I was running just a hair late, but the early risers at the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC) had already jumped right in with the program for their summer meeting.
Robert Flanders started and finished speaking as I set up. Some notable comments were that he believes, essentially, that there is nowhere to go but up for Rhode Island, although “we’ve got to break some eggs to make a better omelet.”
He then introduced the concept of the RISC Foundation as a research institution. “The goal is literally to reinvent, restructure, and revitalize Rhode Island.”
Now Gary Sasse is up.
Sasse: RI’s “greatest deficit” is consistent and competent leadership.
Sasse notes the number of studies of what to do in Rhode Island that have been conducted in the past. “It’s not that we don’t know what to do”; it’s that we lack leadership. [I’d go further suggest that prioritizing things like studies over a preference for individual freedom and smaller government as a first principle is a deliberate part of the problem.]
Sasse: Improving the workforce is “going to require government investment.” [I think that may be a defining aspect of the difference between RISC’s think tank and the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity. Neither freedom nor prosperity begins with the government, but with getting government out of the way. I should stress, though, that I expect the difference in emphasis to be a benefit to the wealth of knowledge and perspectives in the state.]
Sasse says “not only our political institutions, but our private, as well,” lack leadership. The private sector and citizenry must to step it up, too.
Priorities: 1) fair and equitable taxes, 2) quality (“user friendly”) government services, 3) policies that “create and sustain an environment for economic growth.”
Sasse is describing his intentions with his future research, calling it “research with an attitude.”
4) Credibility and 5) collaboration.
Quotes Robert Kennedy: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
“We can no longer let our political process become a denial of our problems.”
New RISC Executive Director Donna Perry is up.
Perry: Flanders and Sasse are “the premier team in the state,” as one of the components necessary for change in Rhode Island.
Perry: “RISC realizes that we do not do this alone; we have allies in the reform movement.” Notes Ocean State Tea Party in Action; RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity; Operation Clean Government; “and there are others.”
“What’s in the best interest of the taxpayers is in the best interest of the state.”
Thanking the founders of RISC, Perry characterized her relationship with Harriet Lloyd as “Thelma and Louise.”
Just shy of 200 people in the audience, by the way.
Perry: “I’ll keep the issues platform brief, because we have a very distinguished journalist speaking.”
Ted Nesi (to whom she’s referring) called out from the audience: “I can’t wait to hear from him.”
Perry is listing the eight areas of policy focus. First is continued pension reform.
“It is not because we are critical of anyone’s profession”; says RISC’s position has been mischaracterized in the press. “Those excesses have to be reined in.”
Second, they’ll be tracking legislative votes that affect municipal financing (e.g., binding arbitration).
Third, “tax rate reform.”
Fourth, education reform. “If we cannot raise the bar — and there are those that undermine every attempt at reform — to produce a workforce” that companies need, we cannot attract them.
Fifth, economic development, particularly “oversight from the General Assembly” on loan programs.
Sixth, “sensible policy” toward illegal immigration.
Seventh and eighth are inside government: an overhaul of the hearing process. “When something’s decided in somebody’s office, it’s not transparency.” “We want that issue out on the campaign trail, this fall.”
Last is better oversight.
“We want to get Rhode Island out of last place.”
Now she’s introducing Ted Nesi. “I’m not sure when he sleeps” because he does so much. RISC thinks “his finest work to date” came with the 38 Studios reporting.
Nesi notes that he usually sees Perry while “sparring” against her on Lively Experiment.
Nesi’s most vivid memory of the legislative process was the budget drop on his birthday, when the legislators called in the reporters at 4:00… then it was 5, and 6, and 7. Finally at 9:00/9:30. (Out of modesty, he doesn’t mention that the room sang to him.)
He describes receiving printouts of the budget articles that were still warm. “Some would say they should look at it, but who has time?”
“At that point, I didn’t care about good government; I just wanted to get out of there.” As a journalist, he says, it’s not his job to say whether that’s the right way to do things, but he can say that “it’s unique.”
Notes a casual conversation with Teresa Paiva-Weed in which she declared (on binding arbitration) “I don’t know who put RISC in charge of what we vote on around here.”
The day 38 Studios sent the bad check to the EDC, Nesi got word minutes before going live on the 6:00 news. “That’s when it really began to seem like farce.”
Notes the lack of information from the company. “As we try to do an autopsy on what happened…” he has high hopes for the new public records law.
He emphasizes that public records law applies to all citizens; never be afraid to ask for information, he says, although acknowledging that it’s easier when you knock on the door with a Channel 12 news badge. (My metaphor, not his.)
Describes Speaker Gordon Fox as “very emotional” (“freaking out”) when talking about the 38 Studios deal.
“A bigger picture thing about 38 Studios in terms of the media is the need and the value for reporters who have the time” to explore issues “before it’s big news.”
For media, he says, any investment in letting journalists build up their backgrounds in a topic pays off in the end. [He could have added, I’d note, that the same value exists for think tanks like RISC’s new version of its foundation and the Center for Freedom & Prosperity.]
Talks about the journalist’s role in injecting an idea into the public debate, specifically, the effect of 6% compounding cost of living adjustments (COLAs) in pensions on a 25 year pension… raising it to $800,000 per year after 25 years of retirement.
“The only way to be truly independent is to understand policy.”
Nesi (acknowledging that he’s playing to the crowd): “If you think Linc Chafee is a stopped clock that’s only right twice a day,” you still need to be able to spot those two times.
Q&A. Perry goes first: how have blogs transformed media.
Nesi: “Sometimes it seems like nobody knows less about developments in media than people who work in it.” “The emergence of the Internet has leveled the playing field, which doesn’t mean you win, but it means you can play.”
Nesi speaks in context of what having a location to place text journalism on a TV news Web site has done to spread out reporters.
Question: “I love the emphasis on facts”… “do you also focus on the principles” as in “What we’re heading for is some sort of statism.”
Nesi: says he doesn’t really deal on that level. Reporters “like facts better, because the debate on principles is pretty philosophical.”
That’s what the op-ed pages and political actors are for.
“It makes us nervous to get into the philosophy; half your audience will disagree.” Although, “We’re usually against fascism… not all of us.”
Question: When 38 Studios came up, the Westerly reps fell all over themselves to say that they “had no idea” that this would happen. “Has there been any effort to look behind the scenes of how that bill got passed?”
Nesi: “There’s a lot of effort.” One of the big questions is “was this nefarious or just dumb.” “Dumb isn’t illegal.”
“I am also struck by the way no one on Smith Hill knew that 38 Studios was around.” At least that they now admit.
Notes a debate between DaSilva and Daponte (Senate Finance Chair). The latter said that the 38 Studios decision was “above his pay grade.” Nesi: “Well, whose pay grade is it?”
Notes that the media really wants to speak with former governor Don Carcieri.
Nesi: “I wonder if the lawmakers” have considered that their message, now, is essentially, “I’m clueless.”
Q: How do we get the rank and file union members to have the trust in those (in RISC) who are trying to make sure that they are going to get their pensions in 20 years? Before letting Ted answer, she offers a plug for the Allan West event, this afternoon.
Perry notes that we have to keep away from the political speeches, but they’ll take a couple more questions. Next question turns out to be a historical lesson on the General Assembly and economic development; notes the lack of corporate business people in the GA, because they don’t run for office.
[You know, if somebody could come up with a technology or process for preventing these meetings from devolving into 200-person panel discussions on long-held gripes, more people might attend more than one such meeting.]
So, Perry read a question submitted on paper, having to do with public access; will Newsmakers do a show on that?
Nesi: “Tim [White] and I would do every night on public access, but they tell us that channel 10 would win in the ratings.”
He makes the excellent point that you don’t want to go into a public records request with “battle gear on.” [I’d second that: always, always go into it asking for documents in a friendly manner; try to get them as if you’re asking an acquaintance to offer a service. Then ratchet up the heat as necessary.]
Closing remarks from Harry Staley. He doesn’t think many legislators think kindly of RISC or him, but he wants to recognize those who are elected officials in the room, because they offer so much of their time. He asks them to stand up. Now, people who are going to be running for office.
Staley notes the “shattering to me” reluctance in Rhode Island to be outed as supporting change agents like RISC.
As always, apologies to speakers and others I didn’t photograph; time is tight when multitasking a liveblog.