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Mike Stenhouse: R.I.’s complacent political class

Originally Published In The Providence Journal On July 7, 2016:

Rhode Island has the worst business climate in the nation. It ranks 48th on both the Family Prosperity Index of the American Conservative Union and the Jobs and Opportunity Index of our Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. It has virtually zero population growth, and it has suffered the ignominy of dozens of other near-bottom rankings. Despite all this, our Rhode Island political class appears content not to rock the boat.

When we hear boasts that there were no broad-based tax increases in the recently passed state budget, we hear an attitude of complacency that is typical of the political elite, whose main goal is to perpetuate the status quo, as opposed to making the hard decisions that will improve the quality of lives of its residents.

The irony, of course, is that our political leaders seem to genuinely believe that they have made major positive reforms. Maybe, relatively speaking, they just don’t understand what major reform looks like.

Years ago, when our center sought to paint a more complete image of the state’s jobs picture, we found that Rhode Island, along with Indiana and Michigan, ranked among the bottom three states in terms of recovery of employment from pre-recession peaks. Faced with an obviously unacceptable status quo, two of these three states took bold and major action. One state did not. Can you guess which one?

First Indiana, then recently Michigan, enacted right-to-work laws that provided workplace freedom for employees and that also gave employers new incentives to establish or grow businesses in their states. Since then, Indiana has rocketed up to 20th on this same employment index, while Michigan is already on the climb at 44th.

These are examples of the bold kind of political leadership and major reform that can quickly transform the prosperity of the people and businesses in our state.

Conversely, the meager reforms put forth this year by Ocean State politicians pale in comparison and will do very little to help the average family in any meaningful way. As in recent years, the negative legislation outweighed the good. Million-dollar studies and fancy new names for programs that perpetuate the same kind of special-interest, 38 Studios-type preferential tax policies that are responsible for driving Rhode Island into a rut in the first place, are nothing new — and certainly are not anything bold.

And while other states are decisively moving forward, Rhode Island is falling in the wrong direction. Only briefly out of the bottom three, our Ocean State is back wallowing as the second worst state when it comes to recovering lost employment, with West Virginia in last place. But West Virginia politicians chose not to accept this fate and sit idly by. Earlier this year, the Mountain State became the nation’s 26th state to pass right-to-work laws, also repealing prevailing-wage mandates that artificially drive up the cost of public works projects.

If Rhode Island’s complacency continues — both by our political class and by voters who re-elect it year after year — we will soon see Rhode Island lose one of its two congressional seats and shamefully slip to last place when it comes to renewing hope and opportunity for our families.
Rhode Island needs to dare to disrupt the status quo and boldly evolve itself into a regional outlier so that we can become a magnet — on our own — for businesses, jobs and families.

Instead, our political class wants us to devolve into a dependent suburb of Boston’s economy. We need to think bigger.

Rhode Island politicians will not have the chance to change their act until next year. However, voters can lead the way by acting this year to deliver a clear message at November’s ballot box.
In this wild and unpredictable year of national politics, the big question is whether or not the tsunami of public discontent will reach our Ocean State shores and compel voters to send a necessary jolt to our political class.

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