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Chafee Earns Mixed Grades On Mid-Term Report Card

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


With Governor Lincoln Chafee’s State of the State address and budget unveiling set for tomorrow evening, GoLocalProv asked lawmakers, state officials and some of Rhode Island’s top political figures to grade the governor on his performance at the midpoint of his first term in office.

Participants were asked to grade the governor on a scale from A-F on subjects ranging from the economy and budget to his handling of weather-related emergencies and his efforts to improve the state’s business climate.

Chafee fared well in his review on how he has handled weather-related emergencies during his first term but received only average grades for his performance in many other key areas. Nearly all respondents felt that his efforts in helping improve Rhode Island’s business climate, however, needed improvement.


Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian had high praise for Chafee’s efforts on the economy, highlighting the governor’s efforts last summer to bring service from JetBlue Airways to T.F. Green as a key win and noted that Chafee “inherited a bad economy” from his predecessor but, for the most part, the governor’s effect on Rhode Island’s economy was believed to be minimal at best.

“He’s mentioned the words once or twice,” Rhode Island GOP Chairman Mark Zaccaria noted in his ranking of Chafee. “The problem is that he’s done nothing substantive to urge or, better yet, cause changes in the oppressive regulatory, permitting, and tax structures of the Ocean State to actively MAKE things any better.”

Zaccaria said Chafee’s presence had “zero” net effect on the economy of Rhode Island, a statement echoed by Rhode Island Tea Party President Susan Wynne, who gave Chafee a D on the subject.

“The only reason we give him a D instead of an F is due to his support of the acceleration of the timetable for Business Regulations Review,” she said. “Other than that, it would be an F as there has been no evidence of any effort.”

Representative Doreen Costa, one of Chafee’s most vocal critics, said she believes the governor is “trying” and has made attempts to meet with small business owners and traveled to other states to get input.

“Now we all have to work together to get a plan in place to help not chase them all out of town,” Costa said.

Wendy Schiller-Kalunian, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brown University, felt the blame can’t entirely be lobbed at Chafee, who she says has made efforts to improve the state but has faced resistance at the State House.

“The Governor is trying to suggest ways to reform the tax code to move the burden from businesses to a wider range of consumer products via the sales tax,” Schiller said, giving him a B-, “But he was only moderately successful because of resistance from the state legislature.”

Edward M. Mazze, a professor of business administration at the University of Rhode Island, feels it would be unfair to give Chafee anything but a C.

“The state is still trying to find a direction to become more business friendly and the Economic Development Corporation is no better today than it was two years ago,” he said.

Average Grade: C


By far his toughest critique, the governor received a number of tough grades on his efforts to improve Rhode Island’s business climate.

Most vocal on the issue was Cranston mayor Alan Fung, who declined to give a statistical grade.

“Over the past two years, I have seen little fundamental positive change in the State,” Fung said. “Rhode Island still ranks at or near the bottom a number of categories, and perhaps most disturbing is in the area of business-friendliness. Rhode Island continues to languish at the bottom of most indicators and that is something that speaks volumes about the lack of vision to turn things around in this state.”

Ed Pacheco, Chairman of the Rhode Island Democrats, gave the governor a C- while Costa, Zaccaria and Wynne all ranked him at or below a D.

“The business climate is terrible,” Costa said. “I have not seen the new budget and his plan for this upcoming budget but hopefully there are some great ideas to help small businesses. I can not and will not support this upcoming budget if there are more taxes and nothing in there to help the economy.”

Avedisian and Mazze were a bit more positive in their evaluations of Chafee, with the former calling the governor one of Warwick’s “most ardent cheerleaders” in redeveloping land near the airport and the latter saying he “understands the state’s economic dilemmas but has been unable to build a team to make the necessary changes.”

The pair gave him a B and a B-, respectively.

“He is trying to create a more business friendly state both with fiscal responsibility and changing our tax structure but he needs to generate more pressure on the state legislature to adopt his proposals,” Schiller said.

Average grade: C-


Chafee’s efforts at education reform in Rhode Island received an average grade, with Zaccaria questioning if the governor’s focus on the Race to the Top program has come at the expense of cities and towns in Rhode Island.
“Race to the Top is a reach for the financial carrot at the end of the stick without regard to the local influences that should shape our public education,” he said. “In other words, he’s ignored the state in pursuit of the federal buck.”

Costa said she feels the governor is making an attempt but has not produced any “real solutions” to the problem while Avedisian praised Chafee’s leadership on crafting a compromise to allow Mayoral Academies to expand.

Schiller and Mazze each gave Chafee a B+ on the subject, though the latter said the governor’s support of higher education would only be worth a C- if graded separately.

“The Governor has been supportive of his chief education officer even in difficult times and has been responsive to federal incentives to improve education,” Schiller said.

Average grade: C+


As Governor Chafee prepares to unveil his fiscal year 2014 budget this week, participants had a wide range of emotions on how he’s handled the process thus far.

Avedisian credited the governor with accelerating the school funding formula, finding a “rational funding formula” for RIPTA and avoiding large cuts to local government but Zaccaria and Pacheco both felt his efforts deserved average grades of C and C- at best.

Not surprisingly, Costa and Wynne, two heavy proponents of lower taxes, said the governor didn’t do enough, in their opinion, to cut spending.

“Last year’s budget proposal was a mess,” Costa said. “You can’t tax your way out” of an $8 billion dollar problem.

“Chafee's handling of the budget was ineffective,” said Wynne, who also slammed the General Assembly for raising taxes in her critique. “While we're disappointed that he was not more proactive and fiscally conservative, at the same time he cannot be blamed for the General Assembly finding it necessary to raise taxes by 10 million dollars on an $8.1 billion dollar budget!”

Zaccaria felt Chafee didn’t go far enough to push his agenda during budget negotiations and might have made more progress if he had a better relationship with the General Assembly.

“He seems to create his budget proposals in a vacuum,” Zaccaria said. “If he worked with the Legislature in advance he might have had some success in putting some kind of compromise package together that accomplished at least some of his goals. Since none of that happens, Gov. Chafee’s budgets are DOA and the time and taxpayer’s money that went into crafting them is wasted.”

Mazze and Schiller, though, had high praise for Chafee in this category with each giving him an A-.

“He has taken the right steps to balance the budget and suggested progressive ideas for funding areas like transportation without slashing aid to the most needy in the state too dramatically,” Schiller said.

“(I’d give him an) A- for trying to match revenue with expenditures and recognizing there is a need to lower government expenditures and suggesting changes in the sales tax area,” Mazze said.

Average grade: B-


Zaccaria and Wynne both felt Chafee’s relationship with the General Assembly needed improvement but Costa, who said she and the governor often disagree on many issues, had nothing but praise for the governor’s efforts to work with the delegation.

“Every time I’ve called his office, he has returned my calls,” Costa said in explaining her grade of an A- for the governor. “If I have a question and I see him at the State House, I can always ask and he will always have an answer for me. I find him very willing to talk to me. I can’t speak for the rest of the General Assembly. The Governor and I do not agree on very much but the conversations are always respectful.”

Mazze, who gave Chafee a B+ in this category, felt Chafee was “willing to listen, compromise and make decisions” in dealing with the General Assembly while Schiller thought it was a “cordial relationship” but that the governor needed to establish a “stronger leadership presence.”
Some wondered if Chafee’s struggles were due, in part, to the Governor’s relationship with both House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed.

“The governor seems to have ignored every opportunity to forge a working alliance with the Speaker and, by extension the Senate President,” Zaccaria said. “This has caused him to forego any chances he might have had to steer public policy or to influence legislation to put his finger prints on anything meaningful having to do with Rhode Island’s governance.”

Representatives for both Fox and Paiva Weed said the pair declined to grade the Governor but looked forward to the next two years of his term.

“The President of the Senate has worked with Governor Chafee over the first two years of his term to address the challenges facing Rhode Island,” said Rhode Island Senate Director of Communications Greg Paré. “She looks forward to continuing to work with him over the next two years to strengthen the state's economy and to make Rhode Island a better place to live and work.”

“Speaker Fox has enjoyed a good working relationship with the Governor over the past two years, and looks forward to working with him again in the coming year,” added House Communications Director Larry Berman.

Average grade: B-


Perhaps the topic that has garnered the most attention in his time as Governor, Chafee received a large number of positive grades for his efforts at pension reform, with Costa calling his stance on the issue his strongest area.

“He was willing to take the stand after having the unions support him,” she said.

Wynne agreed, giving the governor a B+.

“The Governor has worked hard toward Pension Reform,” she said. “He showed solid leadership and cooperation with the state plan and his municipal package that he sent to the GA should have been adopted.”

Avedisian said Chafee deserves an A simply for helping make the reforms happen in the first place but Zaccaria felt he deserved an F for not going far enough.

“His willingness to associate himself with the attempts by Bob Walsh and George Nee to cut the legs out from under the tiny step that was made in that direction may have caused irreparable damage to the further gains that need to be made if we are to tackle our immense Post Employment Benefits Deficit,” Zaccaria said.

Schiller was critical of the governor, not so much for his stance or efforts on pension reform but for the possibility that he may go back and change the deal at hand.

“Until recently I would have given him an A but to reverse course and publicly support reopening the deal and negotiation undercut any credit that he might have been awarded for the deal,” she said. “He was out front on that deal, he signed it and he has to stand by it.”

Average grade: C+


One area all participants agreed Chafee deserved praise was his handling of weather-related emergencies, specifically the long-term effects of the historic flooding of 2010, Tropical Storm Irene and last fall’s Superstorm Sandy.

“Having lived through numerous natural disasters,” Avedisian said. “I can tell you that this Governor gets personally involved in assisting cities and towns.”

“When the storms hit the state he was always updating on radio and TV,” Costa added. “He also quickly went out to see the damage. He seemed to me to be very involved.”

Schiller said she felt the governor was “proactive on the ground” while Mazze said he has consistently “been out front in making sure all of the resources” needed were available.

Average grade: B+


When judged on the whole, Governor Chafee received a C+ for the first half of his term, with most participants agreeing that the governor needed to focus on job creation, job retention and improving the economy in the back half of his term.

“The Governor has addressed a number of controversial issues,” Mazze said. “He is willing to make tough decisions with some of them unpopular among various stakeholder groups but has been unable to address important economic issues such as creating jobs and attracting and retaining businesses.”

“I would give the Governor an A due to his ability to work with others, his accessibility, and his willingness to meet with people and take into consideration others' opinions,” Avedisian said.

Not everyone agreed.

“His overall performance has been below average,” Wynne countered. “Never has there been a governor so elusive and absent as our own Governor Chafee. Do Rhode Islanders really even know him? When is the last time we have seen him on television or heard him on the radio….giving citizens the assurance that they are in good hands? The strong voice of a leader in difficult times has been silent.”

Others felt a true grade couldn’t be had until the governor’s term was over.

“For the sake of the people of Rhode Island, I hope we see a positive change in the Governor’s policies over the next two years,” Fung said. “In the spirit of fairness, I believe the only grade that is appropriate for the Governor at this time is ‘I’ for Incomplete.”

Average grade: C+


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