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In the four-way Democratic primary for Providence mayor, state Rep. Steven Costantino has portrayed what some consider a liability -- his years in the General Assembly -- as a strength that separates him from the rest of the pack.
His latest TV commercials cite his experience, saying "he’s the only candidate who’s balanced budgets and brought jobs to Providence."
We’ll take the claims one at a time, starting with the budget balancing.
As chairman of the House Finance Committee, a position he’s held for seven years, Costantino is considered the legislature’s chief budget writer.
The Rhode Island Constitution requires state budgets to be balanced. And on paper, when the governor presents his budget to the General Assembly and when the Assembly gives final approval to its revised version, they are.
But critics have long complained that Rhode Island's budgets are never really balanced. Too often, they're predicated on spending plans that aren't followed, or on overly optimistic assumptions that federal funding will increase or gambling revenues will grow. Almost every year, the Assembly must pass mid-year "supplemental" budgets to plug the holes. Then the debate continues as to whether they were ever balanced in the first place.
Costantino defends the budgets he’s crafted as House Finance chairman, saying they are accurate at the time they are written.
"Every budget in the world is an assumption," he said. "At the time we pass them, they are balanced." Yet the finance chairman is also realistic that tax-and-spend plans don’t tend to stay that way for long. They are moving targets.
Technically, he’s right about all of that. But is Costantino the only candidate who has experience balancing budgets?
Three of his opponents-- Democrats Angel Taveras and Christopher Young and independent Jonathan Scott -- have never held elected office, so none of them has been in a position to balance a budget.
Democrat John Lombardi is another story. For 26 years, Lombardi has served on the City Council, including seven years as president. He also filled in briefly as mayor after Vincent A "Buddy" Cianci resigned in 2002.
We asked Lombardi about his experience with the city’s budget, which, like the state’s plan, must be balanced each year. As council president, Lombardi said he oversaw the council’s roughly $1-million budget. Each year, he also voted on the $600-million plus tax-and-spend plan (sometimes in favor, sometimes against). In addition, he sent us several examples of letters he wrote to the Council Finance chairmen recommending ways to trim city expenses.
The Costantino campaign dismisses Lombardi’s budget experience: "There’s a very clear difference between the person who sits at the table, rolls up his sleeves and manages a budget than the person on the City Council who simply has to take a vote," a spokeswoman said.
Yet the fact remains that, with 26 years experience, Lombardi played at least some role, however small, in assembling spending plans.
It’s fair for Costantino to say he balanced budgets. But his claim that he’s the only candidate who has done so is not entirely accurate.
Now on to the second claim, that he’s the only candidate who brought jobs to Providence.
Costantino sponsored and pushed for passage of legislation this year that allowed the Industrial Recreational Building Authority, an arm of the state's Economic Development Corporation, to guarantee up to $60 million in bank loans to help free up credit that small businesses need to hire new employees. The first $6.7-million guarantee went to Providence’s CAPCO Steel, which is currently using the money to hire 100 workers, his campaign said.
The Costantino camp provided other examples -- his roles in the Assembly’s decision to purchase and renovate the Dunkin’ Donuts Center -- and in legislation that helped rehabilitate the derelict Masonic Temple into a luxury hotel, to name a few.
Therefore, it’s accurate to say Costantino has helped bring jobs to the city.
Is he the only candidate who did that? Again, Taveras, Young and Scott were not in a position to do so. But Lombardi cited several examples of how he helped bring jobs to Providence. He said he voted in favor of the tax benefits that lured the GTECH headquarters to the capital city. He also supported a variety of ordinances needed for development of the Rhode Island Convention Center. Finally, he told us he added a handful of jobs to the Providence City Council office.
Costantino is correct about his own record in crafting budgets and bringing jobs to Providence, but he gets it slightly wrong when he says he’s the only candidate who did so. We’re calling his statement Mostly True.
Steven Costantino Television commercial, also featured on his website, accessed Sept 1, 2010
Providence Journal articles regarding City of Providence budget votes and job creation, 1990-2010
Providence Journal, "Business loan bill passes R.I. House," Feb. 26, 2010
Interview, Steven Costantino, Sept. 7, 2010
Interviews, Costantino campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Bramley, Sept. 7-8, 2010
Interview, John Lombardi, Sept. 9, 2010
Interviews and email, John Lombardi campaign spokespersons Doug Jeffrey and Julie Loffredi, September 2-7, 2010
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