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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Chafee needs some allies to survive

April 17, 2011

To paraphrase President Harry Truman: If you want a friend in politics, buy a dog.
If that is the case, then Gov. Lincoln Chafee should make a trip to his local pound real soon.
The poor guy got zero honeymoon at the Statehouse. From the minute he took has hand off the Bible on Inauguration Day, his critics were at his throat about illegal aliens, gay marriage, union support — hell, they even bashed the poem read at his swearing-in back in January.
We passed the landmark 100th day last week, right after the governor got his backside handed to him by a long parade of businessmen and women who claimed his sales tax plan would cause Rhode Island to crumble and sink into Narragansett Bay. (OK, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but it was close.)
It was more than four long hours into that House Finance Committee hearing before two lone voices came forward to give tepid and conditional support for the Chafee sales tax plan. Those two voices came from The Poverty Institute and Ocean State Actions, two organizations that, despite doing good works and having the best of intentions, do not exactly carry a lot of clout at the Statehouse.
No one else stepped forward to stand behind the governor. Even Ernie the barber was a no-show, despite Chafee giving him his 15 minutes of fame during last month’s budget address.
Canines aside, Chafee needs friends, or at least some allies, if he is going to survive for the next four years, never mind getting re-elected. No one can go it alone in the political world; individualists get chewed up and spit out in this business. He needs to cultivate a coalition that will help him sell his message and defend it from his critics, whether it be the budget or whatever else he wants his administration to accomplish.
The governor got tattooed up and down the Statehouse lawn at the RI Tea Party rally on Friday. He was ridiculed mercilessly by one speaker after another, and then someone started up a chant to get him to come down from his office to get verbally clobbered in person. For some reason, he didn’t show up.
All that was pretty predictable in these Tea Party times we live in. Anyone who proposes a tax — any kind of tax on anything — is going to take a shellacking from all sides.
While there are some parts of Chafee’s budget that are beyond the pale — confiscating the last few nickels and dimes from the ailing residents of the RI Veterans Home, stripping them of not only the tiny bit of money but also their pride, one of the last things they have left, is a spectacularly bad idea — it was at least a sincere effort to seriously confront the fiscal problems facing the state.
Hard choices had to be made, and if you don’t think that proposing tax increase is a hard choice in the current political atmosphere, check out some of the vicious things being said about Chafee on the blogs and in letters to the editor. And despite Chafee’s reputation in Talk Radio nation of being a ultra-super-liberal, commie socialist tool of the unions, he is and always has been a stickler for pay-as-you-go budgeting.
Before this “all-taxes-are-evil, every-government-action-is-socialism” zeitgeist that seems to have gripped the nation and the state, that was considered fiscal conservatism. Whether the newly virulent right wing recognizes it or not, the proposal to use dollars raised from taxes to come up with the state match for federal highway funds, rather than borrowing money that will have to be paid back with interest for that purpose, is a fiscally conservative idea. That is one of the things Chafee was going to do with money from his sales tax plan.
I can understand what the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s Laurie White called the “hot and visceral” reaction of the business community to suddenly getting hit with a 6 percent tax on goods and services that had never been taxed before. If I owned a small business in that position, I might have carried a pitchfork to the Statehouse that day myself, but from a slight distance, their reaction may have been a tiny bit overheated, and their predictions of certain doom for their businesses were perhaps a bit dire.
Nobody likes to pay taxes, but generally people do pay them. They grumble and gripe about it, but they pay them.
The idea that nobody would ever again patronize any business that charges a sales tax, so those business would have to close and toss all their employees into the street, is a tad over the top. As Warren Rep. Jan Malik, who owns a liquor store in his hometown, pointed out, he has to charge a sales tax to his customers and he is still in business, so why should other businesses be exempt from the sales tax? Sure, there are some people who will drive several miles into Massachusetts to save a few pennies in sales tax, but with the price of gasoline these days, they will end up losing more than they save.
So where are we now?
Despite House Speaker Gordon Fox’s announcement that the Chafee sales tax proposal is “unacceptable” and will not pass “as is,” don’t mistake that for it being totally dead.
One thing I learned about Chafee when I covered him as a U.S. Senator is that he can be a stubborn man. He is big on compromise, but there are certain lines beyond which he will not be pushed, and certain beliefs and ideas that he will stick to come hell or high water.
On Thursday, after what almost any other politician would consider a devastating and humiliating defeat, Chafee was able to put on a cheerful and affable face for the media and seemingly brushed aside the rejection of the sales tax plan as simply part of the rough-and-tumble, give-and-take of budget politics.
“It’s still a good budget. I’m still standing behind my budget,” Chafee said the day after his proposal was massacred by the businessmen’s militia. He insisted he is sticking with the idea of lowering the sales tax from 7 to 6 percent and broadening it to cover more goods and services.
When I asked if he thought his sales tax plan would be modified rather than replaced with something different, Chafee got a glint in his eye and said “maybe they’ll change a semi-colon.” Whether that glint was a hint that he has something else up his sleeve, or a silent acknowledgement that he was whistling past the graveyard, I wasn’t able to discern.
“This is part of the process,” Chafee said, “the governor submits a budget to the legislature, they have hearings and eventually they’ll work with the governor and come together on some sort of budget deal.”
That’s how the civics textbooks describe the process, but Chafee might want to talk with his predecessor, Don Carcieri, about whether that is how it works in real life.
Only one thing is for certain: there is a $300 million hole in the state budget and if Chafee’s sales tax plan is NGN — not going nowhere, in legislative parlance — then somebody has to find a way to close that gap.
If there is anyone who has the solution right now, he or she is being pretty quiet about it.

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