Does Chafee have an effective strategy for passing his plan to help distressed cities?
The problems facing Providence, Woonsocket, and other tottering Rhode Island municipalities are as much political as they are economic. That’s because Governor Lincoln Chafee’s plan to pull troubled cities back from the brink needs General Assembly approval to have any impact. So should Chafee have started by first enlisting the support of House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed?
It depends who you ask.
Chafee’s decision to move ahead without securing legislative backing reminds one Democratic observer of former Republican Governor Don Carcieri’s knack for making “grandiose announcements and then not getting it done.” This observer also questions whether Chafee will pursue the Raimondo-like public-education campaign that could be crucial to building support for his municipal plan (more about this later).
On Wednesday, Chafee told Fox and Paiva Weed about his municipal proposal in broad strokes, without getting into the specifics. To some observers, that amounts to not doing his homework on an issue of tremendous importance for the state.
Yet Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, calls Chafee’s tactic a matter of practicality. Beardsley notes how the bills fleshing out the governor’s plan have yet to be introduced:
The devil’s in the details, and I don’t know of any instance at any point in time in my career across the street [at the Statehouse] that House and Senate leadership has signed on to something prior to seeing the actual language of the particular piece of legislation. I think the strategy the governor has employed is the only one available to him at this point in time.
Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller offers this analysis of Chafee’s approach:
This is an attempt to end-run the pressure that’s most likely going to be exerted by unions at the local level. So I think there’s a bit of distrust there by the Chafee administration, I don’t think as much with Gordon Fox’s office, but maybe Teresa Paiva Weed …
[Chafee] wants to be the one to sell this program and release all the details, and frame the program. And if he releases all the details to the legislature before he has a chance to do that, he can’t build any public support for it.
Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger says the governor’s approach is justified by how Providence and Woonsocket could run out of money in the not-too-distant future.
The governor has been talking about the need for legislative reform for municipals for quite a while now, so I don’t believe that any of these bills came as a surprise to anyone. There’ll be an opportunity for an in-the-weeds briefing for legislative leadership. The governor thought the timing was important, given where the municipals are now.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the political landscape upon which Chafee’s legislation will emerge.
This is an election year, and more than a few lawmakers are already wary about the fallout after voting for last year’s pension overhaul. To judge by the sharp reaction of the RI AFL-CIO’s George Nee, labor will make a full-court press against Chafee’s plan.
So what will Chafee — whose approval rating was a meager 22 percent in the most recent Brown University survey — do to get Rhode Islanders behind his effort to help distressed communities?
“He needs to take a page from Gina Raimondo — get out of the Statehouse,” says the Democratic observer quoted earlier. “I’d be going town to town, having town hall meetings.”
Hunsinger outlines what sounds like a status quo approach for Chafee:
The governor’s public appearances for the last four or five months have been all about municipalities. He’s been out there talking about the need for tools for the local leaders. He’s made a point of inviting unions and municipal executives and business leaders to the Statehouse to discuss these issues. So the governor’s been out there talking about it. I think you’ll continue to see him do that.
Chafee tried to include cities and towns in last year’s pension overhaul, and that got shot down by Raimondo and Paiva Weed.
This time around he’s trying to frame the choice between helping highly distressed communities (complete with a new acronym — HDC) or letting them go bankrupt. But in classic Rhode Island fashion, the outcome may be a lot more muddled.
The General Assembly might take steps to help Providence avoid bankruptcy, for example, without addressing the city’s underlying fiscal problems.
So the real question is, will the state’s elected officials fundamentally deal this year with the crisis in municipal finance, or just put it off for another day?