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Gary Sasse: 3 Ways to Restore Confidence in RI’s Government

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

 

GoLocalProv welcomes economist Gary Sasse as a GoLocal MINDSETTER. Well-known for his keen insights into business and policy, Sasse will offer insights into the local and regional landscape on every other Wednesday, right here on GoLocal.

In the late 1960’s when I was in graduate school many of my classmates sought careers in government and not on Wall Street. They believed that public service could make a difference in the lives of Americans. This positive view that government was part of the solution has been replaced by a more cynical view of government at all levels. This should not be surprising because too many times government has been ineffective in providing essential public services. Earlier this year the Pew Center for the People and the Press found that “trust in the federal government remains mired near an historic low and frustration with government remains high.”

Last year a Gallup Poll found that only 12% of Americans had a great deal of trust and confidence in the federal government’s handling of domestic problems. The confidence in state and local governments was not much better. Gallup found 17% had a great deal of trust and confidence in state government, and 23% in local governments.

Gerald F. Seib in a Wall Street Journal article “The People’s Choice: Distrust” observes that distrust in government had its roots four decades ago with Vietnam and Watergate, metastasized with the hyper-partisanship of the Bork confirmation and the Gingrich leadership, and was validated by the Monica Lewinsky affair. Today confidence is being further eroded by the inability of the President and Congress to compromise and controversies surrounding the Internal Revenue Service and government surveillance.

In Rhode Island confidence and trust in state and local government has been shaken by scandals of public officials, a banking crisis, a decade- long structural budget problem, decaying neighborhoods, and an uneven economic recovery to say nothing of the 38 Studios fiascos. However, what may be most responsible for the confidence gap in the Ocean State is the belief that too often elected officials focus their attention on issues peripheral to our real problems.

Ronald Reagan told us that government was not the solution but rather was the problem. Given the performance of the federal, state and local governments Reagan had a point. The challenge we face in Rhode Island is how can we restore confidence and trust so that government can be made part of the solution to the issues we must address to improve our economic well being.

There are a myriad of good ideas that can be considered to enhance trust and confidence in state and local government. Let me start by suggesting just a few.

1. Fix the Structural Budget Problem

The inability of governors and legislators to resolve Rhode Island’s decade long structural budget gap has inhibited the State’s ability to enhance tax and spending programs to create an environment to grow good jobs. In the current fiscal year the General Assembly adopted a budget with an $83 million operating deficit. Furthermore, the growing out-year deficits show that expenditures are projected to grow faster than revenues. This is fiscally unsustainable and a targeted plan should be enacted to eliminate this deficit by fiscal year 2018.

2. Balance Executive and Legislative Powers

Rutgers’s Eagleton Institute of Politics reported “Since 1985, all of the states have made statutory and/or constitutional changes to grant their governors more formal powers… most governors now have tools necessary to perform the duties of a true executive.” A University of North Carolina political scientist ranked the institutional powers of the fifty governors and found Rhode Island’s chief executive to be among the weakest in the nation.

To provide the governor with the tools needed to be an effective leader the Rhode Island Constitution should be amended to give the governor a line- item veto over appropriations and also make it more difficult for the General Assembly to override a veto. Governors in over 80% of the states have this power. For the governor’s veto to be more effective a two- thirds vote of all elected members should be mandated for an override. In Rhode Island a three-fifths vote of members present is required to override a veto.

3. Reform the Political Process

Restoring confidence is linked to making the politicians more accountable. A good start would be to consider the following reforms.

  • Restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly,
  • Require that legislative redistricting be performed by an independent commission, and
  • Debate the costs and benefits of legislative term limits and/or a fixed date of adjournment.

 

Enhancing confidence and trust in Rhode Island government will require elected officials and the private sector leaders to rethink how the public’s business should be conducted. As President Obama told the 2008 Democratic National Convention; “In this election, the biggest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.”

I wonder if anybody in Rhode Island heard the President?

 

Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.

 

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