I found myself in my favorite local diner the other day, enjoying, well, a heart-unhealthy breakfast, and look what was on my table: a plea to customers to help the Rhode Island Hospitality Association combat the scourge of a 2% increase in the tax on meals. Proposed by Governor Chafee in his 2013 budget, the tax is expected to raise more than $35 million, to be devoted mostly to bolstering local school departments.
Had this new law been in place, my meal that morning would have cost 19 cents more than it did.
This, of course, is reason enough for the Hospitality Association to oppose it violently, to spend lots of money designing and printing up little cards and spreading them throughout diners across the state. Dale Venturini, the executive director, even arranged that some folks dress up in tri-corn hats and throw some tea into the river at a press event in Water Place Park last week, in symbolic opposition to the tax.
I get the point. But there’s another point, one that goes unremarked all too often: nowhere in the press materials I saw about the event. Nor was there a word about what kinds of things would have to be cut without those funds. After all, this is a tax — to be paid by the buyer, not the business — whose function is to provide money to educate children.
Governor Chafee is brave enough to say that education (and non-bankrupt cities) is worth paying for, despite the abuse heaped on him for saying so. Are any of the people who attended that press event brave enough to say what should be cut so their patrons don’t have to pay 19 cents extra for their breakfast? If so, they didn’t put it in the press release, and they weren’t quoted by any of the reporters who were able to be there. Are any of them brave enough to say what else should be taxed? Again, the press release was silent on the point.
But what does this have to do with the Department of Health?
Think back a year. What was in the headlines? An outbreak of salmonella from poorly-stored zeppole, that’s what. Sixty-six people got sick and two died. Here’s what I learned during that outbreak: Rhode Island has just seven food inspectors to keep track of 8,000 establishments. Connecticut has 360 inspectors to deal with 19,000. That is, to deal with slightly more than twice as many restaurants, stores, and other facilities, Connecticut has 51 times as many inspectors. Each inspector in that state is responsible for a little more than 50 establishments. In Massachusetts, the work load is higher, and each inspector looks after 150. In Rhode Island, each inspector is responsible for over 1,100. We’d need a staff of 53 in order to have the Massachusetts work load. Instead we have seven.
If each inspector is responsible for 1,100 businesses and there are about 200 workdays in a year, how many times a year do you think each one gets a visit? Is that enough? Remember, there are actual lives at stake here.
Dale Venturini—last year—said to a Providence Journal reporter that the association had long lobbied for more food inspectors. The Hospitality Association had even begun to perform its own “food safety audits” which are sort of like state inspections, except without the penalties. This year, Governor Chafee heard the call, and the budget contains six new inspector positions [B2-64, under "Environmental and Health Services Regulation"]. This is about one seventh as many as we’d need to get to Massachusetts-level staffing, but it’s a start and it would almost double the chances of any particular restaurant getting an inspection.
So here’s the question: If the Hospitality Association successfully kills the meals tax, should we abandon those plans for new inspectors and put that money toward education? If not, why not? We have several cities either in or contemplating bankruptcy, due in large part to cuts in state aid and rises in the cost of health care, whatever you may hear about pensions. We have a shiny new funding formula for education that, as it turns out, ignores the cost of heating school buildings (see here, question 13) and maintaining them. A budget is just a statement of spending priorities. A critique of the budget should be the same. The Hospitality Association says education spending is not worth 19 cents on my breakfast. And it also says more food inspectors are important. More important than what?
Dale Venturini is on record demanding an increase in state spending. But where should the money come from? I eagerly await the next press release from the Hospitality Association on the subject.