File this one under unsolved mysteries. A strange and ongoing phenomenon has been detected in a New England state in which a media outlet takes delight in attacking its neighbor to the west. No one really knows what to make of it, but one thing is certain: Like Soviet belligerence during the Cold War, it must be challenged, lest we invite future aggression.
For unexplained reasons, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s premier newspaper, has taken to using valuable space on its editorial page to revel in Connecticut’s economic agony. It is puzzling when you consider that over the years the Ocean State has hardly been an exemplar of growth or fiscal responsibility.
For the second time in less than three years, the Journal’s editorial board came after us — this time in a polemic headlined, “Cautionary Tale From Connecticut.” And if the preachy tone isn’t enough to make your eyes roll, the piece was based largely on a Wall Street Journal column by Bob Stefanowski, which was headlined, “Connecticut’s Blue Politicians Spill an Ocean of Red Ink.”
It’s hard to know why the ProJo, as it’s known in the trade, used as a reference a column written by one of the biggest snake-oil salesmen Connecticut has seen since Joe Lieberman. Let us state up front that at least some of what Stefanowski says is true. Yes, the state has some big problems related to unfunded liabilities, excessive debt, infrastructure, and a business climate that could charitably be described as aloof. And there is an overreliance on tax increases to address fiscal problems.
But there is the matter of Stefanowski’s credibility in general. If the Journal actually knew more about Connecticut, the editorial writers would have done their own research and not relied on Stefanowski who, as the Republican nominee for governor last year, paraded around the state insisting the income tax, which accounts for almost half the state’s revenue, could be phased out and that he could essentially find $1 billion in savings with the stroke of a pen. It’s a hollow message that offered little more than tax cuts and empty promises.
This from a candidate who had never held public office and had barely bothered to vote in his preceding 16 years as a businessman. Stefanowski’s column, and much of what he has said and done since his defeat at the hands of Ned Lamont, came across as sour grapes — or worse yet, vengeful posturing in advance of an election that’s well more than three years away. Fortunately, Stefanowski no longer has to beg for money, but regrettably, he has promised not to “go away.”
Be that as it may, the Journal thunders that Connecticut is “a sea of dysfunction” whose “central mistake was making wild promises to its public workforce.” Well, so did Rhode Island until its governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, took meaningful steps to reform the public employee pension system. What the editorial fails to point out is that state employee retirement benefits are defined by statute in Rhode Island, while Connecticut is one of only four states that award them as a matter of collective bargaining. The former is a much easier problem to solve. So it’s worth pointing out that Connecticut’s predicament isn’t the fault of those currently in office. Lawmakers in Rhode Island can simply change the law. Their colleagues in Connecticut would very likely have to take the unions to court — a messy process that could prompt work stoppages and drag on for years.
Those who were paying attention in 2016 might recall another ProJo editorial, “Failing In Connecticut,” that again urged our state to take action on pensions without acknowledging the disparity in the degree of difficulty in accomplishing that reform. And only last year, Raimondo stated publicly that Connecticut had “blossoming debt as far as you can see.”
As it did last year and three years ago, the Hartford Courant punched back, noting in a fact-laden retort that Connecticut “outranks Rhode Island in education, health care, crime, and infrastructure.”
So what accounts for the acrimony? We’re talking about two small New England states that have much in common. Heck, as the ProJo itself has reported, Raimondo has even borrowed former Gov. Dan Malloy’s habit of bribing businesses to relocate to her state.
I’m guessing the two states never recovered from a border dispute in the 17th century when Stonington and Westerly, R.I., came to blows over conflicting colonial charters. Or in 2004 when, after new border surveys were conducted, Killingly and North Stonington tried to tax property that had been considered part of Hopkinton, R.I., for centuries.
If Rhode Island doesn’t declare a ceasefire, I think this thing could get out of control. After all, I hear Little Rhody’s economy has a few problems of its own …
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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