Tiverton residents are being treated to an old, familiar trick. The local government had the unique experience of adding millions of dollars in prospective annual revenue from the new Twin River casino in town, and that helped the big-spending faction in town win a couple of budgets at our annual referendum. Spending went up.
Then the state government closed the casino for a few months and reneged on its promise to provide the town with a minimum of $3 million. Now the spenders are blaming the local taxpayers group, the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, for not stopping them from building the money into the operating budget.
I explain on Tiverton Fact Check:
For the 2018-2019 budget, Mike DeCotis (now running for School Committee) and David Paull (now running for Town Council) voted as members of the Budget Committee to include casino revenue in the budget. The budget petition I put in that year did, too, but it spent less overall. Theirs won.
For the 2019-2020 budget, a petition from Sanford Mantell added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s operating budget, including to the schools and to the library (whose budgets the law makes difficult to reduce once they’re increased). Mantell also decreased one-time capital expenditures from what the Budget Committee suggested, moving that money (again) to the operating budget.
That makes him the king of building casino money into the budget, and he was backed by Council Members Patricia Hilton and Denise DeMedeiros as well as the School Committee, who actually sent their lawyer to Town Hall to give Mantell free legal backing when errors in his petition threatened to keep it off the ballot. It got on, and it won. TTA didn’t agree with it, but that’s what the voters wanted.
In fairness, though, I don’t actually agree with the new common wisdom of those very same people that casino revenue should be locked up in a restricted account. Local government accounting gets weird, because the fundamental question isn’t what is correct or right, but what can be sold to the public in competition with other people who have different ideas. Thus, in representative democracies, decisions come to be made on what sounds good or rules of thumb. Often those are valuable, but the don’t do well with unique situations.
As a basic fact, new revenue can only go to new spending or reduced taxes. When there is a direct link between a particular stream of revenue and a particular set of costs, restricted funds make sense. In general, however, unless the government is going to spend the money on things that aren’t needed, restricting new revenue to a particular part of the budget doesn’t protect taxpayers against the possibility that the money will go away. It protects that part of the budget against shortfalls in other revenue. My TFC post gives some explanation of that, as well.
Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?