How to Structure the Ocean State?

2012-11-19 15.13.57
RI State House (photo by author)

Last weekend, I attended the Rhode Island Fiscal Summit, sponsored by a Brown student group called Common Sense Action.  The group hopes to bridge the partisan divide about the national debt (good luck with that!).

At the event, there were several speeches and a panel discussion of current fiscal issues. President Paxson  opened the day by discussing how today’s fiscal decisions could constrain the leaders who come from our generation, who will face paying back the debt currently accruing. She and several other speakers brought up a recent op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, titled “Generational Theft Must be Arrested,” which was co-authored by a Democrat, an independent, and a Republican. On the whole, the event focused on national issues, especially the keynote speaker who was an Obama Administration official, Car Czar Steve Rattner (Brown ’74).

Oftentimes, though, the discussion turned towards the local. One panelist, Alan Fung, serves as Mayor of Cranston, RI. With so many Rhode Island cities and towns struggling with falling tax revenues and decreasing state and national aid, regionalization, consolidation, and streamlining services to save money were hot topics.

The event made me wonder about consolidation. Has technology made governing larger areas easier? One hundred counties make up North Carolina, planned that way because no one was supposed to be more than a day’s horseback ride from the courthouse. With email, television, cars, and everything else we can use to overcome distance, maybe that is an outdated way of planning political bodies.

Some people have discussed how Rhode Island can reorganize these bodies in order to save money and modernize. A couple of nights ago, we had a guest speaker in my State and Local Government class, former RI Senate Majority Leader Jack Revens (look at that resume). In the course of the discussion, Sen. Revens floated the idea of making Rhode Island into a city-state by eliminating all municipal governments and charging all governing to the state.

Even though I do not for a second think this will happen, it is an intriguing idea. First of all, it would save loads of money. Second, it is quite simple: one government for everybody. Streamline the whole thing.

However, it may not be as good of an idea as Sen. Reven thinks. Managing every municipality in the state would be a lot of extra responsibility to take on. Do people really want the legislature in charge of picking up the trash? How does one coordinate that? Is the governor now both governor and mayor? Do you want the legislature to be your city council?

Another problem comes from the fact that streamlining means firing people. What would all the former municipal workers do? Probably leave Rhode Island. And what to do with all the old town halls and municipal office buildings?

Cities and city employees make real decisions. They are the layer of government closest to the people. Rhode Island’s state government does not have the highest of approval ratings. Mayor Taveras does.
I am not advocating for one side or the other here. However, Sen. Revens certainly knows much more than I about how government works, and infinitely more about how Rhode Island works. Still, the city-state makes for an interesting discussion. How much do we value local control and local budgets? How much do we consider our city staffs, councils, and mayors?

These questions are part of what President Obama calls “the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”  We must forever tweak and improve to adapt to changing times, technologies, and norms. Every generation updates the system.

One comment

  • Benjamin Koatz

    I doubt expanding larger governments over smaller ones will lead to more simplicity and efficiency. Our federal government is degrees of magnitude more unnecessarily complex, bureaucratic, taxing and inefficient than our state and local governments. Having local governments which cannot tax too much for fear of people making the easy move across county (rather than the more difficult state or national) lines, is definitely a factor in limiting tax rates and streamlining government, along with the other benefits of people knowing their representatives more, holding them more accountable, and keeping government efficient.

    Though there is an element of simplicity in having a bigger, single state government rather than a litany of smaller local ones to compliment it. But I see no reason that that state one will become more bureaucratic, increase in size, act more inefficiently, etc. as time goes on. Leading to lower savings and a more burdensome state for Rhode Island residents in the long run.

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