speaker John Harwood were all helpful, as was then-ProJo publisher Steve Hamblett. None of them sought public credit for their work to make this happen.

Raimondo is giving business leaders a seat  at the economic policy table. Isn’t it time they put up or shut up?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:50 and 8:50 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org