Late last month, Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 gave his final State of the State address. For me — and I venture to suppose for the majority of The Herald's readers as well — the governor's imminent departure from Smith Hill is a rare ray of sunlight in what will undoubtedly otherwise be a cloudy political year.
As is expected during such events, the governor defended his past accomplishments and advanced an agenda for the coming year. Giving credit where credit is due, I should note that the governor has done and advocated for some laudable things.
In other words, his whole administration was thankfully not characterized by the cruelty and political tone-deafness of, for example, his since-overridden veto of the bill authorizing individuals in same-sex couples to dispose of their deceased partners' remains.
For instance, the governor's efforts to preserve the state's environment are certainly nothing to dismiss. In addition to appointing members of the state's Coastal Resources Management Council who actually seem committed to protecting the state's beaches and waterways, the governor set aside 12,000 acres of farms and forests — nearly two percent of Rhode Island's land area — for preservation.
Carcieri also has been working to consolidate Rhode Island's police, fire and school districts. Each town and city (all 39 of them) is responsible on its own for providing these services. In most states, these are provided on a county level, and as Carcieri remarked, Rhode Island is smaller than many counties. (My own, King County in Washington, has almost twice Rhode Island's population and land area.) It hardly makes sense to perpetuate the unnecessary duplication and waste that accompanies such diseconomies of scale.
Perhaps most notably, the governor brought Rhode Island into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a compact between northeastern states creating a regional cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions, despite former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's decision to withdraw his state from that agreement.
Additionally, we should commend Carcieri's investment in the state's institutions of higher education. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of education, both to Rhode Island's citizens and to its economy. One can only hope that the state's impending budgetary axing does not significantly undermine this investment.
However conservative Carcieri's base instincts, though, results like these are the least you would expect of a governor whose party is outnumbered nine-to-one in the General Assembly. Even the most determined opposition on the part of Rhode Island Republicans to a particular proposal could be easily ignored by Democrats in the General Assembly, who need only muster around two-thirds of the members of their caucus to override a veto.
But despite these positive actions, the rest of the governor's State of the State address only served to reinforce the impression that he is particularly out of touch with the state and its citizens.
As any politician these days should, the governor focused his address on the state's economic woes. But instead of articulating how the state's government could help its citizens weather this economic catastrophe, Carcieri insisted that the proper course would be for the state to drastically cut expenditures and even to cut taxes.
Now, as I've said before, I believe that as a general rule Rhode Island's taxes and expenditures are too high. But the time to rectify the situation is not during a full blown economic recession, when the government's countercyclical economic stimulus is needed to turn things around. Rather, it is after things have recovered and the private sector can step in to fill the hole left by a scaled-back state government.
Indeed, Carcieri's professed solicitude for the well-being of the average middle-class Rhode Islander fell particularly flat when he crowed about cutting 2,000 jobs from the state payroll over the course of his administration. Perhaps it did not occur to him, but that makes him personally responsible for a respectable portion of the state's around 70,000 unemployed.
Carcieri's solution to the state's financial predicament involves making more than $100 million in cuts to state and municipal governments, which will surely result in thousands more layoffs, and in cutting corporate taxes to attract businesses. But the jobs that lower taxes would theoretically create would undoubtedly be more than offset by the jobs that smaller government would by definition entail.
Ultimately, the drafting and enactment of the state's budget are up to the often-maligned General Assembly, whose members — unlike lame-duck Carcieri — are frequently and directly accountable to the citizens whose lives their decisions impact. For this, we should be grateful.
Tyler Rosenbaum '11 is an international relations and public policy concentrator from Seattle. He can be reached at tyler [at] brown.edu