Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Score a $75 Million Error

Under the category of "better late than never," I'm realizing that this didn't get posted when I wrote it. Whoops. It did run in East Bay Life on July 3rd.

I am sure that Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman is a bit envious of Rhode Island right now. In 2010, our General Assembly made a $75 million error with 38 Studios and former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. In 2007, the Yankees made an even bigger mistake by giving Alex Rodriguez a $275 million 10-year contract - and that doesn’t even include the massages and wardrobe allowance he must require.

Of course the Yankees have a steady stream of revenue to cover up for their mistake while the General Assembly has to ask taxpayers to cover their debt. Up at the State House, there has been endless “will they or won’t they” speculation when it comes to budgeting for the $2.5 million interest payment due for the 38 Studios debacle. As of this writing the payment is in the budget the House, but it is likely to be the source of ongoing debate in the State House every budget cycle until the debt is paid. 38 Studios is not going away anytime soon.

I think we can all agree that it’s a terrible use of taxpayer dollars to pay $2.5 million and get nothing in return. I’m chalking it up to the price we pay for being a lazy electorate and holding so few elected officials accountable each year.

Whether you believe one state representative who said he was tricked into voting for the $75 million increase in the loan guarantee program or not, the truth is that only one legislator of 113 voted against funding. Does this strike anyone else as particularly odd in a state where everyone seems to have a hand out? Is this particularly unusual in politics where every Member of Congress works hard to “bring home the bacon” and get pet projects financed in his or her district? Is it strange that in a time of serious belt tightening, 112 legislators wouldn’t be concerned about where the $75 million would come from and where it would go? Sadly, in our hierarchical General Assembly, it’s not unusual for “leadership” bills to fly through, so the 38 Studios debate should be less about paying the money back (which we must do to preserve our bond rating) and more about making sure that it never happens again.

In my mind there are two safeguards that would prevent another 38 Studios debacle. First, we have a part-time legislature yet they create a more-than-full-time workload at the end of each session. On the final night, deals are cut and amendments fly fast and furious so it becomes physically impossible to read everything before being asked to vote. Other legislatures have deadlines for bill submission and deadlines for action, preventing the middle of the night free-for-all that happens on Smith Hill every year. If the General Assembly adopted a firm calendar, not only would legislators have no excuse for not understanding what they’re voting on, but perhaps we’d cut down on some of the just-plain-dumb bills preventing dogs riding from in the front seat and enshrining calamari as the official state appetizer.

The second solution is in the hands of the electorate. We allow far too many seats to be uncontested each election. Every incumbent should be challenged to make him or her reconnect with constituents and to be accountable for his or her record. Dozens of legislators are given a free pass every cycle, giving them no one to answer to and no forum to debate their votes. This one is tough since running for office – especially the General Assembly – is not a career ambition for most of us, but truly a public service. If you are inclined to run – please throw your hat in the ring and give your community the benefit of having a choice on election day and the ability to question your legislator beforehand. Fewer legislators are likely to take a bad vote or just follow the leader if they think it will cost them at election time.

So how do we score the 38 Studios debacle? I think it’s an E for everyone. The General Assembly will only be better if we hold them accountable for their actions and that’s the responsibility of every voter.

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