So there is yet another tome out dissecting Rhode Island’s economic woes. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay talks about what the big Rhode Island Public Expenditure report didn’t say.
If Rhode Island was a shelf, it would collapse under the weight of all the blue-ribbon commission reports written over the years about our state’s foundering economy. Since the infamous Greenhouse Compact of 1984, which was an attempt at a state industrial policy, the wonks, politicians, academics and economic thinkers have cleared entire Canadian provinces of trees to publish white papers and dense reports on how to heal the sickest economy in New England.
Now comes RIPEC, a business-financed government research hothouse, with the latest assessment of our state’s economy. Designed to address the utter failure of state economic development efforts, this report was done in reaction to former Don Carcieri’s ill-fated $75 million taxpayer-backed loan to Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios.
Some of the recommendations in the RIPEC report are no-brainers: making state development efforts more accountable to the governor, integrating job-training efforts and bringing business regulation into the 21st Century. Too many business men and women complain that their interactions with government come from the Department of Redundancy Department.
But other recommendations need serious scrutiny. For example, the idea that the director of the Department of Environmental Management should report to a new economic czar in state government should raise all sorts of red flags. Rhode Island’s devotion to environmental protection should never be sacrificed to the short-term imperatives of industry.
In this realm, our state can learn from past mistakes. For years, jewelry and textile companies were allowed to use Narragansett Bay as an open sewer. It has cost taxpayers billions to clean up that pollution.
In the 1950s, when every week brought news of a textile firm moving south, state government backed a plan to build a huge oil refinery in Jamestown. The refinery deal met defeat when wealthy Newporters and the nascent environmental movement went to federal court. Years later, when Gov. Dennis Roberts was asked why he supported the refinery, he said that the state was desperate for jobs. In a state whose economy is wedded to tourism, just think what a refinery belching smoky pollution would have done to fishing and sailing on the Bay.
Rhode Island is once again in a deep economic rut, with the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate.
Turning this around will take years and smart investments by both government and citizens. It will take much more than moving the economic development pieces around a government chess board.
While the RIPEC report concentrated on process and government reorganization, it really didn’t touch on the deeper diseases that afflict our tiny state. One of the saddest legacies of Carcieri’s two terms as governor was the dramatic cut in state support for the University of Rhode Island, which trains the workers of the future. Another doleful piece of news came last week with the release of SAT scores. Not only does the state lag behind the national average, we are also behind the average of the six New England states. Woefully, Rhode Island scrapes the bottom of the barrel with the lowest participation rate among students taking the college-entrance exam in New England.
Rhode Island will never be a relevant player in a 21st Century economy without a well-educated workforce.
Other hurdles are more easily scaled, if only the politicians would cooperate. We must stop the crony-capitalism deals that led to the Alpha-Beta bio tech fiasco in the 1990s and the Schilling-Carcieri mess. Targeted tax cuts sometimes work; eliminating passive investment taxes lured Fidelity here under former Gov. Lincoln Almond and the historic tax credits generated jobs and cemented Rhode Island’s reputation as a national leader in historic preservation.
Rhode Islanders need to understand that governments don’t create jobs. Government can establish the conditions for a healthy economy by making smart investments in roads, schools, ports, bridges, highways and the environment. But people have to take personal responsibility. Look in the mirror: if you or your children don’t have the skills to compete in the new job market, go get them. Don’t expect the government to bail you out.
A more elusive but important goal is an issue no one in the business or political hierarchy speaks about publicly: the need for leadership from the business community. Two decades ago, such leaders as banker Terry Murray and the late Providence Journal publishers Michael Metcalf and Stephen Hamblett stepped to the plate to steer economic advances. Murray was a crucial player in the Greenhouse Compact and it was his idea to change the tax system to bring Fidelity to Smithfield. And Murray, Metcalf and Hamblett were influential forces in the rebirth of Providence and construction of the Providence Place Mall.
Where is the new generation of such leaders?