Governor Lincoln Chafee and the General Assembly should be happy that Rhode Island is finally number one in an important statistic. We are the state with the most government benefits, according to a story in USA Today on Jan. 27. This statistic was based on five separate categories: Pension benefits, Medicaid payments, per-pupil spending, unemployment insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). The surveyors averaged all of the rankings in each spending category for all 50 states and R.I. came out on top. One could argue that we are a compassionate state who takes care of our needy, but the reality is we are spending the most because of the lousy economic environment that we have created for ourselves. People would not need assistance if they had jobs.
Unfortunately, we also now rank number one in another category: Unemployment. And that is a far more important statistic. It is also a statistic that gets a lot of lip service but little action from our government. If we really wanted to help the needy, we would create a climate that encourages job creation in the private sector. We consistently rank at or near the bottom in any business-friendly survey. We seem to do everything possible to drive wealth and jobs out of our state. We have a high income tax, high sales tax, high property tax, high gas tax and high estate tax. If you lease a car in Rhode Island, you pay a sales tax on the property tax. If you eat in a private club, you pay a sales tax on the gratuity. Take a look at your utility bills for hidden charges. The list of stupid examples is endless. We are one of two states forecast to lose population in the next 10 years and we have lost an estimated $1 billion in tax revenue between 2000 and 2010. Don’t think we have a problem?
We do have high employment in the public sector because we are incredibly inefficient in government. In a state the size of Clark County, Nevada, we have about one-half their population and 39 cities and towns to their five. They have one school superintendent and we have more than 30. This is repeated throughout Rhode Island, where we duplicate services that should be performed on a county level. This is especially true in public education, where we spend inordinate amounts of money with relatively little improvement. The lottery and the last six sales tax increases were sold to the public as being dedicated to improving education. Unfortunately, all that revenue went into the black hole known as the General Fund. Yet, state support for our universities and public schools continues to decline and property taxes increase to make up the shortfall.
The same is true with our gas tax, car registration, license fees, etc. We rank near the bottom in transportation infrastructure because what were supposed to be dedicated funds disappear into that same General Fund. Rhode Island ranks as the fourth most expensive state in which to drive a car and our roads and bridges are near the bottom of any survey. New Hampshire has far better roads despite worse weather because their dedicated funds go where they should: The Department of Transportation. We build a new bridge, but the people who use it want someone else to pay for it. The litany of problems for Rhode Island is well documented but largely ignored because it takes courage to solve them.
Most solutions to our problems are obvious but politically impossible until the General Assembly runs out of other people’s money. We need a two-party state with no master lever to serve as a check on government spending. Common sense says we need to re-organize on a county level and eliminate the huge bureaucracy involved in running our 39 cities and towns. Unfortunately, this would eliminate public sector jobs, which makes it a non-starter for discussion in Rhode Island.
It is true you can’t run a state like a business, but we don’t even try to be efficient with our bloated bureaucracy. The waste is monumental. We need to be less regulatory and more business-friendly to attract employers. Eliminate the estate tax because it just drives wealth out of the state and obviously is not working. Almost no one with a large estate is a permanent resident of Rhode Island or has set up a trust to bypass the tax. We need to continue to work on pension reform because the alternative is people having no pensions or greatly reduced pensions in the future, such as Central Falls. The General Assembly should have fewer members and be a full-time job. This would eliminate, or at least mitigate, the huge conflicts of interest that now exist where lawyers and union members now dominate. The Speaker of the House really runs the state and an inordinate number of bills benefiting special interests pass in the final days of the session with little or no disclosure. We have a one-party state dominated by Democrats whose only mission is to continue to be re-elected while supporting the public employee unions and people who rely on the state for handouts. According to this benefits survey, they are doing a great job.
Rick Wilson of Wakefield is the former publisher of the Narragansett Times and Wickford Standard Times.