An old adage exclaims, “Hope Springs Eternal.” A new year offers the possibility that government, whether local, state, or federal might fulfill its most basic tenant and actually serve the needs of the many and not the connected few.
Although this writer is jaded from years of observation and academic study in regard to history and politics, I still retain a miniscule tidbit of optimism left for the hope of good and equitable government.
On a federal level, President Trump’s promises for the New Year were asserted in his usual offbeat style of speaking only in superlatives. An infrastructure bill, a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a final settling of the status of the “Dreamers” (illegal minors who have grown up culturally as Americans), and a possible revision of the Social Security Program (to address the expansion of the number of SSI and SSDI recipients over the past decade), will all be accomplished by some undefined magic that the president claims he possesses to control the congress and the future.
In Rhode Island, the most pressing concern is that in the current fiscal year the General Assembly (GA) and the governor face a 60 million dollar shortfall. Projected for the upcoming fiscal year is a 200 million dollar shortfall. And for the fiscal year after that, the projection is a 410 million dollar shortfall.
Quite untimely, the Federal Tax Reform Law (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the TCJA), which was just passed, will potentially lessen federal funding into Rhode Island. Also as a result of the TCJA, state and local taxes cannot be deducted in the same fashion any longer on a citizen’s federal tax form. This change will hurt the Ocean State citizen severely as we pay extraordinary taxes comparatively to most other states.
Additionally, the Pawtucket PawSox Stadium Proposal must be finally resolved. The essential 500 million dollars needed to bring the Ocean State’s Schools to a simple utilitarian standard will need to be found. The continuing six-year phase-out of the car tax will have to find funding in the upcoming budget. The first year cost 26 million, and there is doubt of the ongoing ability to fund the phase-out.
Along with economic considerations, the pertinent issues of runoff elections, early voting and an abortion rights guarantee will also be addressed in this upcoming legislative session.
Now that we are embarking on a new year, it would seem constructive to analyze whether positive changes will come to fruition from the new legislative sessions, both on Smith Hill and on Capitol Hill.
In its most hopeful sense, government can ensure equity and opportunity through legislation and the endorsement of the executive. However, on a federal level recent congressional sessions have been stagnant and dysfunctional. While here in Little Rhody, the legislature consistently passes bloated budgets with figurative duct tape and bobby pins holding them together for passage.
In the past, using windfalls like the settlement distribution from the cigarette industry lawsuit to pluck holes in budget shortfalls has been preferred in preference to sound, long-term budgetary planning. This glaring, ongoing incompetence is why we have a current budget shortfall of 60 million, a 200 million projected shortfall next fiscal year and an anticipated shortfall in excess of 400 million the year after that.
Similarly, Rhode Island has an astronomically high per capita dependence on government for subsistence. Simply, we are an easy welfare state that magnets non-taxpayers to our state. Where our population has stayed fairly consistent around one million, fifty thousand, the composition has significantly changed with more middle-class citizens leaving and more lower-class citizens flocking in for support.
Consequently, Governor Raimondo is focusing on this dilemma and its effect on the budget. She explained: “You cannot close a 200 million (hole in the budget) without looking at Medicaid, right? Democrat Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey went further in addressing the state’s budget woes: “If we didn’t say everything is on the table that would be irresponsible.”
Politicians do not want to seem parsimonious toward the indigent, yet they are dealing with the crushing reality that there simply is not enough taxpayer revenue to pay for the substantial percentage of our citizens on the dole. Hopefully, our leaders are sincere in expressing their willingness to truly consider everything despite the potential political fallout from hard budgetary decisions.
House Speaker Nicolas Mattiello, who won his seat in Cranston last election cycle by a handful of votes, is standing by his winning issue of car tax elimination. The nagging question of course is, with such a significant budget deficit, can the money be allocated to complete the last five years of the six-year phase-out?
Also causing angst is the continued wrestling over the latest incarnation of the Paw Sox Stadium Proposal. What proponents do not seem to realize is that after the 38 Studios debacle, Rhode Islanders do not want any public/private partnerships, period. If the stadium proposal passes, its approval will once again favor the minority special interests over the majority’s will.
Absolutely essential is the crucial issue of the sadly undeniable state of dilapidation of our state’s public schools. To merely bring these schools to reasonable standards of physical usability we need to spend 500 million dollars. The General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is of the opinion that we could float bonds over the next decade to rectify the problem. His thesis is that because we will sunset enough bonded debt over the next ten years that we can incur a half of billion more bonded debt. I guess that depends whether one believes our level of debt is reasonable. Rhode Island’s per capita debt is 8,530.00 per citizen, that is the third highest in the nation.
In the service of liberty, the General Assembly will debate the constitutional necessity of runoff elections to ensure state officials no longer get elected by slight pluralities. They should enact this pro-constitutional change without question. Also, early voting being allowed will be debated. Personally, if one cannot muster the determination to go to the polls on election day to exercise the right that valiant men have died to provide, then I have no consideration for them.
Politically promotable but superfluous, a state abortion rights bill will be discussed. This idea is redundant since abortion rights are settled federal law already. The neurotic fear of Trump’s role in appointing judges undoubtedly has sparked this waste of the General Assembly’s time.
On the federal side, the issues are more daunting. After the first inconsistent year of President Trump’s administration and a fractious congress, the recent boasts by the president regarding the legislative and administrative agenda of 2018 are curious. With only one legislative victory being the questionable tax reform bill passed in 2017, to assert that pressing issues would be resolved is a stretch.
A vitally needed infrastructure program may not be possible now that the government has added 1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. After several attempts to repeal and replace the ACA over the past year, any assertion about the horizon being legislatively brighter this session is foolish.
Additionally, the president gave the congress six months to resolve the plight of the Dreamers. It is doubtful they will accomplish any resolution of this prickly and divisive circumstance.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has been a long time advocate of revising the Social Security Program. Apparently, the president agrees with his intentions. As a disciple of the late, ultraconservative Congressman Jack Kemp, Ryan would love to turn the defined benefit Social Security Retirement Fund into a private investment scheme to benefit Wall Street. Also, he would like to change qualification requirements for receiving SSDI and SSI to lessen the number of recipients. Shockingly, raising the retirement age is also in the mix of discussions.
Often Social Security has been justifiably called the third rail of politics. If congress and the administration try to institute these draconian measures and therefore drastically reduce benefits, they will be tarred and feathered by all Democrats and a great many Republicans.
All in all, a new legislative year can hold promise if one is a wide-eyed optimist. Unfortunately, the recent history of unresponsive governments and less than proficient legislatures on both the federal and state levels have disheartened most of us. But in our democracy, we must have hope. For all its imperfections, our system holds the best possibility for equity and opportunity. I pray that our elected officials believe in those sentiments as well.