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Donna Perry: It Has Been a Rough Year

Thursday, November 22, 2012

 

I tried. I really, really tried to construct this column with the traditional “time to give thanks” tone. I really did. Looking at the big picture, yes, we should all stay mindful of the natural disaster that struck the East Coast this fall and though Superstorm Sandy caused massive destruction to parts of the northeast, New Jersey in particular, it thankfully did not cause a massive loss of life. That doesn’t mean, however, that residents of that state are not facing a tearful time this holiday as they contemplate all that was lost, and what may never be again, along their storied coastline especially.

Here at home, we recognize Rhode Island’s southern coast continues to recover and we are hopeful and grateful that those residents hurt most directly will find their way to rebuilding and full recovery. But politically speaking, the landscape looks just too bleak, the year has been too turbulent, and the election outcome, stretching from Rhode Island to Washington, too disappointing, to propel me to find much to be thankful for in our political and government life this holiday I’m afraid. Nationally, the country kept the status quo, embracing a President who is anti-private enterprise, among other unattractive traits, and rejected a guy who embodied American private sector success who would have championed American business, while warning on the campaign trail against the expanding American leanings toward socialism.

Our fellow citizens, including voters here at home, also failed to change much in Congress where the tax and spending policy stalemate appears as entrenched as ever. Make no mistake about it: the combination of the Obama re-election and the countdown to the end of the year has the U.S. financial system, and the investment business in particular, peeking over the fiscal cliff, and seeing a potentially deeper recession taking hold if we don’t reverse course, and quick. Financial analysts in recent days have forecast not an improvement in Rhode Island’s second in the nation unemployment rate, but an increase in the ranks of the jobless unless the Washington stalemate over taxes and spending is resolved in very short order.

Frankly, (to continue on my sobering holiday theme!) a projected uptick in the unemployment rate in the state isn’t even the worst of the news facing the state. Rhode Island government approaches this Thanksgiving period embroiled in two major lawsuits, and major repercussions for the state’s taxpayers hinge on their outcomes. First and most urgently, is the state’s defense of the landmark state pension system reform law. A coalition of unions have gone to court seeking to overturn the RI Retirement Security Act which instituted a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution system, suspended COLA’s across the board, and made numerous other changes to rescue the system and slow down the pressure on taxpayers. It is shaving off individual communities’ contributions to the system by a combined $100 million just this year alone, and is projected to result in over $3 billion in savings over a number of years.

Nationally prominent defense attorney David Boies has been brought in to bolster the state’s case, and one can only hope he’s the legal heft we need. If the judge rules to overturn the law, a calamity of unprecedented proportion would be unleashed on both the system itself, and the finances of Rhode Island’s already struggling cities and towns. The second major court drama involves the state lawsuit against multiple players involved in the 38 Studios collapse and the pending $100 million dollar tab now stuck on taxpayers. The outcome of that complex litigation holds high stakes not just for taxpayers but for the state’s ability to craft meaningful public-private partnerships, not insider crony deals, in the future.

This grossly disappointing campaign fall season saw not only the return of most status quo legislators to the General Assembly, but also the defeat of a handful of reformer styled lawmakers, Republicans mostly, and that’s a shame. However small in number and inconsequential in power, the voices of challenge to the dominant party are vital for this state and they need to be heard.

The state’s financial condition and local economy look much the same as they did this time last year, with the notable exception of passage of the pension overhaul law whose fate now hangs in the balance. That’s not progress but it appears it’s what the state’s voters want? Perhaps in the spirit of the dangerously childish behavior of elected leaders in Washington edging us closer to the fiscal cliff, and the childlike naiveté of many of the state’s voters determined to cover their eyes and ears and keep things as they are, it’s fitting to close this out with a quote from the legendary Dr. Seuss. Consider it a call to arms to those of us who did not vote for the status quo:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Optimism. Not that’s something to give thanks for after all.

Donna Perry is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition.
 

 

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