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Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Pols Need To Build Public Trust In Economic Policies

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Rhode Island has yet another study on what ails our state’s economy, this time from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think-tank. RIPR...

Rhode Island has yet another study on what ails our state’s economy, this time from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think-tank. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what it will take to translate this plan into action.

So we have a new study from the Brookings Institution on how to fix our state’s economy . There is little that’s new here. Many of the current recommendations echo the 1983 Greenhouse Compact plan, an  ill-fated attempt at creating modern economy based on the state’s strengths, such as research, medicine and higher education. We don’t know whether it would have been effective . What we do know is that voters soured on the Greenhouse when it appeared that the Smith Hill crowd wanted to morph a concept designed to create good wage jobs for average Rhode Islanders into one that gave employment to the politically-connected. It also included a tax increase.

The Brookings report provides a diagnosis remarkably similar to the 1980s Greenhouse examination. Much of it is obvious to anyone who has lived in our state for more than a month. For instance, it says we should focus on boat-building and defense contracting. Well, duh, we have been making boats in the East Bay for centuries and submarines at Quonset for decades.

And yes, the old manufacturing jobs in the textile and jewelry industries have largely vanished, victims of national trade policies and global competition. You don’t need an MBA to know that.

But there is an existential issue that all the fancy reports, white papers and blue-ribbon commissions never address. When it comes to government fashioning economic solutions, Rhode Islanders are skeptical.

Look at the latest public opinion survey from the Hassenfeld Institute at Bryant University. When asked if recent measures approved by the General Assembly and the Raimondo Administration would create jobs, 42 percent said they would, 45 percent said they wouldn’t make a difference and 13 percent were not sure.

The poll, conducted by veteran pollster Joe Fleming, questioned 401 registered voters and carries an error margin of about 5 percent. Thirty-five percent said the state is headed in the right direction, while 44 percent said wrong direction. That split was pretty much the same as a similar poll done last September.

On Gov. Gina Raimondo’s signature issue of raising truck tolls to finance bridge and highway repairs, there is much opposition, the survey shows. Forty-four percent said they favor the Raimondo plan, with 49 percent opposed. The percentage of those who were strongly opposed to the toll proposal was more than double that of those strongly in favor.

So Rhode Islanders don’t trust their government to do the right thing. This is a serious issue in moving the state forward.

It’s tempting to tell Rhode Islanders to grow up. But there are reasons behind these opinions:  A House speaker serving federal prison time for government corruption. The continuing shadow of the 38 Studios fiasco. Lawmakers who refuse to live under the same ethics rules as other government officials. A state where everything from judgeships to state jobs seems wired for the favored few.

Then there is our governor, a Rhodes Scholar, who has made some mistakes.  Exhibit A was tossing out a half-baked truck toll plan late in the General Assembly that wasn’t well explained. More recently, Raimondo hired a $210,000 a year innovation czar without consulting the General Assembly leadership in what looks like an end-around of the state’s relatively transparent budget process. Then she was poised to take a $7,000 trip to a European economic conference, with the tab to be picked up by a raid on a University of Rhode Island Foundation fund.

Some of the criticism of Raimondo is petty. A botched foreign trip and a dubious hire or two aren’t hanging offenses. Yet, as the Hassenfeld survey shows, after a year in office, Raimondo has not been able to stanch the cynicism that is deeply embedded in our state. And she hasn't been able to forge a consensus among the Rhode Island public on how to pay for needed infrastructure work.

Let’s stop groping for economic game-changers. Instead, focus on what we know works – improving education and technical skill training. Developing programs, such as raising the earned income tax credit, that help young families. Making college affordable. And stabilizing property taxes and reducing the nettlesome car tax.

There was lots of gauzy language in the Brookings report about a high-tech future based on a knowledge economy. Yet the report didn’t address the two-income family in Cranston with stagnant wages grinding out an $80,000 a year combined income, worried about meeting mortgage and tuition bills.

Rhode Islanders also need to wake up and shed the attitudes of their parents and grandparents' generations. The idea that government `creates’ jobs is largely a myth and campaign trope. Politicians love to take credit for good times and run away from responsibility for recessions. Rewarding employment in the 21st Century is a function of education and skill. Unless you play in the NFL, wage and unemployment rates these days are yoked to brains, not brawn.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to go to Brown. If you call your plumber on a weekend, he or she is probably making more per hour than your kids pediatrician.

So if you or your children don’t have the qualifications for a 21st century job, don’t blame the governor or your state rep. Look in the mirror and realize the responsibility for your economic fate is yours.

After scanning the Brookings study, I was reminded of the words of Sister Anne Keefe, the revered Providence nun who died a year ago. ``Think tanks are fine,’’ she was fond of saying. ``But what we really need is a do-tank.’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40, and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Pols Need To Build Public Trust In Economic Policies
Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Pols Need To Build Public Trust In Economic Policies