When she was Rhode Island’s state general treasurer, Gina Raimondo led a successful campaign to overhaul the state’s pension system. As she pursues a controversial truck tolling policy, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why she is not taking a chapter from her treasurer’s book now.
When she took office as general treasurer in 2011, Gina Raimondo was the leader of a remarkable campaign to fix our state’s faltering public employee pension system. Raimondo put a laser-like focus on the issue, holding meetings around the state, galvanizing support from the business community and explaining her plan to just about anyone who would listen.
Raimondo’s effort was underpinned by a blizzard of unimpeachable data, a solid media campaign and strong messaging. Her initiative was so effective that she convinced the General Assembly to tackle the pension topic in a special session. And she built a consensus among a fractious Smith Hill crowd and then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Her point was simple and direct: Without changes the pension system would bankrupt state government and curb for all time Rhode Island’s ability to police the roads, educate our children and finance health care for the needy. Moreover, she said, there was an urgency to bring solvency to a pension program that was battered by overly generous benefits and the 2008 Wall Street crash.
Now that she’s governor, Raimondo says one of her top priorities is to finally address a crying need: To shore up our roads and bridges. This ought to be a no-brainer for the governor and lawmakers; every Rhode Islander who drives is aware of the lamentable state of our highways and bridges.
Raimondo’s first mistake was to dump a poorly-thought out plan to put tolls on trucks to pay for the infrastructure fixes on the Assembly with just weeks to go before the end of the 2015 session. Then she tried to change it on the fly like a hockey team in the final minutes of a game.
The state Senate bought the terms of her truck toll deal, but the House did not. Speaker Nick Mattiello said his chamber needed more time to study financing options for the billion dollar initiative. As it turns out he was right.
Raimondo has not adequately answered the many questions her initiative has provoked. Where will the toll gantries be placed? Which roads and bridges will get priority? And can the troubled Department of Transportation be trusted to supervise the work?
After battling the governor, the trucking lobby says it is now willing to take an increase in registration fees and diesel fuel taxes to help pay for some of this work. This industry ought to finance a good portion of it, because large trucks do more damage to roads and bridges than cars.
Yet, it is difficult to see how the governor expects the truckers to come to the table in good faith while her administration releases traffic information that the two sides can’t agree on. It’s like a court case when the parties can’t stipulate to the facts.
Which leaves lawmakers to sort this out. Senators obviously aren’t happy that their leadership forced a premature vote on a flawed plan that members are sure to hear about during next year’s reelection campaigns.
So the House must cobble together a compromise. One idea coursing through the marble halls is a hybrid deal that includes a mix of fuel tax hikes and tolls.
As is too often the case, some in Rhode Island’s political and media swirl are channeling their inner Richard Hofstader, the 20th century historian who came up with the term the `paranoid style in American politics.’
These are the Smith Hill Republicans and others who think that if a truck toll system is established, tolling cars is inevitable. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember when such arguments were used to try to kill the R.I. Convention Center by asserting that it was a façade for bringing a downtown casino to Providence. Remember all those talk show blabbers saying the convention building was ``wired’’ for slot machines.
Someone has to pay to repair what everybody agrees are some of the worst roads and bridges in the nation. The bulldozers and steamrollers are not going to magically appear.
It’s way past time for Raimondo to go back to the future and take the lead in the same manner she tackled the pension problem. It was her signature accomplishment as treasurer. Even she must know that without it, she wouldn’t be governor.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org