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EAST GREENWICH â The diagnoses were dire and the prescriptions painful for addressing Rhode Islandâs economic woes at an Operation Clean Government forum on Saturday.
The event featured the brief return of the always colorful and often combative Steven Laffey to Rhode Islandâs fiscal and political fray. Laffey, the former mayor of Cranston and 2006 U.S. Senate candidate who has since decamped to a ranch in Fort Collins, Colo., apparently hasnât learned to mince his words since moving out west.
âItâs over for Providence â Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Itâs over for Rhode Island,â Laffey told more than 100 OCG members and others who gathered in the Varnum Armory. âYou people, and the people of Rhode Island have to publicly humiliate through the power of ideas your elected officials. There really is no other way.â
The often raucous crowd was loudly in agreement with Laffeyâs pronouncements of impending doom and his radical remedies for avoiding it.
Laffey said the state must abruptly end its pension program and write checks to reimburse workers for what they have paid into the system. He said General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has undertaken a comprehensive study of the pension system is âpulling a Frank Caprio, you canât allow someone to run for general treasurer without a plan. You canât say Iâm still working on a plan. Thatâs not credible. A man from Colorado came in with a complete plan to fix the state. Thatâs whatâs credible.â
Acknowledging that his proposed solutions can be jarring, Laffey said, âif these were normal times, I would say normal things.â
When Moderator Dan Yorke, WPRO talk host, characterized Laffeyâs comments as wanting âto take a bazooka and put a blowhole in the side of the Statehouse on Tuesday,â the crowd ate it up, cheering wildly and calling out for the bazooka solution at various times for the rest of the morning.
By contrast, when Rep. Larry Valencia, a panel member and former OCG president suggested bringing concerned parties around a table for a rational discussion, he was roundly hooted at and shouted down by the audience. At one point, audience members yelled for Valencia, just elected last November, to resign from the General Assembly.
Valencia said Laffeyâs notion that the general treasurer should march in and declare an end to the pension system is âridiculous. General Treasurer Raimondo is in no position to dictate to the Houseâ of Representatives.
Part of Rhode Islandâs budget problem, said panelist Gary Sasse, director of administration in the Carcieri administration, is that âwe are an entitlement state. Thirty-eight cents, nearly 40 cents of every dollar spentâ goes to entitlement programs.
Sasse said there are only three ways to solve the stateâs $9 billion unfunded pension liability problem: âsoaking the taxpayers, if the investment interest returns improve, or youâve got to deal with costsâ by cutting pension benefits. âNo politician has the guts to put that on the table.â
Panelist Ed Mazze, former dean of the URI College of Business Administration, suggested a similar lack of fortitude on the part of political leaders in dealing with the stateâs budget problem.
âI think they know what to do; many of them donât have the guts or courage to do it,â Mazze said, adding that Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country as well as one of the highest underemployment rates. âThere are no jobs for people graduating from Rhode Island colleges in Rhode Island.â
Mazze said Rhode Island should shrink to âa five-county state with five governments. We need to look ahead at the next five years. We need a much more effective and concerned type of leadership. We canât live year-to-year and spend 11 months trying to figure out how to pass this budgetâ then do the same thing next year.
He said the way local and state government is configured âdoesnât work in 2011.â
At one point, Laffey got into a verbal back-and-forth with Sen. James Sheehan, Laffey accused Sheehan of talking about problems but offering âno solutions.â Laffey said Sheehan âis a perfect politician on this topic.â It was not meant as a compliment. Sheehan raced back to the lectern and angrily called Laffey âegomaniacalâ and âa bomb-thrower.â As Sheehan left the room he was followed by catcalls and insults from the crowd.
Sasse told Yorke that Rhode Islandâs âbig problemâ is âvery simple. State spending grows quicker than income, grows quicker than inflation, is unsustainable. The governor has come out and balanced the budget with taxes and one-time gimmicks. Spending shouldnât grow faster than the income of Rhode Islanders. The proposed budget grows by 7.7 percent, income is growing at 2.2 percent, thatâs not sustainable.
As he has in the past, Sasse recommended $2 in budget cuts for every $1 increase in taxes.