Gencarella: A Drop In The Proverbial Ocean State Budget
Thursday, May 14, 2015
$173 million in surplus funds as a result of a budget difference within the margin of error. The Governor said she would have given more money away and she would never have proposed trimming the cost of government the way she did had she known. Translation, another year of kicking the can down the road. No need to take political risks and truly fix some systems or reduce waste, fraud and abuse when there is no imminent danger of budget deficits, even though the 5 year projection remains at $1 billion in deficits, the roads and bridges require $3 billion in maintenance and repairs and our schools require nearly $2 billion as a result of neglect.
Back To Basics.
OSTPA proposes that elected leaders dedicate this and any additional future surpluses to the basic government services taxpayers expect and deserve - proper maintenance of our roads and bridges and proper maintenance of our children’s school buildings that have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of becoming harmful to their health.
Elected Officials Already Salivating Over Ways To Use The “Excess” Money
It seems that all perspective is lost when there is a positive error in the estimating process. Don’t forget, RI generates nearly $9 billion in spending each year. That’s about a 2% error in estimating. It’s similar to running a little under at the grocery store. You thought you would spend about $100, but you spent $2 less. Do you start giving money away or taking out new loans because you saved $2 at the market? The overall picture for RI’s economy is still grim. The state is still projected to lose significant gaming revenue to Massachusetts in a few short years, it still has a projected need of $3 billion to fix roads and bridges, it still has $5 billion in unfunded pension and OPEB liabilities, it still expects runaway Medicaid costs, and, RI CAN refers to a cost projection of $1.8 billion to bring the state’s public school buildings up to healthy and possibly pleasant places in which to send our children.
But speaking of school buildings, part of the Senate President’s wish list for the unexpected surplus is to invest more in education. Yet, if you look at our second largest city, Warwick, a study*, commissioned by the school committee itself, has determined that the city has excess infrastructure capacity of between 8 and 10 school buildings more than they need based on school populations. This has been known for almost 10 years, since around 2007. All that waste. Yet President Paiva Weed wants to inject more money into education. What RI really needs is a plan for removing the waste out of the education system and setting new priorities around spending. Priorities that put the student first, always.
Part of the problem with looking at cost savings in Warwick is that the teachers contract mandates a maximum number of employees that can be laid off in any given year, regardless of what is needed. “The school committee agrees that it will not send more than 40 notices of lay-off to members of the bargaining unit per year…it will not lay off in excess of 20 members of the bargaining unit per year…”. Aware that the city’s population has been dwindling for years, why would the school committee write this into a contract? Better yet, when will they write it out of the contract? Concerned about education, perhaps President Paiva Weed will lead the way in addressing the excesses that have become part and parcel of collective bargaining agreements before she prioritizes spending additional money on the education system.
Lip Service Just Won’t Cut It Anymore
Both the Speaker and the Senate President would like to throw some money at local property tax relief, which is rather ironic since they have both completely ignored the WatchdogRI report highlighting the excess $150 million in fire services that municipalities incur each and every year. If our elected officials truly want to provide property tax relief, it will not be through state giveaways but rather by creating a special legislative commission to carefully study the data in the fire report, accumulate their own statistics and ultimately, promote the reform that is needed to bring the cost of fire service in line with the rest of the country.
What would be counterproductive to providing property tax relief would be to pass the House and Senate fire fighter bills (H 5473 and S 533) that remove authority from elected officials to manage fiscal matters. These bills would undo the hard won Supreme Court case that reinforced municipalities’ right to manage the fire fighters work schedules and would instead mandate that work schedules be part of collective bargaining, and by extension, subject these management decisions to binding arbitration. That would be counterintuitive in the face of pursuing property tax relief.
So rather than spreading the new found money frivolously, taking us off track from the goal of righting the USS Rhode Island, let’s take that money, utilize it on proper government services and stay the course.
Related Slideshow: Taxpayer Return on Investment in Rhode Island
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