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Little state faces big problems

Rhode Island shouldn't even be a state. It's basically a city, Providence, with some suburbs, factory towns, a little countryside and Newport. The smallest state in area (19 Rhode Islands could fit into California's San Bernardino County), the Ocean State has a population of about 1 million.

While many love Little Rhody for its quirkiness, few would recommend the state as a practical model for the other 49. But Time magazine has done just that, showcasing the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the official name) as an example to the rest -- and, to the shock of locals wholly unused to civic praise, a good example, too. "The Little State That Could" was Time's headline.

Rhode Island was indeed living in a fantasy world of cushy public employee benefits that were not being properly funded. Unto the generations, politicians had cooked up "helpful" numbers rather than confront powerful unions. The 2008 economic meltdown moved the day of reckoning to today. In this, Rhode Island was not unique.

It did have the good fortune to elect as state treasurer a savvy local woman who, as Time put it, "never got the memo about dodging tough issues." Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, led the charge in very serious pension reform that confounded all the usual expectations of failure.

To be honest, Raimondo's success did not entirely emerge out of an unwillingness to dodge tough issues. "To dodge" implies that there's a place to which one can move. Like other states, Rhode Island had reached the dead end of menacing budget numbers. To change the metaphor, the tough issues were snapping at a state balancing on the edge of Newport's Cliff Walk with killer boulders below, then drowning waves, then sharks. Raimondo arrived at an opportune time for -- how shall we put it? -- new thinking.

The memo that Raimondo had fortunately failed to receive was the one about turning public employees into public enemies. Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin apparently got theirs.

It's true that Americans everywhere had lost all sense of humor at teachers' demands that taxpayers fund their retirements starting at age 52, "as we were promised." But said teachers were also taking serious hits in the pension fixes, and there was no need to pile on more hurt. Raimondo never talked to public employees as "the problem," but as fellow victims. She always noted, "This is about math, not politics."

Feeding anti-organized labor passions on the right, some Republicans made the issue about smiting unions, in addition to changing their deal. Not content to merely make public worker benefits more like private sector ones, Kasich tacked an item onto a reform bill that would have curbed a public employee union's ability to collect dues (and therefore exist). In a referendum, Ohio voters rejected the package as too nasty. Ohio is heavily industrialized with union traditions.

Raimondo recognized that Rhode Island is much the same. Clearly, she could do politics, as well as math.

Was Rhode Island "the little state that could"? Perhaps. For certain, it was the little state that had no choice.

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