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Montanaro Pay-Back Shouldn’t Close the Books

Ted Nesi and Tim White report that General Assembly employee Frank Montanaro, Jr., has decided to reimburse the state for the value of the tuition that his children received through a questionable benefit based on his prior employment with Rhode Island College:

“After consultation with my family and Speaker Mattiello, I believe the best thing to do is return the monetary equivalent of the tuition benefit my children received after I transitioned to my new role at the General Assembly,” Montanaro said. “I will be contacting Rhode Island College tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements.”

The first reaction of workaday Rhode Islanders may be to observe that the state seems to give insider benefits to people who don’t really need them.  If, as Montanaro says a consulting labor attorney told him, everything was on the up-and-up with this benefit, that’s an awful lot of money to give up to end a media “distraction.”  Either he’s even richer than his high salary might suggest or there’s even greater incentive we don’t know about for him to make the issue go away.

In that regard, enough information is already public to suggest that the state should investigate this matter.  Montanaro repeatedly checked a box providing incorrect information to the University of Rhode Island, and the surrounding circumstances make it seem unlikely he did so by accident.  That’s not something that people outside of the political elite in Rhode Island would get away with.

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Not Just Spending, but That Upon Which It Is Spent

Reading about Illinois’s budget problems a little earlier today, an association nagged at the corner of my mind, and I remembered something from Table 5 of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) report comparing the states.  Specifically, in fiscal year 2015, Illinois was near the top of the list when it came to the percentage of its budget spent on “other” expenditures — that is, things other than elementary & secondary education, higher education, public assistance, Medicaid, corrections, and transportation.

The states higher than Illinois seem generally to have unique circumstances (Wyoming, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii), and with 43.7% of the budget going to “other” expenditures, Illinois is way up there.  What’s apt to catch a Rhode Islander’s attention is that our state is only two ranks behind Illinois (after Nevada), with 42.1%.

That, if you’re wondering, is the highest in New England.  The percentages across New England are interesting, particularly in the degree to which they scuttle some clichés.

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Two conspicuous myth busters are Massachusetts’s relatively low spending on education and Rhode Island’s relatively high spending on higher education.  Also conspicuous is Rhode Island’s low spending on transportation.

Overall, though, notice that, with the exception of higher education, Rhode Island is typically in the bottom tier for all categories, to the benefit of “other.”

What is this “other”?  And why do we need so much of it?

Of course, we need to keep in mind that these percentages might be a little misleading, inasmuch as the amount of total spending will make a big difference.  Nonetheless, the results are interesting.

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The Bubble Begets Tone-Deafness on Eternal Contracts

So, the teachers unions’ annual attempt to give themselves even more leverage in negotiations by making their contracts eternal is back in the mix.  The lobbying by union employees and donations to politicians are ultimately taxpayer funded, so this bill probably won’t go away until it passes someday.

What’s notable, this time around, is that the bill accompanies a labor dispute in Warwick, leading to this telling point from Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh:

Netcoh said the bill “levels the playing field between employers and employees.”

Referring to [Warwick Schools Supt. Philip] Thornton, she added: “Would he go to work every day if he didn’t have a contract? I don’t think so.”

One wonders how it could have escaped Netcoh’s attention that plenty of Rhode Islanders go to work every day without contracts.  See, it’s called “a mutually beneficial transaction.”  The employer has work that has to be done, and the employee has a need to earn income.  If a contract makes sense in a particular circumstance, then the parties draw one up and abide by it; otherwise, the contract is essentially a casual, even verbal, agreement to do work and to pay for work that’s done.

In government, though, it’s not about that mutually beneficial transaction, in part because nobody’s spending their own money.  Contracts for government employees are fundamentally agreements about how much one party will take from taxpayers and transfer to the other party, and so they’ve become a mechanism for labor unions to get politicians to lock taxpayers into expenses.

This eternal contract legislation is about ensuring that taxpayers are locked in to the promises of elected officials (often elected with the help of the employees) to an even greater degree.

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About that Tuition Waiver While on Leave…

WPRI’s Ted Nesi and Tim White have kept on the story of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s three-year job-holding leave from Rhode Island College and the $50,000 benefit of free tuition he claimed through it, and this is starting to look like more than merely an ill-advised contractual benefit for employees.  Apparently, he took up the habit of filling out forms at the University of Rhode Island asserting that he was not on leave:

Asked why he stated he was not on leave during a time when he was in fact on leave, Montanaro said in an email: “As you can see all waivers were reviewed and approved by RIC. If there was a mistake they would have had me correct it before approval.” He also said a RIC staff member assisted him in filling out the forms.

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis refused to say why the college allowed Montanaro to avoid disclosing his leave of absence on the form forwarded to URI, but told Target 12: “In this case, there was an existing agreement that enabled the authorization of a tuition waiver.” (RIC and Montanaro declined to provide a copy of that agreement.)

Seems to me there are three possibilities:

  1. The “benefit” was simply a special crony handout offered to a government insider.
  2. A six-figure employee of the General Assembly made a habit of submitting fraudulent forms to secure a valuable benefit.
  3. That six-figure employee was so inept or careless at filling out forms as to be of disqualifying competence for his high-paying job.

At the end of the article, Republican state senator from Coventry Nick Kettle suggests that Montanaro “should pay [the tuition] back or resign.”  How about both?  And maybe face prosecution, as well, along with anybody at Rhode Island College who facilitated any fraud?

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The Labor Union Takes Credit for High-Performing Schools

While we’re on the topic of public education, a different angle caught my attention in the ongoing matter of East Greenwich budgeting.  Readers may have heard something about the fiscal changes and personnel turnover under a largely Republican town council, actually reducing spending and holding the school side of the budget flat.

What jumped out at me as worthy of commentary (beyond “rah, rah, go Team Reform”) is this reaction from National Education Association of Rhode Island union poobah Bob Walsh:

“They level funded the schools, with Corrigan saying her firm would do administrative functions,” said Walsh. “The Chair stopped taking testimony and approved the budget — and now the school committee has to figure out how to implement some of the cuts. This is after it took us a year to get the contract.”

“I’m really surprised by the whole thing — our best performing communities are Barrington and East Greenwich,” said Walsh. “And East Greenwich has not been as generous in funding, whereas the Barrington parents usually step up.”

That’s a strange statement to make, considering that East Greenwich spends almost $1,000 more per student than Barrington.

More to the point, though, what is this “our best performing communities” stuff?  When it comes to arguments about higher per-student costs and lower performance in other cities or towns, the Bob Walshes will run to the microphone to argue that the biggest contributor to success is demographic, the teachers or districts, thus denying the link between spending and results.  They make the same argument with charter schools.

And yet, when one of those towns with supposedly high-performing demographics reins in its budget growth, suddenly the union organizers want us to believe they deserve the credit for results?

It has never made sense for one part of town government to have the authority to allow the teachers union to “get the contract” while only the other part of town government is authorized to raise the money to pay for it.  Maybe it’s time to start removing some of the layers that confuse the question of who can say “our communities.”

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Expanded Disability Pensions Will Be Boon for Investigative Journalists

The bright side, if the bills that Ted Nesi summarizes for WPRI were to pass into law, would be a boom in gotcha-journalism stories about questionable disability pensions:

The first bill, sponsored by Providence Rep. Joe Almeida, would allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury,” the current wording – to be cause for the granting of a tax-free accidental disability pension to a police officer or firefighter. It would also increase how long officers have to file a disability claim from 18 months after the incident to 36 months. …

The second bill, sponsored by North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven, would mandate that any firefighter who suffers from hypertension, stroke or heart disease will be “presumed to have suffered an in-the-line-of-duty disability” and therefore be eligible for a disability pension, unless there was evidence of the condition in his or her entrance exam.

When first published, Nesi’s story noted that the bills had been posted for votes, implying passage, but after his story went live, they were removed:

“They were posted prematurely,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in an email. “Both bills were on a preliminary list for possible posting and then were posted in error. Those two bills are still being reviewed.”

Even if it ends there, this episode is a good reminder that special interests (ultimately funded with taxpayer dollars) are constantly working the system to expand benefits for government union members at the public expense.  They work to elect friendly officials to local office for generous contracts, and they work to elect friendly legislators to write generous benefits into the law.

Something dramatic and structural has to happen to change this, because our system has no countervailing forces short of bankruptcy that will withstand the year after year after year push.  The embarrassment of hidden camera stories about retirees abusing their benefits will only go so far in restraining ever-more-unsustainable benefits from being bestowed.

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Lord Stephen Archambault Threatens Peasant Terry Gorman

Earlier today, Tara Granahan tweeted criticism of behavior by Democrat Senator Stephen Archambault (Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) during the June 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Judiciary concerning drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.  Here’s the moment in question:

Out-of-state guests with whom the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has interacted when they’ve come to our state to testify on legislation have commented about the terrible behavior of legislators, with very similar circumstances to those to which Gorman objected.  The legislators — clearly treating hearings as a way to go through the motions and let people believe we still have a representative democracy — lapse into joking around with each other.  Even if they aren’t laughing at the people offering testimony, the signal of disrespect is huge.

The shocking part of this video, though, is Archambault’s chastising Gorman as if the senator is some sort of feudal lord putting a peasant in his place.  Archambault insists that “whatever I’m saying back here is my business.”  Well, no, Lord Steve.  You’re “back there” as a representative of Rhode Islanders in your district.  Gorman isn’t coming into your space under your good-hearted sufferance.  You’re privileged to be there on behalf of others.

But Senator Archambault pushes folly to offense when he repeatedly insists, “Don’t ever do that again.  Ever.”  Or what?

If we didn’t live in such a corrupt, one-party state, the committee chairwoman, Democrat Erin Lynch Prata (Warwick, Cranston) would have insisted that Archambault stand down and apologized to Mr. Gorman.  But we do live in such a state, which means we must constantly be reminded that they don’t work for us; we work for them.  We don’t bestow privileges upon them; they bestow them upon us.

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An Escalation of Violence

Many of us on the right have had the general sense that progressives have turned the violence meter up a bit in the past year or two, but the list of incidents that Dave Brooks and Benjamin Decatur compiled for the Daily Caller is still disconcerting — not the least because it is clearly an incomplete first pass:

In creating the list, TheDCNF reviewed numerous articles detailing attacks and violent threats against conservatives and Trump supporters. While there are examples of anonymous threats, TheDCNF chose to include only those that resulted in the cancelling of events and two to members of Congress deemed credible. Some instances of violence between rival protestors were not included as it was difficult to ascertain who initiated the event.

I’d be willing to entertain the notion that there is a comparable list for the other side, consisting of stories that haven’t been as well covered within my ordinary media diet, but just as my sense is that this one seems incomplete, I’d expect a comparable mirror-image list to be shorter and to smuggle in items of arguable relevance.

Whatever the case, let’s hope recent events lead those shocked by President Trump’s election to engage in some lasting self-reflection, rather than a brief pause in the overheated rhetoric.  Inasmuch as the Left’s rage at seeing its political power slip will continue, I expect we’ll see only a limited calming for a few news cycles.

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Charity, Corruption, and Government

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking, recently, about the moral calculations around government’s involvement in charity, whether through welfare programs or grants to private charitable organizations.

My view is that charity isn’t government’s business.  When a person gives of his or her own wealth for charitable reasons, he or she has made a moral decision, and the recipient has some degree of accountability to the giver and an imperative to try to become a giver rather than a recipient.  When government agents give, it is of other people’s wealth, meaning that it is a confiscation, which creates moral complications for those directing the funds, and it creates a sense of entitlement and dependency in the recipient.

That said, I think other arguments can be made for some government expenditures other than the charitable, and moreover, I wouldn’t find it specious for somebody to make an argument for a “good society’s” use of government for charity.  I don’t think I’d find such an argument persuasive, but it can be made sincerely.

In response, I might offer something like Pope Francis’s thoughts on corruption:

Corruption, Francis wrote, in its Italian etymological root, means “a tear, break, decomposition, and disintegration.”

The life of a human being can be understood in the context of his many relationships: with God, with his neighbor, with creation, the Pope said.

“This threefold relationship – in which man’s self-reflection also falls – gives context and sense to his actions and, in general, to his life,” but these are destroyed by corruption.

Nobody can doubt that empowering people to take money from one group to give it to another creates the potential for corruption, not the least in that it interferes with appropriate relationships to each other and God.  In this context, when the pope writes that “we must all work together, Christians, non-Christians, people of all faiths and non-believers, to combat this form of blasphemy, this cancer that weighs our lives,” one could see it in part as an exhortation toward personal charity.  The more need we can relieve through voluntary action, the less pressure there will be for the corruption of charity through government.

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The Transformation of Vermont

Take it as a warning or as an illustration of opportunity, but Rick Holmes’s history, in the Fall River Herald, of Vermont’s political transformation is a worthwhile read.

Basically, the interstate highway system brought “flatlanders” to the state for foliage viewing, skiing, and indulgence in a hippy aesthetic.  By the time the indigenous conservatives tried to push back, it was too late:

“The hippies won,” says John Gregg, a Vermont journalist whose office is a short walk from the Connecticut River. In a small enough place, the influx of new citizens, even in modest numbers, can change a state’s political trajectory.

Rhode Island is different, of course.  Our population is a bit bigger, and the particular flavor of progressivism isn’t hippy socialism as much as insider socialism.  An historically different flavor of immigration brought with it a little more cultural conservatism and a little bit less libertarianism.  Moreover, the “influx of new citizens” affecting Rhode Island isn’t the migration of relatively privileged progressives, but rather the deliberately lured clients for the company state/government plantation.

These differences bring with them unique challenges, but in both places it’s too late for an ordinary political campaign to change things.  Instead, we have to change the local culture, which is no easy task when the people who see the right way forward tend just to leave.

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Patinkin Acknowledges the Problem

As I find myself awash in budget and employment numbers, a quick midday post can be well utilized to offer kudos to Providence Journal Mark Patinkin for exhorting his fellow leftists to reevaluate their rhetoric in the wake of the GOP-baseball shooting:

The left has long charged that such reckless words by Trump add to a toxic political culture.

What they seldom acknowledge is that the Democratic leadership has been no better.

A basket of deplorables, Hillary called Trump supporters, and went on to label them this way: “Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.”

It’s no stretch to say such seeds can help make a twisted mind feel justified in going after Republicans with a gun. …

Now that Trump’s president, I’ve also noticed how the left doesn’t just call his policies wrong-headed — they catastrophize them.

His health-care plan? People will die. Environmental and social-policy cutbacks? Those will kill people, too. And the cries for impeachment have been constant — not just from lefty nuts, but the nightly talking heads on MSNBC.

In discussion, I’d offer some tweaks.  It’s certainly conspicuous, for example, that Patinkin doesn’t call out Rhode Island’s own vitriolic Congressional delegates.

I’m also mystified as to how it could possibly have taken until this shooting for Patinkin to realize that the Left has “violent zealots.”  Umm… the Weather Underground?  Eco-terrorists?  Among the recent campus attacks on conservatives (which he mentions broadly) was an ethics professor who hit three Trump supporters in the head with a bicycle lock.

From where I sit, this week’s shooting shouldn’t be a revelation of left-wing violence, because it’s the predictable escalation of longstanding tendencies among people who share the progressive political ideology in response to political weakness.  This isn’t just observation, but reason.  Progressives deify government as the bringer of “progress” and “social justice,” which means conservatives are actively preventing the world from harmonizing.

These points aside, Patinkin is going farther in acknowledging the current reality than anybody else I’ve seen on Rhode Island’s left or in its mainstream, and that’s to be applauded.

(By the way, MSNBC talking heads are clearly lefty nuts.)

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Legislation “Mutually Acceptable” to Whom?

I’ve long objected to the Rhode Island General Assembly’s seeing itself as a sort of corporate board for the lives of all Rhode Islanders.  In a related way, I’ve argued that groups like chambers of commerce are no longer acting as advocacy groups for the interests of private people or organizations, but rather are satellites of government that maintain their relevance to the extent that they can act as government’s liaisons to businesses.

Something in Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article about legislation to forbid all Rhode Island businesses from automatically reducing employee pay for just about any reason — from in-company fines to compensation for broken merchandise — sets off alarm bells.  The legislation is objectionable enough; it isn’t government’s role to set narrow, specific terms under which people can interact for business purposes.  (Labor unions back the bill, naturally, because it makes it harder for non-union organizations to compete.)

But meddling in Rhode Islanders’ lives is simply par for the course for our politicians.  This is the part that really caught my attention:

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s state Department of Labor and Training supports the bill and worked to find language acceptable to workers, the Rhode Island Hospital Association and Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, according to a letter from DLT Assistant Director Matthew Weldon.

Weldon said the current bill language, tweaked from prior year versions, was “mutually acceptable and delivers what we believe to be a clear and enforceable amendment.”

“Mutually acceptable” to whom?  Are we now to behave as if the Rhode Island Hospital Association and Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce are satisfactory stand-ins for every business in the state?  And are we supposed to believe that the fact that nobody showed up to testify for the legislation proves that there’s no opposition?  Think of the implications of that.  

Taxes and regulations already make Rhode Island a difficult place in which to operate a company or make a living (unless you’re tied in with government, somehow).  Does every business owner, of companies large and small, have to devote resources to constant vigilance and influence-buying lest our supposed political representatives “negotiate” their rights away?

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What the Culture Cares About

Here’s an interesting cultural snapshot, with Dan McGowan reporting for WPRI on an arrest in Providence.

According to the article, a middle-aged man was driving alongside two boys on bikes and disturbed them enough that they reported him to the police.  After a search, the cops found a couple of street-fighting weapons.

What makes the story interesting is that the headline mentions only that the guy “yelled [a] racial slur at [a] Providence cop.”  Why is that the news?

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but it raises questions about the purpose of journalism.  Objectively, one would think that the core benefit of reporting this incident would be to alert residents to potential threats in their neighborhoods — including, broadly, a general sense of how safe they are, particularly for children.

What’s the news value of a guy under the duress of being arrested lashing out at a cop with a racial slur?  Is it to give people the sense that racism still pervades our society?  If that were true, though, it seems to me that a single example wouldn’t be a story, because racial slurs would be so common.  (One wonders, by the by, how often white cops are called names by those whom they’ve arrested.)

Or maybe the news value is just that our society (or at least a certain segment thereof) is obsessed with seeking out signs of racism for promotion with the paradoxical stated goal of erasing it entirely.

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In Large Part, the Deep State Self Dug

Glenn Reynolds’s weekly USA Today column for this week is worth some consideration:

[Columbia Law Professor Philip] Hamburger explains that the prerogative powers once exercised by English kings, until they were circumscribed after a resulting civil war, have now been reinvented and lodged in administrative agencies, even though the United States Constitution was drafted specifically to prevent just such abuses. But today, the laws that actually affect people and businesses are seldom written by Congress; instead they are created by administrative agencies through a process of “informal rulemaking,” a process whose chief virtue is that it’s easy for the rulers to engage in, and hard for the ruled to observe or influence. Non-judicial administrative courts decide cases, and impose penalties, without a jury or an actual judge. And the protections in the Constitution and Bill of Rights (like the requirement for a judge-issued search warrant before a search) are often inapplicable.

At some point, “consent of the governed” becomes more like a veneer that gives the governing class license to do whatever they want. L’état c’est nous.

Combine this Deep State with the budding feudalism in California, as described by Joel Kotkin:

Unlike its failed predecessor, this new, greener socialism seeks not to weaken, but rather to preserve, the emerging class structure. Brown and his acolytes have slowed upward mobility by environment restrictions that have cramped home production of all kinds, particularly the building of moderate-cost single-family homes on the periphery. All of this, at a time when millennials nationwide, contrary to the assertion of Brown’s “smart growth” allies, are beginning to buy cars, homes and move to the suburbs.

People whose policy preferences conveniently protect their own wealth seek to use government set basic policy preferences that are conveniently in line with bureaucrats who seek to protect their power.  One way or another, this alliance will be broken; the question is whether it happens through reform or revolution.

Think carefully, progressives — and even more-reasonable liberals.  As much as you hate him (perhaps because of how much you hate him), President Trump may be your last chance to allow the reform path.

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Competing to Impose Expensive Energy on Residents

The whole notion of states’ competing to lead the nation in offshore wind, as reported in an AP article by Providence Journal alum Philip Marcelo, is strange.  This isn’t an attempt to woo companies to the state, whether through a mere personal touch or millions in taxpayer subsidies; it’s explicitly an effort to force electrical customers (i.e., everybody) to fund the industry:

A state law passed last year to boost Massachusetts’ use of renewable energy outlines the process for developing offshore wind power.

The law calls for generating at least 1,600 megawatts of power, roughly enough electricity to power 750,000 homes annually, from offshore wind by 2027.

To accomplish this, the utilities are required to secure long-term contracts with wind farm developers in at least two phases: a bid request this June and another in 2019.

Treating this as some sort of positive competition reveals a certain tint of ideological glasses.

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