When he has completed the atonement rite for the sanctuary, the meeting tent and the altar, Aaron shall bring forward the live goat. Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the sinful faults and transgressions of the Israelites, and so put them on the goat’s head. He shall then have it led into the desert by an attendant. Since the goat is to carry off their iniquities to an isolated region, it must be sent away into the desert.
— Leviticus 16:20-22
Tuesday was an exciting evening on the floor of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Early on, Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo (D, East Providence) announced that a new article to the budget would be submitted postponing the tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Later, Melo amended the budget to delete one of his own articles. And another budget article went down in a 39-36 blaze of ingloriousness.
Woven throughout the debate of the eleven-hour meeting was the name of 38 Studios. A few years ago, the General Assembly gave a green light for the state’s quasi-public Economic Development Corp. (EDC) to guarantee $75 million in loans, and all of that financial heft went to former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s failed video game company of that infamous name. This year’s budget was the first in which the General Assembly was asked to make good on that guarantee, putting aside the first $2.5 million.
The first-level political analysis is that the 38 Studios payment made the budget such a stinker that leadership had to go to even greater lengths than usual to buy the fifty votes necessary to pass it. As it was, the budget passed with fifty-two, on day two of debate. Yes, three representatives who would have voted “yea” were absent (two due to scheduling, one due to heat stroke from the many hours in the sweltering chamber), and yes, some of those who voted “nay” probably would have been willing to flip their votes if they would have been more than symbolic. Still, that’s not much of a margin for error.
So, whereas the East Bay area lacked the legislative importance to prevent tolls from being allowed in the first place, and anyway, all of its Democrat representatives voted for the budget that introduced them, last year, residents put enough pressure on those representatives to do something, and those representatives constituted a large enough bloc to put the total budget at risk.
Then, with House leadership signalling that it was willing to derail tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue to the state Turnpike and Bridge Authority in order to secure those votes, enough representatives demanded an additional price by voting another article down. The article that the House members defeated would have diverted $12.9 million that the law required as an additional payment to the state pension fund into the state’s general fund.
The central problem with this superficial analysis is that the 38 Studios payment amounted to 0.03% of the budget. And per the analysis above, the cost to push it through appears to have come pretty close to equaling the amount of the initial loan guarantee. The issue is deeper, of course, with powerful interests hoping to make the original controversy disappear with a minimum of scrutiny.
Nonetheless, the waste, fraud, and abuse embedded within the budget each and every year dwarfs that amount, with no outrage in sight. 38 Studios, then, appears to be a scapegoat — not in the newer sense of an inconsequential person who takes the fall on behalf of more-powerful people, but in the old, Biblical sense of a vessel for the removal of the community’s sins.
Deeper, structural shifts have appeared as cracks in the budgetary plaster of the House, and with Rhode Island’s characteristic bad timing, two things are happening:
- Our government has been moving to the political left. Multiple forces are pushing this shift — fruit born from manipulation of districts and voting rules, the pro-Obama/anti-Bush wave, conservatives’ giving up on the state and emigrating elsewhere, the increasing complexity of modern life leaving little room for civic engagement, and the self-reinforcing imbalance of big, invasive government
- At the same time (and as a consequence) things are falling apart for Rhode Island, requiring what would normally be conservative solutions, like reforming the government pension system and insisting on a dedicated funding stream for infrastructure, rather than piling on more debt every year (i.e., tolls instead of bonds).
Through many cross sections of this mess, 38 Studios sits at the intersection. Big, invasive government cannot deny our languishing economy, but it can insist that insiders be allowed to pick the winners (and the money changers), rather than releasing its grip enough to let Rhode Islanders move the economy forward themselves.
The leaders of Rhode Island’s elected cadre are in an interesting position. They’re being pulled to the left at the same time that the necessary solutions to the state’s problems are becoming more obviously of a rightward tilt. That doesn’t leave very much room at all for questionable deals.
The twenty representatives who ultimately voted against the budget weren’t a budding opposition faction to provide balance to the establishment. They were a collection of conservatives, progressives, and labor union stalwarts. An editorial cartoon might show House Speaker Gordon Fox stretched across a widening chasm, with the liberals and unionists holding his arms (and heartstrings) on one side and the conservatives holding his feet on the other.
Voters should harken to his metaphorical cries of pain and grab ahold of his legs. The progressives’ control of popular culture and big government’s weight are the unstoppable force of a crumbling precipice; the economic and civic values on which the United States were founded are the immovable object that will remain standing, whether or not we’re on it.