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Dan Lawlor: In RI, It’s All About Who You Know

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Rhode Island's leadership class needs a little shaking up. Several day to day administrators of the state have practiced poor stewardship with tax revenues. In terms of attracting business, the tax policy seems to pick losers and winners based on connections. In terms of supporting Rhode Islanders, from watching the manufacturing sector wash away to promoting suburban mini-malls that have caused dozens of former mill villages to close shop, we need better leadership.

In the recession of the early 1990s, the US unemployment rate reached a peak of 7.8%, and the Rhode Island unemployment rate was 8.9% (comparable to sunny Florida's 8.7%). In the recession of the early 2000s, US unemployment reached a peak of 6.3%, while the Rhode Island unemployment rate was 5.5% (5.4% in Florida). In our current economic funk, US unemployment levels peaked at 10% in October 2009, when RI unemployment was 11.4% and Florida 11.6%.

RI has been down this road of economic stagnation before, and come out of it. The hyper-pessimism about our state is misplaced - economic giants like Florida and California have likewise had problems. That said, the boiling pot we're in now is based on how we've been treating people and how tax payer money has been spent (and misspent).

We are not the best bet to do business in partly because our policy is irregular - small businesses have a hard time getting a fair deal, and residents have not always received quality services as a bang for their buck. If you are connected - Blue Cross, GTECH, Hasbro, Studio 28, and the like - things are actually fairly pleasant here. If you don't have a connection - it’s not as much fun. When a friend was running an upstart campaign last election cycle, I remember meeting with a first generation restaurant owners in the West End. After several break-ins, these individuals slept in their restaurant to keep it safe because police response to their working class neighborhood was so slow. If we want small businesses flourish, we need to support them! I doubt GTECH would have to worry about a lag in police response.

Some Bright Spots of State Funding

Not all is doom and gloom. State funding has produced some awesome infrastructure improvements - from bridges to train stations. Socialism, Americanism, Welfare State, Public Works- call it what you like, but these are infrastructure projects that have the potential to improve the lot of many Rhode Islanders. Consider the relocation project of 195 opening up land for development in downtown Providence, the construction of the Providence Career and Technical Academy providing career skills, and the MBTA extension to Warwick, which, combined with the Airport expansion, could work to make Warwick a real transportation hub in Southern New England.

Don't get to excited. In the last few years, you may recall some particularly spectacular examples of mismanagement. Here's one depressing example that bears repeating: The Welcome Arnold Homeless Shelter Demolition. In 2009, the state spent 3.8 million dollars to destroy a homeless shelter in Cranston for a new state police barracks. The new barracks was constructed in North Scituate. The state, in effect, wasted nearly $4 million dollars to destroy a homeless shelter. The millions in demolition costs could have been used to provide housing for chronically homeless.

Internal mismanagement aside, let along the tax treaties that, positively, have resulted in new business construction and jobs, yet, at the same time, leave some major players not paying property taxes. From GTECH's lack of property taxes to the Providence Journal's community service cuts (they don't even sponsor a spelling bee anymore!), there are a lot of major private players in the state not stepping up in a time of need. GTECH sponsors computer labs at local Providence Community Centers - a good thing. How about some staff-training and support to make sure the centers know how to best support students and use the internet as a learning tool?

Rhode Island's leaders need shaking up. As cities teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, we need a little more chutzpah. We need to remember restaurant owners willing to sleep on the floor to make their place a success. We need to remember wasted funds because of mismanagement. We need to remember all institutions have a role in building up this city and this state.


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