Monday, August 2, 2010

Feeling Massachusetts

Lately Rhode Island headlines have been dominated by stories about rich guys from Massachusetts playing ball with Little Rhody while pushing Taxachusetts to the sidelines. And Bay Staters are not happy about it.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who owns homes in Boston and Nantucket, decided to base his $7-million yacht, Isabel, in Rhode Island. By doing so, Kerry would be spared a one-time sales tax of $437,500 in addition to about $70,000 in annual excise taxes. After island-hopping between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard since the Fourth of July weekend, Kerry recently placed his 76-foot sloop in a Portsmouth shipyard, where it is undergoing routine maintenance. In Rich Guy Land, this is what’s known as good business, since what Kerry is doing is perfectly legal. But in an age when states are struggling to stay solvent, it’s also the kind of thing that reminds everyone how ridiculously lopsided the rules in Rich Guy Land can be. Being an experienced sailor, Kerry recognized the ill political winds blowing broadside and quickly tacked, informing the Massachusetts Department of Revenue last week that he had every intention of paying taxes to the home port – even if the vessel isn’t docked there.

Even more controversial was the R.I. Economic Development Corporation’s decision to guarantee a $75 million loan to former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s video-game firm, 38 Studios. By procuring the loan from Rhody taxpayers, Schilling can proceed with plans to move his studio from a Maynard, Mass. mill complex to somewhere comparable in Rhode Island. As Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr noted in a piece last Wednesday:

The $75 million is 60 percent of the guaranteed loans that the state can grant for high-tech and knowledge-based companies under a law passed in June.

So that’s 60 percent for a video game shrouded in secrecy that may or may not have the breadth and scope of Pong – and 40 percent for anyone else out there that might have a good idea. As someone who hasn’t played a video game since a brief college flirtation with Joust and a strange, mid-1980s obsession with the Arkanoid machine at Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale, I’m not qualified to judge the potential of video-game development to the Rhode Island economy.

The bigger question for Rhode Island is why are we suddenly dueling with Massachusetts over yachts and video games? Sure, we’ve had our differences before. In 1658, some Pawtuxet residents got so fed up with the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations that they pledged their allegiance to Massachusetts (only to change their minds four years later when presumably they realized they’d have to pay Bay Colony taxes on their horses). In 1746, King George settled a dispute between the two states by giving Rhode Island “the Attleborough Gore,” making up most of what is now known as the East Bay. Despite these flare-ups, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have generally co-existed as big brother and little brother in the New England statehood. Certainly the relationship is nowhere near as contentious as the one between Rhody and Connecticut. The next time we make it through a generation without some Nutmegger getting the itch to dispute our border and claim our beaches will be the first.

And yet, given the recently frosty climate between Bay and Ocean States, I guess the question needs to be asked: What would be worth stealing from Massachusetts?