Those (and it ought to be everybody) who take an interest in how our state is governed — and specifically how government officials interact with Rhode Islanders outside of government — should watch this week’s Newsmakers with a careful eye.
In particular, parse this piece from the second segment, with Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor:
Tim White: Is everything that you want to do going to offset nine-to-ten million dollars to [Ocean State Job Lot’s] business, they calculated, over 10 years? It’s going to offset that?
Stefan Pryor: Well, you know, I haven’t seen [Job Lot CEO] Marc [Perlman]’s precise estimates. I’ve heard some speculation that the numbers are higher, they’re lower… including that they’re lower… but Marc knows his business best. There have been, over the years, millions of dollars of investment in the infrastructure surrounding Job Lot in North Kingstown, in the bridge infrastructure and the road infrastructure leading to that facility — millions of dollars, even tens of millions of dollars. Millions of dollars to clean and clear the land upon which Job Lot’s facilities are built. These are monies from the state. There is an application in, as Marc has expressed publicly, for more public investment in an expansion of the facility. You know, Rhode Island has invested in companies like Job Lot, and we’re going to continue to do so.
This is essentially an articulation of President Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” philosophy, and it’s informative to see it put into practical application. Here is a single company that, if we take all the numbers at face value, is going to be made to shoulder around a one-in-fifty share of a new revenue stream to provide benefits for the entire state. Would anybody argue that Job Lot receives one-fiftieth of the benefit of roads and bridges or causes one-fiftieth of the damage among the hundreds of thousands or millions of people who use them?
And if we open the door to actual measurement, we’d also have to look at other individuals, businesses, and interest groups that receive government assistance, from tax incentives to tax breaks to handouts to subsidies. Then, we’d have to factor in the benefit that Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders derive from Job Lot’s activities — in jobs, in tax revenue, in building the brand of the “Ocean State,” and so on. And while we’re at it, in consideration of our progressive friends, we should note that there are many people and businesses that use Rhode Island’s roads and bridges who, while they may use smaller vehicles (even personal cars), make much greater profits from their ability to traverse the state quickly.
Of course, for those who want to centralize power and organize all of society under the umbrella of government, a tally of costs and benefits is beside the point. Nobody’s keeping dollar-for-dollar score. Pryor’s real point is simply that Job Lot has no grounds for complaint — that the company is hypocritical to complain about a disproportionate and targeted burden on its bottom line — because state government has actually done something to benefit it in the past, and because the company didn’t maintain its purity when the governor and speaker of the House publicly offered it payoffs last week.
The Newsmakers segment puts an exclamation after this point, later, when Pryor teases an upcoming announcement that the Commerce Corp. has managed to leverage multiple taxpayer-funded incentive programs in order to lure a small (20-job) company from Attleboro to Rhode Island. If taxpayers were to press Pryor on whether this is a prudent use of our limited resources, no doubt he’d argue that Rhode Island will reap more than its investment by bringing this small company to the state.
But should the company ever object when the governor and General Assembly unilaterally change the terms of their agreement with some new tax, fee, license, or regulation, its executives will quickly find that they are no longer touted as job-bringers, but rather as something more like welfare queens. On some future TV program, some future commerce secretary will respond to a question about whether the company is actually going to break even on the new deal by saying, “Well, you know, somebody built that for them.”