The questions sound unrelated, but they have very similar answers, and they’re all related to the state’s bevy of “quasi-public” agencies—whose budgets are in Volume I of the budget.
The Airport Corporation is here, who runs all the state’s airports, including Green. The Economic Development Corporation is also here, along with Rhode Island Housing, RIPTA, the Narragansett Bay Commission (sewers in Providence and Pawtucket), the Resource Recovery Corporation (runs the central landfill), and several others.
Truthfully, it’s more correct to say the outlines of their budgets are in Volume I [B1-331-366]. There isn’t much information there about some very important agencies, and in some cases this was part of the point of keeping them separate from the regular parts of the state government.
Some of the quasi-publics were formed when the state took over existing private corporations. RIPTA, for example, was formed to save the last private bus company. Others have a separate existence for legal reasons. The Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which maintains the Pell and Mt Hope Bridge, was formed to issue bonds against the toll revenue collected at those bridges. But many quasi-publics—along with some other agencies less quasi and more public—were formed out of power struggles between the legislature and the governor.
The Coastal Resources Management Council, for example, our extra environmental agency, was originally formed in the 1970s so that powerful members of the legislature could circumvent new DEM coastal regulations on behalf of their friends who owned waterfront property. Rhode Island Housing (technically the RI Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp.) may have originally formed to access some federal HUD funding, but it was also a creature of the legislature, witness the mortgage scandals of the 1980s. Later, under a stronger Governor, the Economic Development Corporation was created out of the Department of Economic Development to give the Governor Lincoln Almond more control over economic policy (and to pay its executives more like the corporate executives they lunch with).
EDC has another distinction. When it was spun out of the government into a quasi-public, it took over the shell of the RI Port Authority. Why? Because after Bruce Sundlun effectively put the Public Building Authority out of business (it was a campaign promise), the Port Authority was the only agency with unlimited authority to borrow money without voter approval. And boy have they used that authority. EDC now owes debt used for the Fidelity campus in Smithfield, the Shepard’s building in Providence, the Masonic Temple hotel across from the state house, the I-Way boondoggle, the Sakonnet River Bridge, and much more. Subsidiaries owe the debt used to build the airport and renovate Quonset.
Under Ed DiPrete, the PBA’s record of borrowing without voter approval was considered a minor scandal and contributed to his election loss in 1990. But none of these subsequent projects got voter approval. Don Carcieri managed to double the state’s debt, and almost all of it was unapproved borrowing, so it’s difficult to remember why it was such a problem for DiPrete.
There will be more to say about this borrowing when we look at the Capital Budget document. For now, let’s look at one of the quasi-publics that spends a lot of time in the news lately over its budget.
The state’s public transit authority was formed when the private bus company that ran transit in Providence and vicinity went under in the 1960s. It wouldn’t be correct to say it has had an untroubled existence until recently, but it did not always have the persistent deficit it has now.
What’s happened to the agency in recent years is a few things. First, like the rest of the state, it is a victim of our crazy health care system. Ten years ago, employee benefits were $10.5 million for a $28.7 million payroll. (For union employees, pension payments are a fraction of the health care costs, though their growth has tracked the health care costs fairly well.) In 2013, we’re looking at $24.8 million in benefits for a $45.8 million payroll [B1-355]. The cost of health care is going up almost two and a half times faster than payroll costs.
Second, transit for disabled people has taken a tremendous number of resources. Paratransit services between 2001 and 2011 more than quintupled, from a cost of $1.8 million to $9.1 million, and there are other categories of service that provide more or less the same function.
Finally, the gas tax has been a problem of its own. A portion of the gas tax is dedicated to RIPTA. The problem is that the gas tax is constituted as a number of pennies per gallon of gas. When gas prices rise, the gas tax actually falls, as people buy less gas. But when gas prices rise, RIPTA’s cost for fuel also rises. In other words, as gas prices rise, RIPTA’s ridership rises, and so do its costs, at exactly the same time that its gas tax revenue falls. Why does it seem that RIPTA is permanently in trouble? Because its funding system makes no sense, and provides falling revenue when expenses rise.
And for those who wonder what is the value of RIPTA to Rhode Island, take it from me that it’s actually pretty hard to get a seat on several of the lines I use frequently. High gas prices mean lots of riders, and also mean service cutbacks.
Unfortunately, pretty much none of the people who make funding decisions about RIPTA—its board, legislators, the Governor or his staff—actually use the system, so it turns out that RIPTA’s funding problems are thoroughly unaddressed in Governor Chafee’s budget. The documents cheerfully predict a $10 million operating deficit by June 2013 so we’ll be seeing lots of RIPTA headlines in the coming year.