Tue, 31 Aug 2010
We're coming down to the home stretch in the primary election season. As you consider the options in the race for Mayor of Providence, ask yourself not what you want the next mayor to be, but what you want the next mayor to do. Do you want a mayor who pretends that the budget is balanced through "tough choices", while the real condition of the city continues to deteriorate? Do you want someone who thinks that the only way to grow jobs is through lavish tax cuts to rich people? If so, you're in luck; Steve Costantino is your guy. He's done all of that -- and more.
For the past six years, Representative Steve Costantino has been the chair of the House Finance Committee. In that role, he has impressed many observers with his detailed knowledge of the state budget and his mastery of government finance . He's an intelligent man, and a good negotiator. But intelligence and aptitude are only part of the game. Judgment plays a big part, too, and here it's hard for me to be as kind.
People who follow the state budget each year disagree about a lot of things: some groups lobby for still more tax cuts, and others decry the decay of the services our state is supposed to provide. But wherever we stand on those issues, all of us agree that our state's fiscal disaster was foreseen years ago. The Governor's budget office, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the Poverty Institute, and anyone else with fingers to count on could see -- and did see -- the impending fiscal disaster. In the face of these warnings of crisis, the Governor, with the able assistance of Rep. Costantino, simply made things worse . They cut programs meant to *save* money , cut taxes on rich people without any idea how to pay for the cuts , and doubled the state's debt .
They have tried to hide the problems by selling state property , by pretending that tax collections would be higher than any reasonable estimate , by looting programs that actually support themselves , and with all kinds of one-time money . But arithmetic will out; you can hide the results from the public, but eventually there must be money to keep the checks from bouncing. Where did it come from?
Mostly it came from your city or town. The state's contribution to the cost of education has gone from $647 million in the 2005 fiscal year (Costantino's first budget) to just under $646 million for the current year . Inflation hasn't been much these past few years, so this is still essentially a 13% cut.
The state's contribution to the rest of municipal government suffered, too. At the beginning of the last fiscal year, cities and towns were told they'd get $173 million in general state aid. During that year, the state reneged on $18 million of it, and for the current year, they cut the number from $173 million to $48 million . General revenue sharing, another local aid program, had already been cut from $64 million in 2007 to zero in 2010. The pressure on municipal budgets has been intense. Since 2004, average municipal expenses have gone up 20.1% over all the cities and towns in the state. This was a bit faster than inflation, which has raised prices 15.4% over the same period. But property tax collections had to go up 28.9% to make up for the increasingly anemic state support . Worse, the cuts of the past 12 months have left 39 municipal budgets in disarray, and has residents facing tax hikes on their car in 27 cities and towns .
The state tax cuts of the past few years were only to the benefit of a few thousand very wealthy people. All the rest of us pay those increased property taxes. Is that how you want our capital city run?
To be fair, there is some question about how much autonomy the House Finance committee has had over the past several years. The rumors I hear say that a lot of this terrible policy was made in the Speaker's office and then imposed on the Finance committee members, but I have no personal knowledge of this, and so far as I can know, these terrible policies have been enthusiastically endorsed by Costantino.
What is the result? The state spent and borrowed so heavily during the fat times that we are deep in deficit and have no pad with which to weather the economic storm . The tax revenue lost because of the recession has taken a bad situation and made it much worse.
Our schools have suffered, our roads, our buildings, and this is just the beginning. Central Falls can't pay its bills. Other municipalities, and even the state, have cash flow teetering on the brink of disaster. Environmental enforcement barely exists, the buses are raising fares and cutting services, people complain about lines at the DMV, but they can't afford to get their computer systems working in time for the opening of their new office. And the galling part is that all of us, except for a few thousand of the very wealthiest of our citizens, are paying *higher* overall taxes to support this wreckage. Is *that* what you want from your government?
During his time on House Finance, you could count on Costantino to say the right things about controlling costs and preserving services. I'm charitable enough to be certain he meant it. But the fact remains that though he may not have been the captain, he was at the wheel of this ship on a clear day as it barreled onto the rocks -- whatever his intentions.
Election years often see dramatic conversions of people seeking high office. So in the face of all this, what was Costantino's signature accomplishment during the legislative season this spring? Submitting a balanced budget? Facing down people who benefit from our government but think taxes are for the little people? Showing us some of those tough choices we're always hearing about? Nope; it was cutting taxes on rich people even more . At least you can admire his consistency.
If that's the kind of fiscal leadership you want from your mayor, then your choice is clear.
 For the record, I don't really know him. I've only ever spoken to him as a witness at House Finance hearings. What follows is an analysis of the record of the House budget writers. Also, for the record, I had nothing to do with the whatcheerprov attack on Costantino. I didn't see anything wrong with it, but it wasn't mine; anonymity isn't my style.
 This is documented in the Rhode Island Policy Reporter issue 24 (March 2007), and in my book, "Ten Things You Don't Know About Rhode Island", Chapter 1. I know it's not considered the done thing to cite your own stuff in a footnote, but it's a long story, and besides, I've got books to sell.
 RIte Care, the Medicaid program that provides health care to the poor, was designed as a way to provide health care at a far lower cost than emergency rooms. Maintenance on state buildings and roads is also a way to save money. Cuts in either of these areas will only save money in the very short term.
 This is why tax cuts are always phased in. The "flat" tax, for example, was phased in so that in its first year, the cost was nearly inconsequential. It was only in its third and fourth years that it became a real problem to the budget writers -- because it was passed without offsetting cuts to spending.
 State debt went from about $1.2 billion in 2002 to over $2.5 billion in 2010, counting the supposedly "off-books" GARVEE debt that paid for the new Providence River Bridge and other transportation projects.
 There have been several such sales over the past decade, but in this article, Rep. Costantino is quoted to say that he has no problem with selling conservation land in Charlestown for development in order to make the budget balance. http://www.projo.com/news/content/CHTWN_LAND15_06-15-07_F161A8A.343593b.html
 The FY07 projections of lottery collections were a standout in this regard. See RIPR issue 24 or my book, op. cit. But see also http://www.projo.com/news/content/tax_break_08-25-10_J2JLQKT_v9.237e0c5.html
 The Governor's budget appropriated $26 million from RI Housing in 2008. This money was intended to pay for low-income housing. The number was negotiated down during hearings in House Finance, but the result was that millions of dollars that had been intended for low-income housing went to pay for tax cuts instead. See http://www.pawtuckettimes.com/content/view/15177/1/
 For example, we sold the money due us from the tobacco settlement (twice, but it's a long story), but only some of the proceeds went to pay down our state's debt. Much of the money, in 2002 and 2007, went to fill holes in the annual budget (and approximately none of it went to health-related expenses). This article is informative: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/reports/settlements/state.php?StateID=RI
 See page 655ff in the House Finance 2011 edition of the budget as enacted. Over the same period, aid for charter schools has gone up from $16 million to $38 million in 2011, with an 18% increase in 2011 alone.
 ibid, pages 636ff
 Data from the municipal budget survey conducted by the Department of Revenue's Municipal Finance division.
 Count from the Municipal Finance division of the Department of Revenue.
 The state budget hole also makes the budget situation of all the cities and towns worse by absorbing federal aid meant for municipalities. This happened with Obama's stimulus funds, and even happened this past week with money intended for our state's schools being sucked into the state's hole. http://newsblog.projo.com/2010/08/carcieri-to-use-school-jobs-mo.html
 See: http://newsblog.projo.com/2010/06/house-panel-okays-plan-to-chan.html The estimates of the cost of these cuts turned out to be wrong: http://www.projo.com/news/content/tax_break_08-25-10_J2JLQKT_v9.237e0c5.html
23:53 - 31 Aug 2010 [/y10/au]
Wed, 18 Aug 2010
Banks have been nationalized, manager bonuses limited and huge public debts accumulated. Indeed, about the only element of recent economic thought that remains taboo is blind faith in free trade. That might be a mistake.
00:05 - 18 Aug 2010 [/y10/au]
Fri, 06 Aug 2010
It is beyond question at this point that the US Senate will vote to decrease the number of votes required to pass a cloture motion from 60 to 55 or 50. The only real question is whether it will happen when Republicans next achieve a majority in the Senate or before.
10:49 - 06 Aug 2010 [/y10/au]
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