November 23, 2014
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State budget fails to address joblessness

To the Editor:

In the legislature, we anticipate the release of the budget. This is the controlling document for the activities of the state. It, in effect, sets the tax rate for every citizen, delineates where the money will be spent and sets our priorities for the coming year and beyond.
Unfortunately, for me this budget is a disappointment. I see states across the country grappling with innovative solutions to large and nagging problems. It appears that the governor, Speaker and Senate president have a much smaller vision. This budget does nothing to address the abysmal job climate we have in Rhode Island. It does nothing to get folks back to work because it does nothing to make our state a better, easier, less burdensome place to grow a family, let alone a company. It does nothing for the average dad and mom out here, who are asking for property tax, sales tax and income tax relief. They don't want food stamps to care for their families. They want a good paycheck.
We are expected to look at this budget and be thankful that limited sales tax increases have been added. Unfortunately, when we read the pages, we see that the $102 million surplus has been squandered. In the pages there is no strategy for the future. Really, is the status quo worth maintaining? With persistent 11.2 percent unemployment, foreclosure rates among the highest in the country, a crushing tax burden and a job climate that ranks 48th in the United States, every month we delay in addressing the structural problems that plague Rhode Island is another month that our neighbors struggle to make ends meet.
There are no significant new taxes. However, just the same, there are $10 million worth. To put that in perspective, that’s less than two-tenths of 1 percent. We couldn't find that modest amount of money through spending savings? In a budget that is now over $8.1 billion large, we should not have to nickel and dime car washes, business suits and taxis out of existence. By the way, there's also a bill contemplating adding a 75-cent disposal fee on to every can of paint. We have a spending problem in R.I.
The budget also sets the stage for adding tolls to the Sakonnet River Bridge, and perhaps even the Jamestown Bridge. A well maintained road and bridge system is vital to our job climate. That being said, I oppose these extra “taxes.” In defense of DOT, Director Lewis has improved their cost containment and operational efficiency. Unfortunately, for decades while other states used funds from their regular yearly tax receipts to secure matching federal dollars, in Rhode Island we have borrowed the money and today the biggest part of DOT's budget is used to service that debt. It leaves them very little to maintain our roads and bridges. With their backs against the proverbial wall, they have begged for a new revenue source. Instead of using the $102 million surplus to retire some of their debt and begin relieving the strain, this budget solves the problem with a new toll/tax. In our own family budgets, faced with a too big credit card balance, we would be using any windfall to pay down the balance. Government should use the same philosophy.
On the good side, this budget adds an Office for Performance Management inside a newly created Office of Management and Budget. I support this. In fact, I introduced a bill this session that would have created much the same function in government. Performance management looks at every operation, process and job description and judges whether it is needed and whether it is effective and efficient. It rewards the good and eliminates the bad. If we need anything in government, it is the wise use of the hard-earned money they take from our paychecks every week. If this new office is run correctly, it should lead to a streamlined and responsive bureaucracy. I know that would be hard to believe, but “Hope" is the state's motto.
Out of nowhere, the budget also consolidates the primary, secondary and college education leadership under a newly created Chancellor of Education. That's right; Rhode Island is going to have its own Education Czar. Now, we can all agree that up until now; the current setup hasn't been doing a very good job. Our 75 percent graduation rate and the lack of robust student achievement are increasingly troubling and the mismanagement of tuition dollars at our public universities is scandalous. However, Commissioner Gist is just now rolling out a teacher evaluation system that should reap rewards. The collapse of the International Sports Institute has focused the attention of everyone on reckless university spending. The system is working. I fear that giving our school system from top to bottom to one un-elected man will do nothing to improve our children's future. What it will do is give the chancellor and his board unfettered authority over our largest expenditure of local and state taxes, our school system. I think we should be very skeptical. Especially because there was no testimony over the course of the session and no stated rationale for the change, I can't support it. Although this budget doesn't raise significant taxes, it does very little to move our state toward a prosperous future. In that respect, it hurts all of us. As in any large document, we can find things that are good ideas. But I am disappointed that there is no strategy to improve the structural problems that are weighing down our job climate and hurting so many of our neighbors. We cannot keep putting off the difficult decisions if we expect to get people back to work, prevent more from losing their homes and ensure everyone's financial security. I will advocate for changes, because we can do better than this.

Rep. Patricia Morgan
Dist. 26, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick


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