October 22, 2011
The Little State With a Big Mess
By MARY WILLIAMS WALSH
ON the night of Sept. 8, Gina M. Raimondo, a financier by trade, rolled up here with news no one wanted to hear: Rhode Island, she declared, was going broke.
Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But if current trends held, Ms. Raimondo warned, the Ocean State would soon look like Athens on the Narragansett: undersized and overextended. Its economy would wither. Jobs would vanish. The state would be hollowed out.
It is not the sort of message you might expect from Ms. Raimondo, a proud daughter of Providence, a successful venture capitalist and, not least, the current general treasurer of Rhode Island. But it is a message worth hearing. The smallest state in the union, it turns out, has a very big debt problem.
After decades of drift, denial and inaction, Rhode Island’s $14.8 billion pension system is in crisis. Ten cents of every state tax dollar now goes to retired public workers. Before long, Ms. Raimondo has been cautioning in whistle-stops here and across the state, that figure will climb perilously toward 20 cents. But the scary thing is that no one really knows. The Providence Journal recently tried to count all the municipal pension plans outside the state system and stopped at 155, conceding that it might have missed some. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission is asking questions, including the big one: Are these numbers for real?
“We’re in the fight of our lives for the future of this state,” Ms. Raimondo said in a recent interview. And if the fight is lost? “Either the pension fund runs out of money or cities go bankrupt.”
All of this might seem small in the scheme of national affairs. After all, this is Little Rhody (population: 1,052,567). But the nightmare scenario is that Ms. Raimondo has seen the future of America, and it is Rhode Island. As Wall Street fixates on the financial disaster in Greece, a fiscal wreck is playing out right here. And the odds are that it won’t be the last. Before this is over, many Americans may be forced to rethink what government means at the state and local level.