December 19, 2014
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Let’s elevate discussion into action
John Hazen White, Jr.

It took the costly collapse of 38 Studios to finally wake Rhode Island up about its relentless under-performing economy and its scattershot economic development policies. And then there was the CNBC state business rankings for 2012, which placed our state dead last when totaled across a range of competitiveness measures. Look at the most negative CNBC ratings for the Ocean State:

- 45th and 46th on the cost of doing business and workforce, respectively.

- 49th on our overall economy and 50th on infrastructure and transportation.

- 49th on business friendliness and 44th on the cost of living here.

These negatives should be easily recognizable to most of us. Between the corporate tax rate and a slew of state and municipal regulations that burden businesses in Rhode Island, the state is a very difficult place to do business in. Our economy has barely budged since the downfall of 2008, with the second highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Our roads and bridges are in terrible shape and we don’t have the funds to fix them. Because of our taxes, regulatory burdens and special interest dominated government, we’re known to be anti-business (only New York state is worse in that category). And it’s expensive to live here and do business.

This is what everyone who is now coming to a variety of tables and public forums – and those issuing critical recommendations like RIPEC and the Rhode Island Foundation, based on extensive fact-finding and public and private dialogue – is facing when we examine our state and attempt to come up with a plan to change this depressing reality.

The fact that so much discussion is going on is a most welcome and needed development and everyone in state government, from the governor to the legislature leadership, and through the ranks of the legislature, should pay close attention.

Carrying this effort through to reality and making government a partner and not a hindrance to progress is what will really make a difference in whether we can change those CNBC rankings in time. Because that’s what we need to test ourselves against. These categories and their rankings really do count in how our business environment and economic climate is perceived. They are a true measure of performance, state by state.

Some of the categories we always do poorly in are within our power to change. If survey after survey takes us to task for the cost of doing business here, we need to change that by streamlining regulations and expediting the approval procedure and process to get things done in a reasonable amount of time and at less expense. If our workforce is cited as a negative because of low education levels, poor job skills, and how much we invest in worker training, then we need to focus on ways to improve those factors. We can do that. There is no excuse to see the same things cited against us year after year and remain indifferent to the consequences of those rankings.

As for our best CNBC rankings, they came in for quality of life and education. We all know from living here what a great place Rhode Island is, and that has real economic value. Our coastline, the variety of our landscapes, our proximity to Boston and New York, are all enduring assets. Educationally, we are blessed with a rich lineup of higher education institutions, and we spend a good amount of money (although with mixed results) on K-12 public education.

Proof of our positive quality of life and educational ranking is the fact that Texas, which came in #1 overall in the CNBC business-by-state survey, fared worse than Rhode Island did in both those categories. In fact, education and quality of life were its least favorable rankings, along with the cost of doing business.

Access to capital was Rhode Island’s single best ranking at #10 in the nation. That’s pretty good, but let’s hope it wasn’t based on easy access to taxpayer dollars for insider deals like 38 Studios.


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