The lyric referring to a “phony quasi-public half-a-billion in debt” in “Seventeen Tolls” refers to the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority, but as I indicated a couple of weeks ago, the Commerce Corporation (formerly the Economic Development Corporation) is another phony quasi-public. A small article in yesterday’s Providence Journal — with the innocuous headline, “State initiative to help businesses” — pretty much puts a ribbon on the point:
The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation will coordinate efforts of 26 state departments, divisions and commissions that have agreed to work together and help businesses that may want to move to Rhode Island or expand current locations in the state, the agency has announced.
We supposedly let government do things so that it will be accountable to the people, right? Then how is it the role of a quasi-public agency to “coordinate” dozens of fully public agencies? Why is the state’s Secretary of Commerce pretty much acting through the quasi-public agency to enact official state policies?
The answer is that the “quasi” prefix is fraudulent, unless the piece that’s different from regular agencies is that voters and taxpayers have even less say over its operation (for example, by getting to approve massive debt). The question that I can’t answer, but that somebody should, is how Rhode Islanders can enforce their rights against this scam. Its entire design is to give powerful people more flexibility to act without requiring the approval of or transparency for the rest of us.
In this context, it’s worth renewing my warning that the Brookings Institution appears to be preparing the public for an even more intricate approach to subverting representative democracy. An interview on ConvergenceRI with Neil Steinberg, the director of the Rhode Island Foundation (which is helping to fund the Brookings study), points in the same direction:
We saw the opportunity to not just be a traditional foundation that works with wonderful donors, who are very philanthropic and give out grants to the community. There was that third leg that we saw, [we weren’t the only ones, there were peers of ours in other places that have done this], in civic leadership.
[We had the] opportunity to bring people together, using our convening [capability] to get into a little more policy and advocacy, to supplement the money. …
What I am getting at is: what’s the role of the public sector and what’s the role of the private sector? We did “Make It Happen” not to exclude the public sector, but not to rely on the public sector.
So, that’s what we’re looking at now. Can Brookings, can the Governor, set the table, and jump start enough things that the private sector will step up to the plate?
The loop that we now see closing is a manacle around our ankle. The RI Foundation receives six figures of grants from the state government every year, and it’s becoming clear that it is working with the governor’s office and joining with her political supporters to fund research outside the boundaries of government. That research is explicitly designed to come up with “action items” that the government can initiate and (predictably) direct without the complications of transparency and voter accountability.
This is dangerous stuff, and anybody who worries that it’s the mere speculation of a paranoid right-winger ought to be more worried that there will be no recourse to correct it when the manacle snaps shut.