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Lisa Blais: Will 2014 Be Better Than 2013?

Thursday, January 02, 2014

 

Governor Chafee has made many remarks about the pall of negativity in this state. He made one comment in particular that garnered much reaction and was repeated often for its use of the English language. It made some people groan and others laugh. His phrase contained words each beginning with the letter “N”. I wish I could remember it. Please do share that remark if you recall it! Repeating it would have helped strike a somewhat amusing note in context of the intent of this article, and that is that wishful thinking or a collective positive psyche does not make things right nor that this piece suggests that we need be entirely pessimistic about the New Year in Rhode Island. With that said, no, Governor Chafee and for anyone else who believes that all we have to do is “stay the course”, this is not just another negative taxpayer’s voice blowing in the wind.

Stay the course?

We all know that we face a tremendous amount of digging out to get RI and, particularly our poor and middle class neighbors who are losing ground, out of the economic nightmare that has gone on for too long. Our unemployment rate is tops in the country (tied with Nevada) and we have, reportedly, 26,000 less people working than we did pre-the great recession of 2008. We still face a staggering state structural deficit and a frightening level of underfunded promises (OPEB) made for public sector retirees’ healthcare.

The land of ”no”

Look at the most recently published media coverage and we find that the PUC approved a 12.1% rate increase for electricity while the governor talks about hydropower. Shall we begin with holding the line on one of the most basic of utility necessities? Nope. Consider that the state is closing in on deadlines for contractual agreements with United HealthCare for health insurance coverage for our state employees and (presumably) simultaneously negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with state employees. Do we know what is happening regarding the discussions regarding the potential costs of administering that coverage and whether or not the natural connection is being made to the negotiated agreement on employee cost-sharing for that coverage? Nope. Have we heard any further public discourse on the feasibility of moving public sector employees into HealthSourceRI – RI’s health insurance exchange? Nope. What about the newly organized private sector daycare workers who now are represented to negotiate benefits with the state? You can bet that vacations and health insurance may very well be on the table. Have we heard any details about those negotiations? Nope. Withering negativity? No, just reality. Those pesky moral obligation bonds for 38Studios must be wrestled with…will they be approved for payment or just add to the taxpayers’ black hole of debt? Then there is the Big Cahoona: the results of court-ordered settlement discussions about the 2011 pension reform and what the General Assembly will do with it when it comes to them for their final decree. Speaker Fox made clear that he does not have the appetite to revisit the pension reform – let’s hope that the rest of the General Assembly stands strong against any debates about changes that raise taxpayers’ liabilities while undermining any shred of pension security.

Tired of pessimism

It is easy to be pessimistic about what 2014 holds for taxpayers in RI. Ponder the desire to move the state’s probation and parole offices into downtown Providence. To Angus Davis’ point , has there been any due diligence to determine if a state owned building is available for this use? On its face, this is just another potential example of spending more of taxpayers’ money without fully disclosing whether or not we already own space that can be utilized for the intended purpose. Taxpayers are tired of behind the scenes decisions that result in increased costs.

Try to be optimistic

The 2014 General Assembly session begins on January 7. Let’s hope that 2014 will be the year that we finally see bold leadership from the General Assembly. We simply cannot afford to continue to conduct the “people’s business” as usual.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Lisa Blais is a board member of OSTPA, a taxpayer advocacy organization in Rhode Island.

 

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