Donna Perry: Time for a Bold, New Budget Process

Thursday, January 17, 2013


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Governor Chafee’s State of the State blueprint is not yet 24 hours old and so the reactions and assessments of it are still pouring in. However, before the battles begin over spending, borrowing, cuts, labor provisions, and whether or not there will be any meaningful changes to spur economic development, both the Governor and General Assembly members should pause, take a deep breath, and consider a proposal from a wise and truly independent voice in the State Senate.

Senator Ed O’Neill, Independent, of Lincoln, has proposed the Legislature consider embracing something bold and new that could do a lot more than just create a new round of marketing slogans to reposition the state to potential new business investment.

It’s not a formal proposal as yet, but he is advocating for the creation of a statewide Budget Board that could bring financial expertise, not to mention a more professional framework around the tasks of the House and Senate Finance Committees going forward. He envisions the formation of multi-year budgets—which as he has observed, is standard fare in larger companies.

Senator O’Neill, who retired after 35 years at Texas Instruments, where he oversaw global procurement and supply for the company’s automotive division-- knows a thing or two about successful management practices. When he first issued public commentary last fall on his proposal, he stated that after a career with a $12 billion dollar high-tech corporation that always operated on three, to five, to even 10-year plans, he views the year-by-year budget construction process of the RI legislature to be a broken system at this point.

During a week when top elected leaders, from the Governor, to the House Speaker, to the Senate President are rushing to appear out front, on point and with a plan in hand to address the state’s dismal economy and long term unemployment problem, there has been a lot of chatter about how and why businesses keep passing on Rhode Island.

Over the past year, the mantra we heard repeatedly was that businesses seek out states with reliable and long term favorable fiscal policies in place and don’t like sudden policy shifts that could affect the business climate, tax rates, etc. So it would seem that key among the favorable parts of Senator O’Neill’s proposal are the concepts of stability, long term planning, and predictability that multi-year budgets could bring.

O’Neill has noted that some municipalities, including Lincoln, are now tapping the expertise of an advisory budget panel to shape their finances and there are likely others. A state capable of constructing even a three-year budget plan with the advisory arm of a Board of business leaders could certainly distinguish itself in the region as a forward looking state that’s ready and willing to accommodate new business development, and truly embraces the engagement of business leaders.

Isn’t this central to the statewide discussion opinion leaders have been driving at this year?

The search for remedies and BIG IDEAS to combat the state’s crumbled economy is palpable. Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed deserves credit for honing in early on several goals that although may not be earth shattering, are attainable this session, and Speaker Fox can’t be faulted for convening yet another economic summit if it will yield any new insight.

But the question remains: will the Speaker and Senate President have the political willpower to do the hard stuff this session, to address municipal statutes that represent obstacles to attaining affordable local communities; reject unaffordable demands of entrenched lobbyists, and perhaps, consider a better budget crafting process?

Before we are off to the races for another wild state budget crafting ride which detours through months of hearings and untold hours of sincere advocates’ testimony, yet year after year reaches a destination of a closed door office belonging to a powerful Legislative leader somewhere around 2 a.m. on some stuffy night in June—with entrenched lobbyists circling nearby—before we endure that spectacle again, a new and more accountable budget process should be considered.

If a true vision does not emerge soon, (and someone among the opinion leader class needs to step up and acknowledge that recycled RIPEC reports are not the same thing as a vision) and bold concepts like Senator O’Neill’s are not given serious consideration, it seems no one other than consultants will have much of a shot at gainful employment in RI in the foreseeable future.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of the statewide taxpayer advocate organization RISC, RI Statewide Coalition.


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