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Gary Sasse: Are Gubernational Candidates Being Realistic and Focused?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


As Rhode Island enters the homestretch of the gubernatorial primary election, voters should pay attention to the myriad of interesting and potentially worthwhile plans and programs the candidates are proposing.

The candidates’ platforms seem to echo some common themes to enhance economic opportunity. These include plans for improved school performance, job training, and infrastructure financing, manufacturing revival and expanded benefits for various interest groups. On the Republican side, proposals are also being advanced to improve the state’s tax competitiveness.

In judging candidates voters should evaluate if their platforms are fiscally responsible and focused on practical initiatives to create and maintain good jobs.

The first question voters should ask is “do the proposals meet the fiscal reality test?” Is it disingenuous for a candidate to suggest that new initiatives be financed by either reallocating parts of the state’s $8.7 billion budget, or earmarking existing tax revenues to new projects without identifying the activities that would be eliminated?

Over half of the $8.7 billion Rhode Island budget is derived from federal funds, restricted receipts and other sources that are earmarked for specific purposes. In theory, the remaining $3.4 billion in general revenues could be reassigned. However, the cold hard reality is that a significant amount of general revenues are used to match federal health care dollars and finance state collective bargaining agreements. Have you heard any candidate suggest cuts in the Medicaid program or not honoring contracts?

Before calling for new programs it would be refreshing for the gubernatorial candidates to tell voters how they plan to deal with the fiscal mess that they apparently will inherit. The State Budget Office’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget as Enacted is projecting that expenditures are likely to exceed revenues by $177 million in the next fiscal year starting in July 2015. By July 2018 the structural deficit is forecast to exceed $460 million.

There is still time in this primary season for gubernatorial candidates to share their plans to restore the state’s fiscal health which is inexorability linked to economic health.

The second question voters should ask is “What are the one or two things that the next governor will achieve to enhance the economy and grow the middle-class?” As former Governor Pierre du Pont (R-DE) said, “Being governor is the greatest job in the world. You can do anything you want--but you can’t do everything.”

A governor’s success requires focus and concentration. The National Governors Association advises newly elected state chief executives to “be committed to a limited number of issues and concentrate on them throughout.” A laundry list of priorities usually dilutes public and legislative focus as well as over-extending a governor’s finite political capital. Alan Rosenthal in The Best Job in Politics found that among governors that held office from 1980-2010, almost half said their legislative agenda encompassed one to five items. There are numerous examples of governors who have focused on one or two issues that made a significance difference for their states. Governor James Hunt’s (D-NC) leadership in education and Governor Tommy Thompson’s innovative approaches to welfare reform are just two examples.

Governor Mitch Daniel’s (R-Ind) concentration and resulting accomplishments are told in a case study prepared by the Innovation for Successful Societies Program at Princeton University. Governor Daniels inherited a state with a tepid economy, an accumulated budget deficit and unaccountable agencies. Does this sound familiar? When the Governor took office he focused on reforms to change state government. As a result the Pew Center on the States called the Hoosier State the most improved in the nation. Citing improved fiscal management, Standard and Poor's assigned Indiana its first AAA bond rating. With focused and effective leadership why can’t this happen in Rhode Island?

Our problems are not unsolvable, but they do represent major leadership challenges for the next governor. A good starting point for gubernatorial candidates would be to tell voters how they plan to eliminate the Ocean State’s structural budget deficit by the end of his or her first term, and how they will focus on results. To do less would be a business- as- usual approach which is something that the people of Rhode Island cannot afford to let happen.

Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.


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