The liberal critique of the Chafee budget

Rhode Island's commentariat has given Governor Chafee relatively high marks for his budget proposal.

The praise has focused, most of all, on the budget's political virtues. After a doomed attempt to broaden the state's sales tax in the early portion of his term - raising the hackles of the business community and many legislators - this was a fiscal blueprint that received a relatively warm reception in the halls of power.

But this was not just a budget well suited to move through the legislature. Its a little-for-everyone approach - a cut in the corporate tax rate for conservatives, a bump in higher education funding for the liberal-minded - has also muted ideological concerns.

Still, in the last week or so, a liberal critique of his spending plan has emerged - if a bit below the radar. Homeless advocates have criticized the governor for not going far enough to rein in a growing problem. And over at liberal blog, Samuel Bell, coordinator of the Rhode Island chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, offers a broader critique.

Bell says Chafee's analysis of the state's problems - a failure to properly fund higher education, for instance, or tend to the state's crumbling infrastructure - is essentially correct. But "after accurately laying out the multitude of problems facing our state," he writes, "the governor proposes to do nearly nothing."

Bell argues that Chafee's investments in his priority areas are not enough to move the needle. The $6 million boost he'd provide to the state's public colleges, for instance, must be matched by $6 million in campus cuts under the governor's proposal. That could mean job reductions in a down economy.

There are, of course, significant fiscal restraints on the governor. Big, bold investments - the sort of stimulus liberals would like to see - are tough to pay for in Rhode Island, circa 2013. But Bell argues the state could pay for them if Smith Hill reversed tax cuts for the wealthy dating back to 2006 and before.

Will this critique have any impact? Probably not. The odds of the General Assembly rolling back tax cuts in a still-struggling economy are slim to none. But Bell makes an interesting argument.

And when I chatted with him this morning, he added a bit of political analysis: Chafee's budget - fiscally conservative, but peppered with small investments - provides him with some flexibility heading into the 2014 gubernatorial race.

He could run to the right of possible challenger Angel Taveras, the progressive mayor of Providence, or to the left of Gina Raimondo, the more centrist treasurer.

Of course, it seems unlikely that Chafee was thinking this way when he put together his budget; for better and for worse, he isn't overly concerned with how his governing might affect his political prospects. And in the end, his budget may be too down-the-middle to distinguish him much on either side of the political ledger.

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