Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s current reading material is a book on the voyages of Ferdinand Magellan. He just got to the part where the Portuguese explorer is surrounded by an angry mob in the Philippines.
The new governor can probably relate.
The same week as Chafee marked his 100th day in office, House lawmakers balked at his most ambitious initiative so far — a plan to impose sales taxes on new goods and services. The blunt rejection came after hundreds of business owners came to the Statehouse to blast Chafee’s proposal, the lynchpin of his plan to eliminate the state’s $331 million deficit.
But Chafee, the only sitting independent governor in the nation, is also winning high marks from lawmakers, mayors and political observers for his willingness to tackle long-term financial challenges such as education funding, city finances and highway debt.
The former Republican U.S. senator and mayor of Warwick told The Associated Press he didn’t expect his first few months in office to be easy. His biggest challenge: crafting a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“We knew we wouldn’t have stimulus funds. We’ve already made cuts,” he said. “This is no surprise. Everyone said fiscal year 2012 would be the year we went off the cliff.”
Chafee said that perhaps he erred by not “painting a bleaker picture” of what he inherited when he took office. Unemployment was — and is — in the double digits. Federal stimulus money had helped the state limp through the recession, but the money was quickly running out. State agencies and programs were dealing with previous cuts to their funding.
“There’s not much left to cut,” he said. “We have to invest in the future and tackle these long-term issues.”
Chafee received 36 percent of the vote to win last fall’s four-way gubernatorial race. While that’s hardly a mandate, Chafee said he is surprised to now hear so much opposition to his sales tax plan. After all, he campaigned on the need to raise taxes.
“I’m a little frustrated that the leadership out there in the community, the chambers of commerce, haven’t been more constructive in this crisis,” he said. “It does no good to just pour on the negativity. In fact, it does harm. I can’t have outsiders looking at Rhode Islanders having a temper tantrum over how my tax proposal affects them personally.”
Even some leading critics of the tax proposal said they sympathize with Chafee’s position.
“He’s inherited a very difficult situation,” said Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. The chamber organized a rally to protest Chafee’s tax plan a day before House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, effectively derailed the plan by saying the House would not support it. “I believe it was a sincere proposal, and I believe he truly does want to work with us.”
And while legislative leaders said his tax proposal won’t pass, they gave him credit for addressing the state’s fiscal woes head on.
Not everyone is as generous. Lawmakers from Chafee’s old party condemned the sales tax proposal quickly and loudly. Some said Chafee was oblivious to the recession’s impact on businesses and consumers.
“It’s a stupid move,” Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick said this week. “There’s no other word for it.”
Chafee’s no stranger to going it alone. He was the only GOP member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the Iraq war. He left the party after losing his Senate seat. Now, as an independent, he lacks a built-in partisan base in the public or the General Assembly.
By being an independent, Chafee said he can sit down with both sides and isn’t beholden to either. The downside, he said with a smile, is that as a Republican, “you had a party chair that could do some dirty work for you. I don’t have that.”
He’s making some allies, though. Supporters of gay marriage cheered Chafee for using his inaugural speech to urge lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage. Education leaders thanked him for proposing increases in K-12 and higher education spending.
And many mayors noted Chafee’s sensitivity to the financial crises hitting the state’s cities and towns. In his budget he suggested giving financial assistance to cities that take steps to address rising costs of worker benefits and pensions.
Chafee also directed two senior staffers to assist Providence officials in trying to stabilize the finances of New England’s second-largest city. But Chafee opted not to invoke a law that allows the state to intervene in the city’s financial operations.
“He’s been a very good partner,” said Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who took office the same week as Chafee. “Being a former mayor he understands the challenges facing our cities and towns, and he’s been there to help.”
Chafee made chronic long lines at the Division of Motor Vehicles a priority last month when he tapped a new director to lead the agency. He also offered a plan to wean the state off highway debt by using DMV fees to pay for road projects instead.
Man, list of prioy of those initiatives may fall flat if lawmakers opt for spending cuts over tax expansions. Chafee said his next challenge is ensuring that doesn’t happen.
“I want to invest in the future,” Chafee said. “I want to address some of these problems. Problems we’ve had for years.”