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Politics as Usual (Opinion): Caruolo an inspired choice by Chafee and one worth watching

February 15, 2011

A good argument can be made that Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s appointment of George Caruolo to be chairman of the Board of Regents for Elementary Education was an inspired choice.
Caruolo is universally respected as being smart and tough-minded, he has shown that he can come up with solutions to tough problems (whether some of those were the best solutions we will discuss a few paragraphs down) and he knows enough about the legislative process and how the Statehouse works to fight his way to the powerful position of House Majority Leader.
If you were looking for someone new to helm the board that sets the direction for education, one of the most central and pressing of issues facing the state right now (as Chafee was), plucking George Caruolo from his private sector obscurity seems like a particularly savvy selection.
Not only does he have the above qualities, but Caruolo also has a passionate interest in education. He told reporters when his appointment was announced that chair of the board of regents was the one and only job that could have coaxed him back to the Statehouse and out of political retirement.
What remains to be seen is how Caruolo views the job as chairman. Right now he is striking all the right humble notes about getting brought up to speed by Commissioner Deborah Gist and learning some of the ropes. But once he gets comfortable in the seat, will he be willing to accommodate alternative or downright opposing opinions, or will he be a power-wielder who lays down the law and cracks the whip?
Chafee is known to set a high value on collaboration, but some of the people I have talked to (and don’t want to be quoted by name) worry that Caruolo is going to interpret collaboration as agreeing with him and doing it his way. That could be completely wrong. Carpers, particularly those who insist on anonymity, deserve to be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, we should keep an eye out for signs that they might be right.
Caruolo has shown he can put forward thoughtful, detailed proposals to deal with a wide array of problems. But his proposals don’t always result in solutions to the problem.
While he is best known for the Caruolo Act that bears his name, probably the most significant work of Caruolo’s career was his measure to deregulate electricity in Rhode Island. It was supposed to empower Rhode Island energy users to shop around for energy suppliers, leveraging the marketplace to get cheap electricity.
But it never really worked out that way.
All but a handful of us still get our electricity through whatever suppliers the carrier, National Grid, uses. And, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, we are paying a freaking fortune for it. Caruolo’s deregulation bill worked out great for National Grid, who got a ton of ratepayer money for the so-called “stranded costs” of selling off its generation facilities, and for a few huge users of electricity who could get suppliers to compete for our business. For the rest of us, it just meant our electricity bills went up.
Then there is the Caruolo Act.
Whenever I think of the Caruolo Act, it reminds me of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. One of the plots of the sprawling Bleak House concerns an ongoing lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, over a hefty estate complicated by numerous wills, that has been dragging on for decades. When all is said and done, one of our heroes finally wins the lawsuit he has been staking his future upon, only to learn immediately that all the value of the estate has been eaten up by the lawyers and other costs and there is nothing left to win.
What happens when school officials in one of Rhode Island’s communities invokes the Caruolo Act? The schools insist they do not have sufficient money to operate. They go to the town or city, which insist they don’t have any more money to give. In a lot of cases, both are right – the schools DON’T have enough to operate and the municipalities DON’T have enough to give them more without tapping already overextended taxpayers.
So what happens?
The school committees spend tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars (from those already overextended taxpayers to drag their own community into court, so the town or city council puts up tens of thousands of not hundreds of thousands of dollars (yup, from those same taxpayers) to defend the suit and they go to court before a judge (supported by state taxpayers) who decides who is right and, perhaps, orders the local taxpayers to pony up more cash for the schools.
Who wins: The students in the schools? Nope. The taxpayers? Certainly not. The lawyers? Yeah, they are pretty much the only winners.
To be fair to Caruolo, he points out that before the law bearing his name went into effect, the same disputes were brought before the commissioner of education, and the school department looking for more money almost always won. (Plenty of lawyers were lucratively involved in that process as well.)
But as the solution to the school funding problem, the Caruolo Act has been just as unsuccessful as the deregulation law was in bringing us cheaper electricity.
We should wish Caruolo all the best as he chairs the state’s education policy-making board, but we should keep an eye out, too.

No bad idea ever really dies at the Statehouse and another is popping its head up for attention once again.
Johnston Rep. Stephen Ucci has proposed a constitutional amendment to have the governor and lieutenant governor run as, and be elected as, a team – one vote to fill the two positions.
I haven’t agreed with Cool Moose candidate Robert Healey’s crusade to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor. It is not a bad idea to have a constitutional officer without portfolio who can choose areas of state government that are being overlooked or perhaps not done well, and turn his or her attention to that, someone who has been specifically chosen by the voters to succeed the governor if, for whatever reason, he or she doesn’t finish out a term.
But if abolishing the office is not necessarily a good idea, merging it with the governorship is a really bad one.
The governor already has a staff, why does he need a separate constitutional officer to say “me, too” to whatever he proposes? It is far better to have a lieutenant governor with a bully pulpit of her own who can provide a check and balance to the governor instead of a sycophantic ticket mate to curry favor in an effort to keep the position of next-in-line. If a Democrat were someday to be elected governor, with the seemingly solid Democratic General Assembly, might it not be a good idea to have a Republican lieutenant governor to blow the whistle if things got too politically cozy?
A governor-lieutenant governor ticket might be one thing if we were living in a Republican and Democrat world, but as Lincoln Chafee, and to a less-successful extent, Ken Block, showed us last year there is more to politics than donkeys and elephants.
Chafee ran as an Independent to be independent. Why force him to saddle himself with a running mate who might, at least in the minds of voters, compromise that independence. Could the Reform Party be forced to put up a candidate for lieutenant governor if it didn’t want to? And of not, what would happen if the Reform Party candidate for governor got elected without a running mate?
Chafee and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts have shown the way to have cooperation among the one and two spots without binding them together politically. Chafee, through an executive order, has put Roberts in charge of the state’s healthcare reform effort. He is making use of her obvious and considerable talents, rather than ignoring her for political reasons as his predecessor did. Chafee, and Rhode Islanders, are going to be better off for that.
Yes, we will have to see how this pans out once the term-limited Roberts has to think seriously about launching her Democratic campaign to challenge Chafee’s re-election, but if it does work out, it could be a beautiful thing.
We are about to see if a template for a governor and lieutenant governor who don’t share a party affiliation can work. Now is not the time to demand a yes-man.

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