Hal Meyer: Revisiting My Former Home from the Outside

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Not long ago, my wife and I moved out of Rhode Island. We relocated to North Idaho, also known as the Idaho Panhandle. It’s been almost five years, and there has been plenty of time to reflect on the change.  My only regret is not moving sooner.

Before we left Rhode Island, life seemed hard. The heavy hand of government seemed everywhere, and often I had the feeling of being a slave to the cabal of insiders who run the state. The contrast between Idaho and Rhode Island couldn’t be any starker. Everything seems cheaper, cleaner, faster, and better managed out here.

In Idaho, electricity costs roughly 8 cents per KWH; in RI, it’s approximately 22 cents. When you call the local utility here, you get a straight answer about cost. When you call National Grid in RI, you get a complicated answer about supply costs, delivery costs, and tariffs. The DMV is like night and day. When we registered our two used cars in Idaho, it cost $75 each for two years. Most astonishing to us, we were in and out of the Idaho DMV registry within one hour! We were treated very courteously by the clerk, who not only filled out all of the paperwork for us, but walked with us to the parking lot to complete the VIN check. Try that in RI! We got our Idaho titles within one week; in RI, it takes closer to one year.

The town budget of my current town Post Falls, Idaho, is $33.7 million for a population of 27,000, or $1,250 per person. The town budget of my old town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, is $58.7 million for a population of 17,800, or $3,300 per resident. That’s nearly triple the per capita spending! Although the Post Falls schools are far less expensive, I’ll bet they are as good, if not better, by any measure. Even in researching the question, it was interesting to me that I received an instant answer via a toll free number at the city of Post Falls, but at the Town of Portsmouth, I got voicemail.

The culture is just different. Two-time convicted felon and perhaps the most corrupt public official ever in Rhode Island’s history, Buddy Cianci, is a local folk hero and probably has enough political capital to get elected again, if he overcomes any legal obstacles. In contrast, a one-time convicted felon stands virtually no chance of getting elected dog catcher out here in our capital city of Boise.

Rhode Island is defined by never-ending scandals, high taxes, high unemployment, crushing regulations, corrupt government, nepotism, wasteful spending, a bloated welfare system, under-performing schools, a stagnant economy, and lucrative insider deals. Frankly, in Idaho, it’s rare to read a story about public corruption, and the few examples are disposed of fairly but strictly. While Rhode Island is known to have one of the most generous welfare programs in the country, Idaho is not.

Added to Rhode Island’s grim picture is my view that the RI Democratic Party and the public sector unions effectively function as a modern mafia, controlling most decisions in RI politics. To be fair, no actual killings take place; they only fleece you. Fascism might be a closer analogy.

The stranglehold on government has proven disastrous to the state. The chosen special interests are in the chips, but the state as a whole suffers. There is a justified feeling that the RI taxpayers are shouldering much more than their fair share of the high price. The numbers do not lie. Comparisons with the other states regularly place RI at the top of the tax burden chart.

Not surprisingly, it still isn’t enough. First, there was the bankruptcy of Central Falls. Now, there is talk of a possible bankruptcy filing by the city of Providence. Perhaps a bankruptcy filing would be a good thing, with its promise of breaking onerous contracts negotiated by conflicted public officials, forcing important public disclosures, and moving major decisions into a courtroom, rather than the infamous “backroom.”  The strident condemnation of “the rich” screamed through the bullhorns at Burnside Park has now entered the State House, itself.

Former Governor Carcieri’s layoff of state workers was the right idea, but too little, too late. Rhode Island is almost the exact same geographic size as my county, underscoring its small size. Yet, Rhode Island has almost 15,000 state workers! Even in a regional comparison, RI fares poorly. Nearby New Hampshire is one-third larger in population and eight times in land area — but has only 10,000 state workers. Why such a disparity? The RI layoff should be on a much larger scale. Perhaps also revoke the privilege of unionization for public workers; it is a noble idea in theory, but in practice it has proven to breed corruption, abuse, and poor quality.

Rhode Island is now broke and bare, like a carcass picked clean by the special interests. Businesses like GE left a long time ago, and now the people are following the trail to the border. The lesson for all remaining Rhode Islanders should be that citizen apathy leads to corruption and socialism. One wonders if enough people will ever wake up and boot out the pols who are the root of these problems.

The saying that “people get the government they deserve” rings true. If citizens demanded better officials, they would get better officials. But if you go as Rhode Island goes, you get what Rhode Island gets. Making a difference requires involvement with groups like the RI Statewide Coalition.

Rhode Island is a lovely place in many ways, and I still visit friends and family there every few years. But there is no incentive to move back. Life is too good on the outside.