I see from the Providence Journal that the new state-appointed budget commission has decided that the city council and Mayor Fontaine were exactly right to request permission from the state to impose a supplemental tax increase on their citizens.
Last week, after an impassioned speech by Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, the House rejected Woonsocket’s request. This week, the state-appointed budget commission asked that the request be reconsidered.
For some reason state legislators seem to get this idea in their heads that though they were elected on promises of fiscal responsibility, and intend to carry through on them, city council members and mayors get elected by promising to spend like drunken sailors.
This is not only bizarre, but entirely backwards.
By almost any measurement you care to make, it’s the state that has been the fiscal problem child over the past couple of decades, not the cities and towns. The difference is that the state has power over the cities and towns: they have more money, and stand uphill in a legal and constitutional sense, too. But the General Assembly continues to resist the appeals of the duly elected leaders of our cities and towns, feeling that they know better.
This year, Governor Chafee infuriated organized labor by offering several “tools” to municipal officials to help them control pension costs. I tend to agree with the labor folks here, that the state should stay out of these issues, and that passing state laws to trump local bargaining agreements is only a good idea in a very limited short-term sense. But the Assembly has shown no interest in believing Mayors when they complain about financial stress, so if you don’t want more bankrupt cities, what should you do? It seems to me that Chafee wasn’t so much sticking his thumb in Labor’s eye as making a realistic assessment of the Assembly and acting accordingly.
Or maybe not. It appears that the Assembly leadership isn’t interested in Chafee’s suggestions, and pretty much none of them were put into the House budget. This reminds me of the time in 2005 when the Carcieri administration came up with some personnel reforms that might have saved around $32 million. They were the usual sort of benefit cuts, limits on vacation time and sick time and an end to “statutory status” which is a kind of state employee tenure.
Whatever you think about the wisdom of those reforms, it’s hard to praise the Assembly for what happened next. The legislature rejected the reforms — but left the $32 million in savings in the budget. So the administration was faced with finding $32 million in savings, but without the law changes to do it. How, exactly was that responsible?
So now the Assembly is poised to do the exact same thing, and act to increase the pressure on cities and towns — not enough money to support their commitments, but no relief from those commitments, either. The only difference this year from previous years is that now we have some Assembly appointees joining the Mayors in the hot seat, begging that they not be put in the same position as the Mayor and City Council of Woonsocket. Mayor Leo Fontaine and the Council have failed to keep Woonsocket solvent, but a new budget commission won’t do any better unless the conditions change. Right now, the only way the conditions will change is through the bankruptcy court, so mark your calendars. I simply can’t agree with the people who imagine that dragging each of our cities into bankruptcy is a sensible strategy — in either the long or short term — for our state.
The Assembly can act here. Sensible options are available, that take into account the actual realities facing our cities. But will it? So far, it does not appear likely.