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Shared Goals Can Move Rhode Island Forward

The following is a letter from the Smaller Business Association of New England highlighting its plans for the local business community.

 

To change the current business climate in the Ocean State, we need new ideas and practical solutions. To seek these solutions, the Smaller Business Association of New England in Rhode Island (SBANE RI) recently created an Economic Development Committee tasked with strategizing and recommending ways to improve Rhode Island’s economy. For too many years, our members have watched in dismay as Rhode Island’s economy has withered, our tax base has eroded and Rhode Island has grown increasingly inhospitable to business relative to other states. 

We are committed to turning that dynamic around. 

To begin, we need to understand why our state’s economy is faltering compared to most other states. Our group quickly reached a consensus that Rhode Island suffers economically due to the lack of a clear set of shared goals between the public and private sector – and even between different branches of our government. Once we can agree on goals, we can create a common plan for how to fix our economy. Based on our business experience, problems of this magnitude cannot be addressed using an incremental, piecemeal approach. To fix something this big, incremental change just won’t do. We need fundamental, transformative change. 

Defining common goals will be crucial to our success. With that in mind, we believe that the following three goals provide a simple yet powerful rubric to use in the future to assess laws or regulations. If a proposed rule or law moves Rhode Island further away from any of the goals listed below, that rule or law should be abandoned. 

Our three fundamental goals are as follows: 

1) Rhode Island’s unemployment rate should be no higher than the national unemployment rate. We believe a high unemployment rate is a direct indicator of a lack of business competitiveness. 

2) Rhode Island must strive to attain a median ranking when compared against other states in terms of fostering a competitive business environment. If we can reach the midpoint - or better - in these rankings, our geographic and quality of life advantages will allow us to shine on the national stage. 

3) Our public schools should be an asset, not a liability in attracting business. Massachusetts has shown that it is possible to attain significant, measurable public school improvements in a fairly short period of time. Rhode Island needs to re-commit to, and accelerate, our efforts to improve the educational quality and outcomes at all of our public schools and universities. 

In addition to these goals, Rhode Island needs to become a reliable business partner, which is currently not the norm. For example, significant income tax reforms were passed by the General Assembly in 2010. However, during the last two legislative sessions we saw measures introduced, with broad backing among legislators, which would have rolled back these important reforms. One proposal even called for increasing taxes to rates higher than they were prior to the 2010 reforms! This instability and unreliability sends a clear signal to businesses outside Rhode Island to stay away. We will not grow our economy by posting ‘keep out’ signs on our borders. 

Furthermore, economic growth and prosperity is not built on “one off” deals for politically-connected companies. 38 Studios was an extreme example of how desperate Rhode Island has become to attract business to our state. We simply cannot fling money at anyone with good connections and a wisp of a business plan. Rhode Island’s economy will only rebound and prosper when businesses can decide to locate here on the basis of what we offer to all our companies. 

The true measure of our success at turning around Rhode Island’s economy will be measured by a significant decrease in unemployment and a concurrent increase in our state’s gross domestic product. Tangible things that we create on a shop floor, assembly line or artists’ studio will translate directly into a healthier economy and more money to pay for vital social services. Making and selling more services and products to a global marketplace will translate into more local jobs, a healthier housing market and a more robust retail sales industry. 

We are committed to seeing Rhode Island succeed. While our professional lives are dedicated to the health of our own businesses, as a group we recognize the need to carve out the time and energy required to fix what is deeply broken in our state. In the coming months, this group will propose specific regulatory and legislative actions to achieve these goals. We welcome your input at ideas@sbaneri.org. 

Rhode Island should and can be an excellent place to live and do business. It’s time to get to work to make it happen. 

Current members of the SBANE RI Chapter Economic Development Committee include Ken Block, Chair; John Cronin, Vice-Chair; Richard Ferro; Bill McCourt; Phil Papoojian; David Preston; Michael Resnick; Miriam Ross; Brendan Salomon; Dan Shedd; and Marc Verga 

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