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Veterans of Government Error

How is it possible that people don’t look at stories like the problems at the Rhode Island Veterans Home — which are very common in the Ocean State and around the country — and conclude that the notion of ever-more government involvement in our lives is the wrong way to go?

The narrow doorways are one of many issues at the home fueling frustration among residents, families and employees. Expensive equipment goes unused, visually aesthetic rooms sit empty and the crown jewel – an eye-grabbing galley at the center of the home – has served more as a venue for lavish parties thrown by outside groups than as a central dining room for residents.

Multiple people told Target 12 that Veterans Home employees staffed at least some of those events, raising questions about whether taxpayer money went toward private parties held at a publicly funded nursing home for veterans.

If one were to evaluate this as a grant-funded project from a non-profit organization or something, the conclusion would have to be that the entity took on a project that it was not competent to complete.

Those things happen across the economy and in every sector, of course, but governments are the the one sector that can’t go out of business.  So why do we keep imagining that the same system will get the next great-sounding project done right?

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An Election About Suppressed Dislike

With Bernie Sanders’s front-runner status in the Democrat primary for president, political analysts are starting to contemplate the consequence on that race and on down-ticket races.  Many of us can’t help but see the parallel to Republicans’ predicament in 2016, when they were forced to grapple with their own discomfort with candidate Donald Trump.

This topic came up at the tail end of Republican Representative Michael Chippendale’s appearance on the Matt Allen Uncut podcast.  Chippendale’s position is that he’s uncomfortable with Trump, the man, but his policies have been positive.  That phrasing makes me think of Game of Thrones.

As a fan of the books years before the show was even a rumor, I was captivated by J.R.R. Martin’s character development and underlying themes.  Those aspects are what made the HBO series such an epic mega-hit, but its being HBO, they were delivered with a lot of gratuitous moral assaults, particularly with sex scenes in the earlier seasons.

Those of us who could have done without the moral challenges could still appreciate the writing, the story-telling, the themes, and the show-craft, but the question arises: At what point does the bad outweigh the good?  That’s an individual judgment concerning not only what we allow into our own brains, but also what we promote and normalize for others.  A Christian who emphasizes personal purity could still plausibly claim that the sex scenes do not rouse lust in his heart and that the combination of compelling art and cultural awareness make the risk worthwhile, but only for mature audiences.  As the famous question goes, who am I to judge whether what that person says about his feelings is true?

Just so with President Trump.  A good, moral conservative needn’t elevate Twitter etiquette and a history of boorish behavior into a litmus test that disqualifies the president from support no matter what he accomplishes.  The challenge is to make ourselves, and our society, better and more mature so as not to be affected by the negative.

Therein lies the distinction between President Trump and Bernie Sanders.  The objection to Trump is behavioral and related to insinuations about his motives, whereas the objection to Sanders is his history of anti-Americanism and dangerous policies.  That’s a problem of substance rather than style.  At best, that’s Game of Thrones without the gratuitous sex, but with an evil, dangerous theme.

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The Trick of “Move Forward”

A theme that emerged during Tiverton on Track Episode 13 was the tendency of government insiders to urge the public to “move forward” from the problems and mistakes of the past.  Depending on your perspective, it’s either a bug or a feature that this has the effect of making it more difficult to fix underlying problems.  (Probably because a major underlying problem is often the government insiders!)

In this episode, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and I discuss ways in which local government can get a handle on things, including meetings in which not everybody has to agree.

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Christopher Maxwell: A Quick Cost Benefit Analysis for Tolls

The all-powerful director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, Peter Alviti, has invoked the authority granted to him by Gov. Gina Raimondo and General Assembly to double the toll rate at Oxford Street overpass. The increase is justified by a nebulous, internally-concocted cost-benefit formula.

I am reminded of the very telling testimony of one Mike Riley, my friend and the former head of the Connecticut Motor Truck Association, who joined us in opposition to RhodeWorks before the House Finance Committee back in 2015.

He stated: “Methinks your director protests too much. He wants way too much authority and you ought not give it to him. You ought to stop. You ought to think about this. Remember the highway intersection sign: Stop, look and listen.”

With the General Assembly’s self-proclaimed “firewall” against car tolls currently taking on water, the recently-announced move by RIDOT to “nationalize” the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and this latest toll increase maneuver, I urge Rhode Islanders to “stop, look and listen.”

Methinks (MeKnows) you are next on the establishment’s “cost-benefit” menu. After all, the formula is very simple: your cost will always be to their benefit.

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Behind the Deterioration and the Hostility

Members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) are finding a single cause behind many of the problems and controversies going on in town.  The guest for episode 12 of the Tiverton on Track podcast is Richard Rom, who is on the board of the Tiverton Library and who is the chairman of the Tiverton Republican Town Committee (TRTC).

Richard’s appointment to the library board generated a lot of heat last year, because he came from a different perspective than the other members.  That was exactly the reason the majority of the Town Council supported him, and now he’s offering suggestions as the board figures out how to address maintenance issues and the contents of the library.

Meanwhile, a group of men who have been supporters of a faction heretofore hostile to the TRTC have suddenly registered as Republicans and have begun to attend its meetings.  A big tent and conversations are great, but somehow they bring the air of a hostile takeover, rather than of an intent to build on shared values.

The single cause between these and other controversies is the sense among some in town that people who disagree with them should be locked out not only of decisions, but of institutions where they might feel comfortable.

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The Governor’s Conflicting Projects

Rhode Island’s Democrat governor, Gina Raimondo, has been pledging to do “whatever is needed” for a lot of people who aren’t Rhode Islanders, lately.  First she became one of six co-chairs of a new PAC called “Organizing Together 2020.”  As she says, “good organizing takes time.”  The she became a co-chair of Mike Bloomberg’s campaign for president, another national political effort that is not focused on Rhode Island.

Rhode Islanders might wonder what they’re paying her for.  We should also worry about what we’re paying her for.

After all, her fellow activists in Organizing Together are in large part labor unions:

The group includes labor unions — Service Employees International Union, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — and a collection of progressive advocacy groups including Planned Parenthood Votes, the Color of Change PAC, the NAACP and VoteVets, according to a news release.

One of the major challenges of the remaining years of her gubernatorial administration is going to be the improvement of Providence schools.  The state has taken over the district; the governor has hired a new education commissioner; and the commissioner has hired a new superintendent.  Whether the officials involved will admit it publicly or not, this project is going to require pressure to be put on the teachers union.  How does that play out when the governor has made common cause with their national organizations?  How can the families of Providence trust that she’s fully on their side as their governor?

As for the Bloomberg move, what’s notable is the focus on career moves.  The promise of a local campaign office for a presidential candidate who is a billionaire many times over gives the governor jobs to hand out out to allies… jobs that have nothing to do with governing Rhode Island.  And the responsibilities of a national campaign co-chair will give the governor reason to be outside the state, networking and building her brand in key battleground states that aren’t Rhode Island.

Again the question arises:  Does Gina Raimondo want to end her terms as governor on a high note from the perspective of the people of Rhode Island, or from the perspective of an ambitious career-building politician?

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The Gambling Giants Make Nice-Nice

Just a short while ago, Rhode Islanders were treated to a refreshing opportunity to see our system of government work the way it should.  With one of the two major managers of the state’s gambling line of business challenging a no-bid deal the governor had worked out with the other, it looked like the Ocean State might benefit from an open-bid process bringing in competing proposals and driving down the cost of the contract and/or the benefits to Rhode Islanders.

Oh, well.  Twin River and IGT have teamed up to present unified front to the state government:

If the proposed agreement is approved by lawmakers and state gambling regulators, Twin River would evolve from a casino-operating company to one that provides video-slot machines, giving it a large source of the revenue now going to out-of-state game manufacturers and suppliers.

International Game Technology would emerge as 60% shareholder of the new company, with a clearer shot at winning the 20-year contract it has been seeking from the state, without Twin River executives — and the big-name gaming industry players that Twin River had lined up as potential partners in a rival bid — nipping at its heels. Twin River would have a 40% stake.

And as if to capture the full circuit of issues that have illustrated Rhode Island’s flawed approach to government and economic development, Twin River has pledged to open up a new headquarters in the Wexford Innovation Complex, a recent addition to Providence that the governor has huge incentive to see filled with tenants.

Republican candidate, lawyer, and historian Steven Frias has it right when he says, in the first linked article above: “This deal does not automatically become a good one for taxpayers because IGT and Twin River will now be business partners.”

We benefit from competition, whether it’s political parties or private vendors for state, and we shouldn’t assume that it’s a good thing when they work together.

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Corruption as a Means of Survival and as a Weapon

As the subpoenas fly and the investigation continues into the unseemly air surrounding the Convention Center Authority and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s call for an audit, we’re stuck in a moment of intense interest but little information.  That gives us a chance to look for broader lessons.

One recurring theme with Mattiello is that his “friends” and allies keep popping up in a conspicuously connected way.  So, the former Authority employee whose suspension allegedly sparked the audit as payback, James Demers, is often called “a Mattiello friend.”  The head of the Joint Committee for Legislative Services (JCLS) who has been subpoenaed is “Mattiello friend” Frank Montanaro, Jr.  And when the offices of JCLS were suddenly cleaned out, ostensibly to address a mold problem, a company called Single Source, owned by Mattiello associate Jack Pomeranz, did the work.

An argument sometimes advanced by people seeking to justify Buddy Cianci’s activities comes to mind:  In a corrupt environment, those in power have a reason to cultivate a network of people they can trust… which starts to look like corruption.  A line exists somewhere between filling offices with people who’ll help you deal with the corrupt system and giving out patronage jobs to friends who bring nothing to the table.  The point at which an official crosses that line is not always clear, and it can move depending on the individuals and the circumstances.  We’re talking something more like a battlefield, where natural and strategic considerations may suggest rough boundaries, than a football field, where the lines are so clear that a toe can make a difference.

Of course, because the line is not clear, allegations of corruption can become a weapon even when not justified.  We have some experience with that in Tiverton.  When reform-minded residents (including this writer) claimed a majority of the council, cries of (and lies about) corruption became commonplace.  There was never any evidence, but the accusation was thrown around on social media and even statewide TV.  The slender hooks were that the council hired a solicitor whom we knew would not undermine us, but just explain the law, and appointed a resident with a different view than the establishment to the library board.

At the same time that we keep an eye out for corruption and hold officials accountable, we do need to be careful about being misled by accusations about it.

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Promising the World to Sell the Policy

A couple things should be observed about the claims of RI Department of Environmental Management Deputy Director Terrence Gray on State of the State, recently.

Mr. Gray was on the show to talk about the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI).  That’s a proposed regional organization that our state government wants to permit to tax gasoline to create a slush fund for projects that can fit under the “green” umbrella.

The definition of the “tax” is the first observation that must be made.  At one point, Mr. Gray insists that TCI is not a new gas tax, but then he proceeds to describe the mechanism by which the tax is implemented.  It reminds me of an old Remi song about cap-and-trade schemes:

It sounds like cap and trade is a tax we pay then
No sir, cap and trade is just a regulation

See tax is when there’s money spent
this is just a fee to the government

With TCI, the new regional government artificially limits gasoline production and distribution, forcing companies to bid for “allowances.”  The profit from these bids goes to government.  It’s a tax.

Which brings us to the spending part of the equation.  The other important observation one can make from Mr. Gray’s commentary is that he tried to sell the new tax on a wide variety of great things that could be done with the money, when obviously, it can’t go to everything.  So, when convenient, he’ll talk about spending it on public transportation… or charging stations for private cars… or some sort of dividend or fund to offset the new costs for residents.  Until there’s a written plan, it’s possible to say that the money will do any number of wonderful things.

If we look to the spending of the similar Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which covers energy production with a regional cap-and-trade scheme, we can get some sense of what actually happens.  Maybe early on the money is used to offset something in the costs to average Rhode Islanders, but inevitably, the funds drift toward government, whether solar for municipalities, buses for RIPTA, or similar programs.

Those may or may not be worthwhile projects, but one suspects it would be a harder sell if it were made clear that TCI is, yes, just another tax to fund government activities, which ought to be funded already if they’re good ideas, given the amount we already pay for government.

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Redistricting Toward a People’s Convention

When an initiative like this moves through the news cycle, I find myself wondering what workaday Rhode Islanders think of it:

Common Cause Rhode Island is asking state lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, rather than continuing to allow the legislature to create the commission and fill most seats with incumbent legislators.

This would be an important change to Rhode Island’s civic structure, but how many voters will find out about this legislation, and how many of them will know what it means (or bother to find out)?

Then there’s the path Common Cause is taking.  The bills in question are H7260 and S2077, and if either passes and is signed into law, the legislature and governor would ask voters in November if we want to modify the state constitution to take the power of setting up their own district lines away from legislators.    It seems obvious, but it also seems impossible.  After all, the assumption is that we cannot trust lawmakers to oversee the redistricting, so why would we pursue a plan that relies on the same lawmakers to change the rules that allow them to do that.

What’s needed is to back off the request one step more.  Ask the legislators to put a people’s convention on the ballot, as allowed under our state constitution.  Then a world of possibilities will open, including changing how we draw our legislative districts.  Voters could more readily understand the value of reviewing the constitution, and the people elected to the convention would more readily take the time to understand redistricting.

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A Surprisingly Unknown Raimondo Pension Story

Reading Edward Siedle’s recent Forbes column, which is the text of a speech that he gave to a “Rally for Pension Justice,” involving the Rhode Island Retired Teachers Association, one can’t help but wonder why his claim isn’t more widely known around the state:

In 2007, Rhode Island current governor and former state treasurer, Gina Raimondo was a co-founder and partner in a very small local venture capital firm with very little money under management and a very short investment track record.

Miraculously, Gina succeeded in convincing the $8 billion state pension to invest $5 million in a brand new fund her nascent, unproven firm was offering called the Point Judith Venture Fund II.

According to Siedle, that one deal grew Point Judith’s portfolio by 33%, but the state considered the investment reasonable because the firm “had a billionaire hedge fund investor in New York backstopping” it.  Then, the state gave Point Judith a 2.5% fee, even though the sales presentation only asked for 2%, which is the industry standard.

There’s more.  Per Siedle, Point Judith gave Raimondo an ownership interest in the pension investment, with a $125,000 minimum payout per year, no matter how the fund did.  That revelation puts a much different light on the annual story we hear about Point Judith extending its contract with the pension fund without the state’s consent due to secret provisions allowing its investors to do so.

How is this not a regularly revisited investigative story in the Rhode Island press?  Granted Siedle was talking to a very interested crowd and telling them something sure to keep their interest, but he’s a credible guy in this area.  After all, the article appeared in Forbes.

Maybe the layers of secrecy and PR professionals, combined with the specialized knowledge to investigate it, move this down local reporters’ to-do list, especially given the flagging journalism industry, which can afford fewer and fewer specialized investigators.  (I’ll admit to being unable to devote time to the story, myself.)  Whatever the mechanism, though, it seems as if a healthy civic environment would somehow get this story into the awareness of more Rhode Islanders.

There’s something very similar between this story and the conspicuously timed clean-out of the JCLS offices just as the Speaker of the House is under fire for that agency’s activities.  That’s easier to speculate about, though, because white-collar schemes aren’t as easily understood.

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Complaints and Interference

The pervasive theme throughout Tiverton on Track Episode 11 (stream below) is that a lack of transparency and a lack of respect for confidentiality when it is justified mix to create tension in a community.  That’s the case whether somebody elsewhere in the state tweets a detail out of supposedly confidential contract negotiations or the leadership of the Town Council attempts to resolve a community disagreement the way they want it resolved by keeping the details out of public view.

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Iowa Caucuses and UHIP

The campaign manager for President Donald Trump, Brad Parscale, offered a take on the Democrats’ Iowa caucus troubles that probably occurred simultaneously to just about every conservative in the country:

And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?

A point often gets lost in all the jockeying for control of the American narrative.  When we object to this program or that one, conservatives aren’t typically opposing government-driven solutions regardless of whether they’ll work.  On the flip side, we also aren’t typically saying that the certainty of a fix can always overcome principled objections based on a philosophy of how government should function.

Rather, the conservative position tends to be that, for any given issue, the trade offs are not sufficiently clear, the benefits are not sufficiently certain, and side effects are so excessively probable that humility should be the underlying principle.

The debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucus should be more proof than anybody needs of this principle.  It’s not as if this was the first time Iowa Democrats have caucused, but now (regardless of the reason) there will be lingering doubts about the process, including discord between factions that suspect some sort of political scheme.

To be sure, government and political parties will naturally handle elections-related activities, but they don’t have to handle things like healthcare.  Look at experience with the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).  When bureaucrats committed Rhode Island to the scheme during the Chafee administration, they had wide eyes about “one-stop shopping” for government services.  When they rushed ahead with a system that they’d been warned was not ready, no doubt the Raimondo administration was hoping for some sort of PR win.  And we got… a debacle.

This isn’t a claim that Democrats are especially incompetent, but that our political system creates incentives and risks that should advise a strong preference for handling society’s challenges through other institutions than government.

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When Every Conversation Is a Labor Fight in Warwick

A familiar subject floated through Rhode Island’s news cycle again last week when Warwick schools Superintendent Philip Thornton reported to his city’s school committee that the district should do something about teacher absenteeism:

Two schools — Wyman Elementary and E.G. Robertson Elementary — have chronic absenteeism rates of 24.4 percent and 22.7 percent, respectively. Chronic teacher absenteeism is defined as missing 18 days or more of school out of a typical 180-day school year.

Two more schools — Oakland Beach Elementary and Sherman Elementary — have rates above 20 percent.

In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 11 percent of all Warwick teachers — 100 teachers — were chronically absent, Thornton said, using data from the Rhode Island Department of Education. That said, more than a third of all teachers — 312 — missed less than five percent of school.

This isn’t just some hobby horse on which the superintendent wanted to beat for some reason.  He raised the issue because teacher attendance is part of the formula that the RI Department of Education (RIDE) uses to grade the Ocean State’s schools.  Looking for some means of holding our education system accountable (without actually changing anything), the state has developed metrics, and the chief executive of an organization has strong incentive to have his metrics look good.

We’re used to these spats, around here, but it’s worth stepping back a moment and plainly noting what is going on.  The superintendent has identified a metric on which he believes the district can make improvements, and the relevant labor union, the Warwick Teachers’ Union, led by Darlene Netcoh, called out the troops and ramped up the objections, staking out ground for the fight.  Some teachers have to work until 67, she says, which drives up the sick time, as if Rhode Islanders in the private sector have anywhere near the days off that government-school teachers get.  Netcoh also attacked the numbers themselves.

Big picture, our elected and appointed officials have to be able to discuss ideas big and small, and they won’t feel as free to do that if every comment or proposal might begin the gears of the labor-unrest machine.  In the private sector, management can discuss things and make plans before a possible dispute is placed in the open.  In the public sector, only the unions have that privilege.

If we want open, transparent government, then we need some social (or legal) pressure on the labor unions to back off.

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The Starting Foot of the New Superintendent

There’s been something odd about the introduction of the new superintendent for the now-state-run Providence Schools.  The absence of Mayor Jorge Elorza from the public introduction of Harrison Peters was inexplicable.  The first Providence Journal article following that introduction, by union-friend Linda Borg as well as Madeleine List, starts with technical details about the district and the hire and then jumps to: “In Hillsborough County, where he is currently chief of schools, Peters has critics and his admirers.”  The following details are much heavier from the “critics.”

And then there’s general emphasis on the fact that Providence appears to have been his second choice, after having not been chosen for a promotion to Hillsborough County superintendent, while he was “at least” the second choice of Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, after her first offer fell through.

Talk about starting a new leader off on a negative footing!

Of course, nobody should simply be rah-rah, but the whole thing seems a bit like a typical Rhode Island self-fulfilling prophesy.  From reformers’ perspective there is certainly reason for hope.  After all, Peters touts “that he played an important part in lowering the number of ‘F’ schools in the district by 60 percent, decreasing the student suspension rate by 35 points, adding 10 ‘A’ schools and helping 15 schools improve from ‘D’ to ‘C.'”

Being from a state with some of the strongest school-choice programs in the country, he’ll bring with him knowledge of the tools Florida provides to administrators and families.

One does wonder whether some of the indifference and negativity that appears to surround his hiring indicates that Rhode Island insiders are setting the battleground to get their way knowing what he might conclude and advise.

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Convention Center Controversy: Heads They Win, Tails You Lose

If you’ve been around government and politics in Rhode Island for a while, you probably know people who’ve been audited at conspicuous times… like after having spoken up publicly about some issue.  This may be part of the reason ripples of excitement have followed indications that Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston might be caught red-handed flipping the switch on the familiar weapon.

Particularly intriguing is the way those ripples have caused turmoil among people and entities that tend to unite around good-government issues.  Thus, as Mattiello claims to be targeting the Convention Center Authority with an audit to fix what former Republican House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan calls “a poorly run, incompetently managed building [that] works as a favor factory,” we get current House Minority Leader Blake Filippi filing a lawsuit claiming that Mattiello abused his influence over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) to order the audit, followed by the Providence Journal editorial board, led by Ed Achorn, belittling the Republican’s suit as “partisan animosity.”

If the good guys are tripping over each other, the bad guys have wind at their backs.  The Convention Center has rejected the audit and called for an investigation of Mattiello by the State Police, which has lost some of its objective luster in recent years for seeming to align too eagerly with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, who has (1) given indications that she sees Mattiello as an obstacle and (2) proven her intent to use political means to advance her agenda through the legislature (including, for example, raising campaign funds to go after legislators at the ballot box).

Interested observers face that old puzzle about whether the enemy of your enemy is your friend.  Do good government forces benefit by helping a progressive governor knock out the more-conservative speaker, or by turning a blind eye to what might be raw corruption on his part?

Why everybody can’t be right?  Yes, the Convention Center should be audited.  Yes, the whole JCLS should meet and take action in a transparent fashion.  Yes, it’s worth having some agency look into whether use of the legislature’s auditing power is being abused. Yes, we should be suspicious that a politicized State Police might serve the governor’s political interest.

This is how divided government is supposed to work, making it in everybody’s interest to seek leverage against the others.  The problem is that state government in RI is so one-sided that it’s always “heads they win, tails you lose.”

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Rhode Island Brakes on the American Dream

In today’s Providence Journal, I contrast the difference between national economic policies and what we put up with in the Ocean State:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Making America great, making Rhode Island worse. Facing the real world, living in a pretend world.

The contrast could not be more striking. Recently in Davos, Switzerland, despite impeachment distractions, President Trump systematically laid out America’s successful roadmap to unprecedented freedom and prosperity, with trillions in investment dollars and a flood of companies choosing to repatriate to America.

Conversely, Rhode Island’s political class follows a government-centric command-and-control approach, resulting in the worst business climate in the nation as well as economic and educational stagnation that is forcing families and businesses to choose to flee our state.

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Trying to Keep Perspective on Local Politics

In President Trump’s economic speech in Davos, he attributes the recent economic strength of the United States to policies that put “the American worker” at their center.  Agree or disagree with the president (from any of the angles at which it would be possible to do so), he raises an important point.  We tend to get caught up in our preferred solutions or our own interests, to the detriment of our causes and our communities.

Listening to episode 10 of the Tiverton on Track podcast from the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, titled “Living in (And Budgeting for) a Community,” one hears that theme sneak in repeatedly.

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Tyranny Out of Partisan Gripes

Read around social media for even a short time, particularly in Rhode Island, and you’ll come across a Never Trumper making some sort of claim that he must be impeached so future presidents don’t get the impression that they can do whatever they want.  Put aside that President Trump is, if anything, an improvement in this regard from his predecessor.

If folks are truly concerned about tyranny as the child of our political moment, statements like this ought to set off alarm sirens:

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The translation is that these things cannot be decided at the ballot box “for we cannot be sure that the vote will be won by us.”  With even Never Trump Republicans (or former Republicans) saying they don’t care who the Democrats nominate so long as they get rid of President Trump, the mission is clear.  Nothing matters to them but making sure the outcome they want is the outcome the United States gets.

If Mr. Schiff is concerned about the integrity of our elections, then that’s where his attention should be focused.  As it is, he’s being either recklessly ignorant or horrifically welcoming of an obvious consequence of his self-proclaimed mandate:  Namely, if differences like this are not decided at the ballot box, sooner or later, they will be decided in the streets, with blood.

Avoiding that outcome is the basic underlying principle of our republic.

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The Miracle of Good-Government Policy in RI

In intellectual discussion at the intersection of religion and science, participants sometimes propose to define miracles as extremely improbable events that happen at a significant time, such that the significance itself appears to have influenced the outcome.  If, for example, there is some infinitesimal chance that an incurable disease will just go away and does after the patient prays at some holy shrine, then that might meet the definition of “miracle.”

In a somewhat crass way, this definition came to mind while reading about the state legislature’s audit of the RI Convention Center following the center’s investigation of the speaker’s friend:

“The JCLS has an obligation to meet and determine exactly why an audit was ordered of the Convention Center after Mr. Demers got in trouble at his job,” [RIGOP Chairwoman Susan] Cienki said. “The public deserves to know if government resources are being used by Speaker Mattiello to satisfy a petty personal grudge. If the JCLS won’t meet and explain what is going on, then perhaps the attorney general should investigate.”

Mattiello’s spokesperson, Larry Berman, pushed back at Cienki by pointing out that House Republicans, notably former Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, have been calling for better oversight of the Convention Center’s finances for years. He sent Target 12 multiple press releases and news reports in which Morgan laid out her criticisms.

One gets the sense that this has become the way that Republican, conservative, or just good-government policies find their way miraculously into state law and activity.  It is improbable that a Republican’s call to audit a government agency will be heeded in Rhode Island… except at that significant moment when it serves the interest of some powerful interest for ulterior reasons.

Makes one wonder if there’s a list of policy proposals out there awaiting some direct pay-off before they are implemented, with the fact that somebody (or some party) suggested them used as cover.

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Anti-TCI Gas Tax Coalition Meets

The first observation that a conservative might make upon reading Chris Lisinski’s State House News Service article on a press conference of groups opposing the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) gas tax is the skewed perspective.  According to Lisinski, conservatives’ expressing their view on an issue “deepened tensions between the think tanks who hosted it and environmental groups.”  When environmental groups hold similar events, are they ever described as “deepening tensions” with people who disagree with them?

Still, hearing from folks on the other side is always valuable:

One of those individuals, Environmental League of Massachusetts President Elizabeth Henry, told the News Service that she did not intend to ask any questions but hoped to hear a clear alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from TCI opponents. She said that hope went unfulfilled.

“We have a statutory obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050,” she said, referring to the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 that sets an emissions reduction target. “Climate change mitigation is statutorily mandated, and if not TCI, then what? I’m open to hearing it, but I feel like we have a really great solution in TCI.”

As Rhode Island’s governor attempts to impose the absurd goal of 100% renewable energy supply in her state by 2030, we should consider what Henry is making of this “statutory obligation.”  If it can’t be met without imposing overly restrictive burdens on the people of the state, then remove it.  Presumably, one is supposed to bow in the face of “statutory obligations,” but the reality is that the obligations are only statutory.  They can be changed easily with another statute.

Thus does the Left like to box a democracy in, to make it seem as if the people have no choice.  In this case, TCI is an attempt to hide the choices that have been made, as one of the TCI-opponents explains:

“Why are they doing this through this interstate compact? Why don’t you just raise the gas tax by 17 cents? The infrastructure is already in place to collect the tax, you wouldn’t have to hire any more bureaucrats to do it,” said Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute in Vermont. “The reason they’re doing it through this convoluted, expensive means is because it’s a CYA program for politicians who don’t want to be seen as raising a tax.”

Supporters of this sort of environmental policy take intricate steps to make it seem as if the public has no choice and then to make it difficult to find accountability when they don’t like the choices that have been made.

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Executive Order of Priorities

Of course, an executive order like the one that Rhode Island Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo just released, saying that Rhode Island will be 100% reliant on “renewable energy” by 2030, is subject to all the usual political caveats.  Most notably, she’ll be long out of office by the time that date rolls around, and even by the time any imposed restrictions start to really bite.

Reading the press release, however, something else jumps out:

Governor Gina M. Raimondo today signed an executive order committing Rhode Island to be powered by 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of the decade. Her executive order directs the state’s Office of Energy Resources to conduct an economic and energy market analysis and develop actionable policies and programs to reach this bold, but achievable goal.

“When we meet this goal, Rhode Island will be the first state in America to be powered by 100% renewable electricity,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “We’re already leading the fight against climate change, but we have to take increasingly aggressive action if we want to avoid catastrophe. As governor of a coastal state and mom to two teenagers, I’m fully committed to protecting the beauty of our state and our way of life for future generations.”

Where’s the executive order that 100% of Rhode Island students will graduate from high school… and with performance at grade level?  Where’s the executive order that everybody who wants a job will have one?

Now, I’m not actually asking for executive orders on these issues, because I think they’d be a foolish approach to policy, but the governor’s global-warming order is foolish for the same reasons.  It does, however, show her priorities, and one suspects her perpetually bad approval ratings are evidence that Rhode Islanders don’t share them.

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Free School Choice Movie and Event

Rhode Island Families for School Choice is offering an opportunity to spend some time on Martin Luther King Day learning about and celebrating a policy fight that would be a blessing for disadvantaged and minority families:

On behalf of National School Choice Week, please join us for a special screening of Miss Virginia. Hailed as a “must-see” movie by USA Today, the film follows a struggling inner-city mother who sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow him to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future—and that of thousands like him.

After the movie, meet and talk with legendary school choice advocate Virginia Walden Ford (the real-life Miss Virginia!), who will join us in Cranston for this special event. She will also sign copies of her new book, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep.

Note that the event is free and requires RSVP.

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Rolling Effects of Housing Wealth Redistribution

As hints had suggested Rhode Islanders should expect, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 (beginning July 1, 2020) includes a new program with new dedicated funding to build affordable housing.  (Naturally, Democrat Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, of Providence and North Providence, a Laborers Union careerist, loves the idea.)

WPRI’s Eli Sherman summarizes the plan:

The budget, which will now be vetted by lawmakers during the coming months, suggests creating a two-tiered tax system that doubles the so-called “conveyance tax” to 0.92% on all property sales – both residential and commercial – totaling more than $500,000. The current rate — 0.46% — would apply to the first $500,000 of any transaction. …

State officials estimate the new tax would generate about $3.6 million in state revenue next fiscal year, and $8 million in each budget year afterward. The money would create a dedicated funding stream that would go into a restricted receipt fund at Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency, and be controlled by the Housing Resources Commission.

This scheme brings to mind some analysis I did of tax rates in Tiverton back in 2018.  My conclusion was that the exorbitant tax rate was suppressing home values at the high end of the market.  At the same time, broader market forces were increasing house values at the low end.  Because the tax rate is uniform across the town, and because the tax rate is set in order to match the town’s budget (not the other way around), this had the effect of moving the tax burden toward the working class neighborhoods.  Their houses were worth more, while the expensive houses were worth less, so the taxes followed the value.

Of course, adding a couple thousand dollars at the point of sale will have much less effect than a tax rate that charges that amount every year, but the principle is the same.  Taxing high-end houses more will make them less valuable, shifting the real estate tax burden down the scale.

At the same time, the state projects that it will be building an additional 250 “affordable houses” every year.  Increasing supply at the low end of the market will tend to reduce prices there, too.  So, while the increased stock will expand the low-end’s share of total value, taxpayers’ bills will decrease with the value.  Whether this helps spread municipal tax bills to more homeowners will depend on whether the affordable houses are distributed evenly across the state.

This leaves the middle of the market, which will see upward pressure on its annual tax bill, while also being nudged toward the $500,000 line, where it will be more-expensive to sell.

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For and Against a TCI Gas Tax

The Gaspee Business Network — an alternative business group to chambers of commerce — has published an interactive table showing the opposition or support of the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI).

Such lists have long been a tool of professional lobbyists.  The movie, The American President, comes to mind, in which the president (Michael Douglas) begins to date an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening).  The Internet has increasingly broadened its utility to the general public.  If our elected representatives are going to be representative, the people need to know where they stand.

You might be surprised, however, how difficult it is to find out where they stand.  Send out emails asking where the various legislators who represent your town stand, and you’ll find some don’t bother to respond.  And some of those who do will give answers that evade and/or must be interpreted.  Asked if they support TCI, they might ask if there’s specific legislation.  Asked about the concept in principle, they might stop responding.

As of this writing, only 19 of 113 legislators (17%) have provided an answer, or something close enough to interpret as one.  The only one deemed by Gaspee Biz to support the initiative is Senator James Seveney (D, Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton).  Notably, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) opposes it.

Imagine if tables like this were available for every hot-button issue the legislature was facing!  That might cut back on some of the late-night votes and horse trading.  And then imagine an electorate that actually paid attention… that would make all the difference.

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Municipal Government Moves to the Back Room

With the old establishment players back in power in Tiverton, we’ve seen a quick return to the practices that have done so much damage to local government over the decades.  Decisions are being made by a few, unidentified people in back rooms and private communications.  New hoops are being erected for community groups to jump through.  The law is being rewritten by the minute depending on what the Town Council leadership needs it to be.  The council’s votes are becoming mere recommendations unless approved by the president.

Members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) talk about that and more on Episode 9 of the Tiverton on Track podcast.

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Catch Up with the Monthly State of the State

If you try to keep track of policy and politics in Rhode Island (and if you’re reading this site, you probably do), you should put the State of the State program on your watch list.  The program usually has two half-hour segments, but sometimes sticks with one guest for an hour, and it’s a good way to get a different point of view from the mainstream, from both the guests and the hosts, who often ask questions public figures and others wouldn’t be asked elsewhere.

The latest episode had a segment on Title IX abuse and another on Second Amendment rights.

1-13-20 Recent Title IX Cases from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

1-13-20 Stun Guns, Tasers and the 2nd Amendment from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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A State That Doesn’t Need to Raise Gas Taxes

With the advocates for the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) now revving up for their cause, and with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo remaining intrepid in her desire to push Rhode Islanders out of their cars for the good of the planet, Ocean Staters might wonder where we stand already on the gas tax.  Fortunately, the American Petroleum Institute has compiled information on all states’ gas taxes, and the Tax Foundation provides this useful map:

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Taking note that none of these numbers includes $18.40 added per gallon by the federal government, we can say that Rhode Island is most definitely not in need of new taxes on this basic fuel.  If the TCI tax were to be implemented at the 17-cent high that has been cited, the Ocean State would rocket to 4th highest.

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Living the Governor’s Dream

On a number of topics, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s interview with Kim Kalunian of WPRI was disturbing, with the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) taking the lead.  The segment points directly to her political philosophy and presumption of authority.

In pushing for a new tax on gasoline, she envisions herself as a sort of superhero, pushing forward regional plans for incremental socialism in order “to save our kids and to save us.”  Such is the arrogance and bad-faith-argument of all demagoguery.  Well, look, if you want to save the planet, you have to give me money and power.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?

Not to worry, though.  The governor also sees a benefit for you right now:  “Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to drive your car to work?”  If your answer to that question is “no,” Raimondo doesn’t seem to have a good answer for you.

Of course, progressives have an answer to every specific point you might make:  Government will take care of you.  Perhaps you dread the idea of being forced into taking public transportation to work because you don’t know how you’d manage to get one child to day care and the other to school and slip out for errands at lunchtime all according to a bus schedule.

Not to worry!  Government will subsidize day care and before-school programs so you can spend less time with your children and deliver them under the wings of the state earlier, so as to catch the bus.  Government will also change zoning to force all workplaces into condensed areas so that all of your errands will be within walking distance of your job.  (And don’t forget that government will help you sterilize yourself so you don’t have to worry about any more children complicating your life.)

All of your needs will be answered, if you just sacrifice your freedoms to the better judgment of the governor.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?