Guest MINDSETTER™ Gary Sasse: Connecting the Dots in the Ocean State
Monday, July 09, 2012
The economic and fiscal challenges plaguing Rhode Island pale in the face of the Ocean’s State’s greatest deficit- the lack of consistent and effective leadership. Recently, progress has been made to solve some of the problems confronting Rhode Island taxpayers. For example, the state pension system was reformed, the financial conditions in Providence, East Providence and Central Falls have improved and the Board of Regents continues to implement a public school reform agenda. These are examples of what can be accomplished by focused leadership.
Today Rhode Island’s economic development and opportunity programs are unclear, unsure and lack a strategic direction. A former executive director of the Economic Development Corporation recently noted that since 1969 the state has been involved in five studies focusing on education, infrastructure and the business climate. Yet today when compared to other states, Rhode Island is less competitive. The Ocean State’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation. It is not that we do not know what to do; rather our leaders have not been focused and had the political will to make tough choices. The 38 Studio experience is representative of a larger leadership problem. Unfortunately, taxpayer dollars spent on 38 Studios will represent a lost opportunity to invest in programs to narrow the jobs/skills mismatch and other initiatives to create a pro-growth environment.
After a decade, Rhode Island still faces a structural budget deficit that inhibits growth and investment. The FY2013 budget is the most recent example of why we have not solved our financial problems. The FY 2013 State Budget that was enacted by the legislature and signed by the Governor is balanced by a $93 million non-recurring opening surplus and out- year deficits are projected to exceed $500 million. This type of budgeting will impede the Ocean State’s ability to invest in programs to help create jobs and real economic competiveness.
There is a consensus that quality public higher education is essential to building a strong 21st century economy. Unfortunately, legislation eliminating the Board of Governors may have set educational governance back 30 years in Rhode Island. The elimination of a separate policy board for public higher education is not consistent with a competitiveness agenda that Rhode Island sorely needs. It is problematic that a single board of education can effectively deal with the scope of issues and responsibilities spanning higher and elementary education. The Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education regulates K-12 education while the Board of Governors is concerned with policy and coordinating our state colleges and university.
One of the most difficult issues affecting the financial health of many municipalities is the cost of retiree benefits. The Governor demonstrated leadership by proposing a plan to reform municipal pension programs and give communities the tools needed to better control their budgets. The Governor’s proposals were largely ignored by the General Assembly.
Policies and programs to address and overcome economic stagnation, provide a competitive public higher education system and balance state and local government budgets are inextricably linked. To achieve this, Rhode Island needs leaders that can connect the dots, tell citizens where we need to go, and most importantly, how we are going to get there. We can no longer let our political process become a denial of our problems. People want problems solved.
Rhode Island is in a relative state of decline because of the way resources are allocated and the poor performance of its political institutions. The primary remedy is strong and accountable leadership. Such public leadership is an essential ingredient to help organize people to work together for the common good. Meeting Rhode Island’s challenges will require leaders who possess the skills, tools and courage to act as effective leaders.
Gary Sasse is the former executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and is a fiscal advisor to the Providence City Council.
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