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The Teacher Union’s Power and Barriers to Entry

Erika Sanzi asks some key questions of the Providence Teachers Union, but the last one cuts right to the heart of unionization, at least in the public sector:

Will the union stand in the way of eliminating the arbitrary barriers to entry into the teaching profession so that we can begin to build a long overdue talent pipeline to include people who come to teaching via an alternative pathway?

The application of some simple logic finds the reason the union will likely answer “yes” to this question — meaning “yes, we will stand in the way” — until absolutely forced to moderate.  The union’s primary value proposition to its members is that it will gain them privileges and security.  The teachers to whom this protection is most valuable are those with the least capacity to fend for themselves and gather their own leverage.

The more talented a teacher is, and the more experience he or she has in other environments than government schools, the less he or she needs the union as leverage against management and the more independent he or she will be as a union member (or bargaining unit member if he or she does not join the union).

Imagine a flood of conspicuously competent people — driven by the mission of turning Providence around and enabled by the extremely desirable compensation packages that government unions have secured — entering the system as full participants.  Not only would those new teachers refuse to stand for the union’s obstruction of the mission’s success, but they would present a stark contrast to the most dedicated union members, who should predictably be the ones with the most need for union protection.

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A Need for Courage on the Right

Princeton Professor Robert George offered important advice at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver:  We need to display conspicuous courage. This explanation is important to keep in mind:

George acknowledged it is not easy to suffer such “abuse” and “defamation,” noting it places jobs, relationships, businesses and much more in jeopardy. But the more people stay silent, the bigger a problem it becomes, he said.

“If we want our children, if we want our young men and women, to be able to stand up on a college campus and not be bowled and not be intimidated, and to speak the truth and to speak their minds — we had better set an example in our own adult lives,” George said, prompting applause.

“Anyone who succumbs to the intimidation and bullying, anyone who acquiesces or goes silent out of fear, not only harms his or her own character … he or she also makes things harder for others,” George said. “We owe it not only to ourselves to be courageous … we owe it to God.”

In cultural matters — as well as spiritual — we’re all part of a chain.  Each person who steps back from the challenge makes it that much more difficult for the next person in line.  The ideal state of a movement is for its members to be so uniformly sturdy that is difficult for the weakest to break ranks.  On the other end of deterioration, even the strongest find it difficult to be sturdy.

One can observe this in play as an ideological strategy when even the most reasonable progressives refuse to acknowledge that a conservative is making a reasonable point.  In such cases, reasonableness is a sign of weakness (in actuality betraying the weakness of the position that the progressives are defending).

That is not a model that conservatives should emulate, because it is morally wrong and intellectually vapid, but it merits remembering:  Whenever you feel yourself wavering in the face of hostility, bring to mind those next in line who will find it more difficult to uphold your shared principles because you backed down.

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A Political Explanation for a Local Contract

Michael Graham offers a national political perspective as an explanation for the strange long-term, no-bid contract that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed for IGT’s video slot machines:

To outsiders, the story sounds like an episode of the TV show “Scandal:” A governor with close ties to a lottery company secretly negotiates a no-bid, twenty-year, $1 billion contract, while the company’s former chairman works as her top fundraiser.

But in Rhode Island, the home of legendary political operator Buddy Cianci, some consider it business as usual.

The governor is Gina Raimondo (D-R.I.), the new head of the Democratic Governor’s Association. The corporate exec is Donald Sweitzer, who until recently was chairman of IGT Global Solutions Corporation, the company that currently has Rhode Island’s lottery and electronic gaming contract.

Beyond the shady politics, Graham emphasizes the length of the deal.  In an evolving gambling market on a rapidly changing technological landscape, can a 20-year contract even conceivably be worthwhile for taxpayers?

Andrew Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank, adds that a 20-year contract, regardless of transparency, also raises questions about whether taxpayers are the priority in this deal.

“Setting aside the question of who the vendors are and what the contract says, the idea of any 20-year contract with the government is a problem, particularly for taxpayers,” Cline said. “It takes the pressure off the vendor to compete and improve. Give them a five-year contract and they know that they’re going to have to find ways to lower costs and improve quality if they’re going to compete.”

What are we getting in exchange for all that fiscal certainty for the company?

Naturally, in Graham’s view, it all comes down to the political ambitions of the governor, with which a guy like Sweitzer could be extremely helpful.  Given new poll results showing Raimondo to be (just barely) the second least popular governor in the country, Raimondo will need all the help she can get.

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Assessing the Problems and the Solutions of the Town

The particulars will vary from town to town — depending on the makeup of the population, the availability of non-tax revenue, the personalities involved in local politics, and so on — but key principles are essential for government to operate.  In a representative democracy with frequent turnover of elected officials, the rules have to be clear and consistent (and the power limited), such that the electorate is voting on broad questions of direction, not to address immediate crises or controversies.

As vice president of the Tiverton Town Council, I’ve been giving these matters a great deal of thought, and it has ultimately come down to this assessment of problems and solutions:

  1. Tiverton has no long-term financial plan.  Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward.  Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
  2. The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed).  Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source.  Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
  3. Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed.  A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time.  Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots.  These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.

Some of these challenges will sound familiar across Rhode Island, but talking to people involved in politics in some other towns, I’ve been struck by just how out-of-whack Tiverton is on some of them.  That is particularly true when it comes to the lack of a financial plan.

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A Comfy Softness for Radicalism

Not to go back to the well of content that is Naomi Chomsky, but this passage from an interview appearing on Liberation (“Newspaper of the Party for Socialism and Liberation”) is of note far beyond the topic of drag queen story hours:

What about media coverage of the events?

It’s been quite positive. I’ve done a lot of back and forth with the Massachusetts Family Institute. They made comments comparing drag to blackface, and called it misogynistic. But they’re fighting to restrict women’s bodies. They also are proponents of conversion therapy. I said this to everybody, and mentioned how these groups are attacking abortion rights— but none of the media printed that. They sort of softened my message a little bit, as they do.

Softened the message as they do for whom?  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a conservative, for example, complain that the media is softening his or her message — quite the opposite.

If you don’t read very broadly, across alternative media from all ideological angles, your understanding of controversies of the day is going to be very limited.  And it’ll be limited in the particular way of softening the edges for the progressive pill that the mainstream news media wants our society to swallow.

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The Mystery of Deteriorating Roads

As is true around the state, the condition of the roads are a constant (and justified) complaint in Tiverton, with a particular focus on those that the state owns and, therefore, is responsible to fix.  Oh, they’re on the 10-year plan for repair, but that means at least five more years — five more winters and five more thaws — until the worst of them are addressed.

A local landscaper asks a question that occurs to many Rhode Islanders, in one form or another:

Louis Dupont, said the state “better do something.”

“The state gets all this money from the lottery. Where does it go?” Dupont asked. “That baffles me. All that money. Where does it go?”

Asked his opinion of the eastern stretch of East Road, Dupont says: “The tractor almost jumps off the trailer.”

The state now has a $10 billion budget, and the municipalities collect another $2.5 billion in taxes on top of that.  Where does all the money go?

Well, this is the Know a Guy State, and budgets fund special favors, handouts, pet projects, and a substantial pay premium for government employees.  Once a chunk of cash is claimed for anything or anyone, it becomes an entitlement that is extremely difficult to take away.  When money does go toward infrastructure, cost-growing mandates from the state, such as prevailing wage, drive up the expense to ridiculous heights so taxpayer dollars can’t go as far as they otherwise would.

Big-government politicians everywhere understand that they’re better off siphoning money to things that shouldn’t be priorities so that the public will consent to higher taxes and more fees in order to fund the things that they really care about, and Rhode Island has made that principle a way of life.  Until we stop shaking our heads and writing it off simply as the way things are around here, the practice will continue.

But imagine if we insisted on change and our roads were rapidly repaired, perhaps even while we experienced a reduction in taxation.  Decline has been a choice, and it is within our power to reverse it and rocket up the national rankings that give Ocean State residents a near-monthly slap.

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RI Seeks a Workaround to Janus

Ballotpedia highlights a new union-helping law in Rhode Island:

On July 8, Governor Gina Raimondo (D) signed H5259 and S0712 into law. These companion bills authorize public-sector unions to impose fees on non-members who request union representation in grievance and/or arbitration proceedings. It requires public-sector employers to notify unions within five days of hiring new employees. It also requires employees to file written notice with the state controller in order to discontinue payroll deductions for union dues.

Some labor attorneys with whom I’ve spoken have suggested that this is patently unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.  They say that if union members do not have to pay extra for a service — that is, if the service of grievance representation is included in dues — then non-members cannot be charged for it.

At the very least, one can say that it is a legally gray area.  Consider this from Janus, wherein the court is arguing that the idea that employees are “free riders” if they can’t be forced to pay agency fees is not a very strong point (citations removed):

What about the representation of nonmembers in grievance proceedings? Unions do not undertake this activity solely for the benefit of nonmembers—which is why Illinois law gives a public-sector union the right to send a representative to such proceedings even if the employee declines union representation. Representation of nonmembers furthers the union’s interest in keeping control of the administration of the collective-bargaining agreement, since the resolution of one employee’s grievance can affect others.  And when a union controls the grievance process, it may, as a practical matter, effectively subordinate “the interests of [an] individual employee . . . to the collective interests of all employees in the bargaining unit.” Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.

The next paragraph suggests less-invasive means than agency fees, such as charging for the service.  However, the text and a related footnote imply that the ability to charge is dependent on the employee’s request for union representation, which seems to suggest that non-members in a collective bargaining unit can choose other representation.

If non-members must be covered by a contract and cannot negotiate their own, separate grievance procedures, they should be afforded the option of hiring some other representative for that narrow purpose than the union.  Naturally, this being Rhode Island, we should expect all legislation to be geared toward helping the labor unions rather than balancing the legitimate interests of everybody involved.

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Bruce and the Incentives of the Central Planner

Here’s a telling note from Ted Nesi’s Nesi’s Notes on WPRI.com:

The CNBC list drew a lot of attention on social media, including from economic-development expert Bruce Katz, who tweeted: “I find this ranking difficult to understand given large drop in RI unemployment, investments in infrastructure, off-shore wind, innovation vouchers + innovation campuses, attraction of Infosys and other significant companies and many other smart moves.” Turns out Katz had good reason to have Rhode Island on the mind: on Wednesday night I ran into him in Providence, and discovered he was in town to interview with Commerce RI about writing its new economic development study. Katz, of course, helped put together the 2015 Brookings Institution report that provided the blueprint for the Raimondo administration on economic development. Katz has since left Brookings, and now runs a consultancy called New Localism Advisers. The other three contenders are Camoin Associates, TIP Strategies, and The Research Associates. Commerce spokesperson Matt Sheaff says there’s no timeline yet for making a pick.

How perfect is this.  A guy who was at the center of RI’s failed economic development strategy is publicly praising the state’s economy four or five years later while also secretly in the running for a big contract from the state government.

The archetypal central planner would no doubt disagree with this assessment, but a skeptical observer might see in the above blockquote a reason to doubt central planning.  Even by their own philosophies central planners aren’t demigods who should be expected to get every decision right from the start, which means they have to be able and willing to review their results with a cold, clinical eye.  The political incentives and human nature, however, make that practice virtually impossible.

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MA and Fall River Should Help with Their Drug Dealers’ Disruptions

The only recreation marijuana store in Fall River is experiencing booming business, and it’s disrupting the neighborhood, not to mention one of the major traffic areas into Tiverton:

“We totally understand their frustration as far as last week because it was mayhem,” said Kyle Bishop, the dispensary’s chief operating officer. “The Fourth of July was insane.”

Bishop estimated that business at the dispensary was up 30% over the holiday weekend and that as many as 1,800 customer transactions were taking place daily.

To help remedy the problem, Northeast Alternatives is considering making some changes. Bishop said the business will request an increased police presence to help direct traffic at the intersection of William S. Canning Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, to which the dispensary’s parking lot is connected. Police will also create a new traffic lane at the intersection using traffic cones on weekends, Bishop said.

The dispensary will also post signs discouraging customers from parking on the nearby residential streets of Commonwealth Avenue and Heritage Court and have private security patrols of the neighborhood.

That’s all well and good, but a piece of the puzzle is missing.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts collects a 10.75% excise tax on top of the 6.25% sales tax on marijuana, and the city is allowed to pile on another 3%, for a total of 20% of every sale.  If there’s any legitimate use of all that extra money, it’s dealing with the challenges that the state’s entry into recreational drugs might create.

In short, modifying that stretch of road to accommodate the cash cow should be a top priority.

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CNBC Sends RI to the Back of the Business Class… Again

Unless you’ve been getting your news mainly from the governor’s official press release feed, you may have heard that Rhode Island has dropped back down to last place on CNBC’s top states for business:

In the previous 10 years, Rhode Island has been ranked 50th four times, 49th twice and 48th twice. For each of the last two years, the state was ranked 45th.

“Having our rating drop even lower is disappointing but not surprising,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “In recent months, I have repeatedly called attention to the fact that our economy is losing ground compared to other states, despite years of major investment to reverse that. Government needs to do a better job of letting new and established companies conduct their business here in a timely manner.” …

Mattiello said Rhode Island needs “fundamental changes in the way state departments and agencies interact with businesses.” He cited the Department of Labor and Training and the Department of Environmental Management and said businesses need “real regulatory relief … not more fines and bigger hassles.”

The most disappointing aspect is that Mattiello’s talk doesn’t match his actions.  You just finished a legislative session.  That was your opportunity to have an effect.

The subindexes of CNBC’s ranking give some indication of the state government’s flawed approach to economic development, comparing 2019 to 2018.  In particular, if you’re trying to kick-start the economy in a top-down way, one of the levers you can control is access to capital, and indeed, Rhode Island improved for this iteration of the ranking, from 43rd to 39th.  Nonetheless, the Ocean sank from 28th to 48th when it comes to the economy.

At the end of the article, one of the governor’s many PR flacks (Matt Sheaff, who works for the Commerce secretary) offers a list of carefully chosen economic statistics to suggest the opposite — delusional and sunny — conclusion.  Sheaff’s list is suspiciously similar to one that Bryant University Economics Professor Edinaldo Tebaldi offered in a recent essay for GoLocalProv.  I’ve got a response forthcoming on that site, so I won’t go into detail, here, but suffice it to say that every point is either fleeting, misleading, or not as significant as it seems.

Our state is languishing and, over the long term, losing ground within the United States, and that needs to change.  The sad thing is that Rhode Island really does have so much potential, if it would just throw off the excess baggage that our elected officials continually layer on us.

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A Better Way to Cover Americans

With the State of Rhode Island writing ObamaCare into state law with this year’s budget, it’s worth noting a proposal floating around in conservative circles and the Trump Administration, as Avik Roy articulates here:

Last week, the White House finalized a new rule that allows employers to fund health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) that can be used by workers to buy their own coverage on the individual market. This subtle, technical tweak has the potential to revolutionize the private health insurance market. …

The administration estimates that as many as 800,000 employers — mostly smaller businesses — will choose this option, expanding health care choices for 11 million workers in the next decade. These employers will benefit from having fiscal certainty over their health expenditures. And workers will benefit from being able to choose their coverage and take it from job to job.

This is the health-care-market fix for which I’ve been advocating for years.  Everybody would get accounts, and employers could put money into them for their employees.  So could the government, as welfare benefits, and so could charities.  So could parents or even concerned members of a community after some surprise accident or illness for a neighbor.

At the same time, eliminate most mandatory coverages for health insurance so people for whom it makes sense can buy catastrophic coverage inexpensively.  That way everybody is covered for emergencies and nobody ever has a preexisting condition, because everybody has always had some sort of coverage.  At the same time, Americans would be better able to make health care decisions because they’d more often be paying directly for the services they receive and doing the cost-benefit analyses that people several steps removed from their situations can’t possibly do.

Of course, under such a system politicians attempting to buy votes would have to be more direct about it.  They’d be limited to transparently depositing taxpayer money into accounts instead of implicitly driving up costs in our opaque system by requiring insurers to cover certain benefits.  But in a fair analysis, a better, more-sustainable health care system that doesn’t distort the employment market is probably a little bit preferable to enabling corruption in politics.

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The Poster Boy for Progressive Privilege

Providence Journal headline: “Providence Mayor Elorza stands by staffer Regunberg after protest arrest.”  Of course he does:

Among the 18 people arrested for civil disobedience Tuesday night during a protest at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls over the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown was Aaron Regunberg, a policy advisor to Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Regunberg, a former state representative and candidate for lieutenant governor, and the others were taking part in a demonstration organized by the national Jewish youth protest movement Never Again. They were arrested for blocking vehicle access to the facility.

As far as anybody can tell, being a left-wing activist is Regunberg’s job.

By way of a review, Regunberg graduated from Brown University, an Ivy League school.  So far in his adult life, he’s been an activist, a state legislator, and a candidate for lieutenant governor (a six-figure, no-responsibility job).  During his hiatus between the campaign and attendance at Harvard Law School (more Ivy), the taxpayers of Providence and, implicitly, Rhode Island are paying the twentysomething Regunberg at a rate of $80,000 per year to be a policy advisor.

He is the poster boy for progressive privilege in Rhode Island.

That privilege includes not only the guarantee of a high salary no matter what he does, but also immunity from a semblance of representation.  The brazenness proves that Mayor Jorge Elorza has no concern about compromise or maintaining government that plausibly represents people of different views, otherwise it would matter that this employee was arrested for an ideological purpose.

If governing were the top priority, the mayor might also be concerned that one of his employees is attempting to terrify residents with the false specter of an American holocaust.

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A Strange Disagreement Over No-Bid Slot Deal

It’s strange to see the company with which the State of Rhode Island contracts to operate its state-run casinos objecting via a public-opinion campaign to the proposed contract for its electronic gambling machines:

If passed by lawmakers as proposed by Raimondo, the Lottery would be required to get 85 percent of its 5,000-plus electronic gambling machines from IGT, even though state law currently caps the number at 50 percent. The company would potentially get a bigger slice of the revenue pie.

And, as Twin River sees it, Rhode Island would lose the opportunity that other states — including Massachusetts — had to extract better deals from IGT by putting their contracts out to bid.

“We think R.I. taxpayers should be terrified by this deal,” Marc Crisafulli, the executive vice president of Twin River Worldwide Holdings — and president of the company’s Rhode Island casino operations — told The Journal on Friday as the opposition campaign was about to launch.

His argument: There’s a potential $10 billion in state gambling revenue riding “on the belief that the governor’s office did this 20-year secret deal entirely correctly. That’s a pretty big leap of faith when you consider the lack of process, the absence of any competition, the rushed nature of the deal … and the fact that the deal doesn’t seem to make any business sense. There’s no reason to do it now. The terms are very bad. … It undermines competition.”

A key point explained later in the article is that IGT’s machines are apparently the worst performers in terms of which games actually attract customers.   IGT machines average $258 per day, while machines by Everi average $303 and those by Scientific Games average $401.

I expect that there are considerations that don’t come across in the article, but from a distance, this looks like a classic example of RI’s way of doing business.  Why not seek maximum flexibility?  Why not give the people actually operating the casino more of a say in what it provides to customers?

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The Obviousness of Brazen Subversion

Whenever the subject comes up, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg jokes that he feels a bit like he’s picking up opposition communications when he listens to NPR.  Every now and then on his podcast, Bill Bartholomew gives me the same feeling.

Most of the time, the difference of Bartholomewtown resides in the sorts of guests who appear on the show or the general thrust of the questions.  Sometimes, however, the conversation takes place so many ideological assumptions deep that a conservative can only listen as if to a surrealist novel or coded dispatches from foreign spies.

Not surprisingly, one such episode was the one featuring drag queen activist Naomi Chomsky.  From the beginning, Bartholomew and his guest proceed on the assumption that drag queen story hour is wholesome.  What’s surreal and disconcerting is that the two of them seem unable to comprehend why others might disagree.  It’s simply posed, “What could be more wholesome than that?”  (I think that’s a direct quote, but I haven’t gone back and checked.)

Frankly, one gets the impression that such principles must be asserted as if they are obvious because they aren’t obvious at all, but pretty clearly a subversive opposite.  I’m reminded of Andrew Sullivan’s insistence in the early days of the same-sex marriage debate that we all had to get past the “circular fiat” of a definition.  Brushing aside the fact that activists were seeking to change a definition was intrinsic to the argument that there was no reason not to change it.  When asked directly, mainstream journalists would acknowledge that one could oppose same-sex marriage for reasons other than bigotry, but they never presented the issue as if that were true.

A particularly educational aspect of the Chomsky Bartholomewtown episode is how much is smuggled in with the initial assumption.  Even if one were to accept for argument’s sake the proposition that drag queen story hour could be wholesome, this particular drag queen chose a stage name to be explicitly ideological.

Over the course of the interview, Chomsky celebrates the Russian Revolution and looks forward to something similar in the United States, talks about hanging Confederates, and calls minority and homosexual police officers “traitors to their communities.”  And somehow a wig, a dress, and a bunch of makeup makes it obviously wholesome for this radical to read to children.  Contrast that with the experience of Karen Siegemund, who lost her job teaching math in California explicitly because she’d said something positive about Western Civilization in a speech outside of the school.

One needn’t agree with me that the subversiveness of drag is entirely reinforcing of the subversiveness of Chomsky’s entire ideological program to acknowledge a crucial point:  All of the important arguments are simply brushed aside because — consciously or not — the people having the conversation refuse to entertain them.  Pair that with activists’ having created an environment in which other people don’t want to raise the obvious objections and you can see what dangerous times we’re living in.

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What If Nobody Noticed the Governor’s Absence?

John DePetro points something out that one would think would be more widely mentioned:

Governor Raimondo made a loud statement by becoming the first Rhode Island Governor to blow off the Bristol July 4, Parade. Sources say the state congressional delegation were shocked Raimondo chose to skip the country’s longest running parade …

Parade organizers usually have to police the number of politicians that want to be part of the parade, and were upset Raimondo skipped it. Raimondo marched last year along with her son while gearing up for her November reelection. One parade source mentioned that even Gov. Linc Chafee always marched in Bristol despite his low poll numbers.

I’m not sure how John verified that no governor has ever missed the parade, but nonetheless, it seems notable that this one did.  It also seems notable how little remarked the absence was.  Even the state’s leading weekend political wrap-ups don’t take note.

Ordinarily, Ted Nesi’s “Nesi’s Notes” and Ian Donnis’s “TGIF” columns pick up small details of political relevance that might not have fit or been justified for full columns, and neither mentions this.  I’ve searched the local sites and, while I may have missed something, I don’t see the missing governor story anywhere.  Perhaps the Providence Journal’s “Political Scene” will cover it on Monday.

During the election, last year, the governor released a slick campaign video promoting her presence.

It’s fascinating what gets covered and what doesn’t.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to assert bias — Who knows what goes into any particular writer’s coverage decisions on a holiday weekend? — the topic is a good reminder of the leverage of the news media to shape people’s understanding of what’s going on and what’s important.

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Rhode Island: An OK Place to Live

Obviously, the more subjective the thing an index attempts to measure, the more subject it will be to interpretation, and WalletHub has made a cottage industry of cranking out subjective rankings.  That said, the Web site’s “Best States to Live in” ranking from June has some interesting considerations for the Ocean State.

Notably, the Ocean State is supposedly the 29th best state in which to live… which seems OK, considering Rhode Islanders’ expectation to come in at the very bottom of all rankings.  OK begins to look not so good, though, when one zooms out on the map.  WalletHub claims Massachusetts is #1 and New Hampshire #3.  Vermont and Maine are both in the teens, and Connecticut comes in at #20.

Looking at the subcategories, RI’s worst result was in “affordability,” which shouldn’t surprise anybody.  The Ocean State was the fourth least affordable state, after New York, California, and New Jersey.  But here’s the thing:  No New England states are very affordable.  Massachusetts, for example, is 43rd and New Hampshire is 42nd.

So what makes the difference?  Massachusetts is in the top 5 for everything else:  economy, education & health, quality of life, and safety.  New Hampshire only misses the top 5 in quality of life.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island only breaks the top 20 on the safety subcategory (at #5).  The conclusion is that Rhode Island might not be able to avoid being expensive, but that only means it can’t afford to be unattractive by other measures.

Here’s where the subjectivity of the index becomes important.  Quality of life includes things that Rhode Island can’t help, like the weather, and things that depend on one’s values and interests.  The importance of “miles of trails for bicycling and walking” will vary from person to person.

But quality of life also includes things like the quality of the roads, which is pretty universally valued.  Meanwhile, multiple criteria that the index uses center around leisure activities that cost money, which means disposable income is a factor, as is the ease with which businesses can pop up to answer the demand.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator states that a single Rhode Islander needs to make $12.35 per hour over a 2,080-hour workyear.  However, $1.86 of that goes to taxes.  For comparison, in New Hampshire, only $1.50 per hour goes to taxes.

This all suggests an unsurprising solution for improving Rhode Island’s standing:  lower taxes, use the money that is collected for things that are of more universal value, and decrease regulations.  We’d all have more money to spend, we’d feel better about our day-to-day life, and we’d be better able to answer each other’s needs.

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The State’s Casino Monopoly and a Wall Street Gamble

For practical purposes, the Twin River casinos are government run, with the state contracting its monopoly of the gambling market to the private company.  However, it’s worth remember from time to time that isn’t how the market sees the business:

In just over three months as a public company, the owner of the Tiverton Casino Hotel in Rhode Island has rapidly gained a following in the hedge fund community. Currently, 10 hedge funds own shares of Twin River, a massive amount for a $1.22 billion company that does not have two full quarters of trading under its belt. …

Twin River owns the only two casinos in the Ocean State, giving it a competitive advantage there. While a new regional threat is emerging in the form of Wynn’s recently opened Encore Boston Harbor, TRWH has some avenues for stemming the rivalry, including a different target demographic and legalized sports betting.

The entire arrangement has long cried for a thorough public discussion of this unique business model, so as to understand Rhode Islanders’ perspective on having a government that has essentially displaced the mob.  The interface with the investment markets adds another dimension.  Because, as the linked article highlights, the monopoly standing of Twin River is a marketable financial asset, should state and local taxpayers continue to benefit only by our percentage of the gambling profits?

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The Question of Cashlessness and Dictatorship

Since we’ve recently had some discussion about cashless business and the way it connects with freedom, which is particularly appropriate this week, developments in Hong Kong deserve a timely mention:

In Hong Kong, most people use a contactless smart card called an “Octopus card” to pay for everything from transit, to parking, and even retail purchases. It’s pretty handy: Just wave your tentacular card over the sensor and make your way to the platform.

But no one used their Octopus card to get around Hong Kong during the protests. The risk was that a government could view the central database of Octopus transactions to unmask these democratic ne’er-do-wells. Traveling downtown during the height of the protests? You could get put on a list, even if you just happened to be in the area.

So the savvy subversives turned to cash instead. Normally, the lines for the single-ticket machines that accept cash are populated only by a few confused tourists, while locals whiz through the turnstiles with their fintech wizardry.

How do I reconcile my agreement with the concerns of Reason’s Andrea O’Sullivan, who wrote the above, and my aversion to the Rhode Island government’s ban on cashless retail?  Well, I ask myself an important question:  Did the General Assembly pass and the governor sign that legislation in order to preserve the rights and anonymity of the people of Rhode Island?

No.  By all appearances, somebody complained to a legislator or two about running into difficulty making a purchase at some point.  The politicians thought the legislation would buy them some good will from desired constituencies (like young voters), and they don’t give much thought to the rights of business owners to define their own business models.  That doesn’t mean that the legislators’ conclusions were wrong or right, but it does suggest that they weren’t crafted carefully in such a way as to balance the interests of various groups and all of our interest in preserving our freedom.

Yes, Hong Kong does give us preview of a dystopian future.  Everybody’s accustomed to life without cash, and they’re on the dangerous edge of a communist dictatorship.  In evaluating legislation in the Ocean State, we shouldn’t start by imagining how it would play if transported into a dictatorship, but rather by asking whether it brings us closer to being one.

To avoid the dystopia, we need the freedom to innovate.  A society in which the government does not feel it has the authority to impose business requirements is one in which people will develop new technologies and value their freedom, competing against large conglomerates that, themselves, would one day be subject to takeover by a central government.

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Another Complaint Against Tiverton Council Dismissed

The Facebook spin after the Ethics Commission complaints against three Tiverton Town Council members (including me) were dismissed without investigation was that we only got away with it because we have friends on the commission.  (If you’ve watched state-level politics for a while, you may need to pause for a moment to finish laughing about that allegation before reading on.)

It will be interesting to see whether the same spin is tried against the Attorney General now that his office has joined the conspiracy:

On January 17, three members of the Tiverton Town Council – Patricia Hilton, Denise DeMedeiros, and Joseph Perry – filed an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint with the Rhode Island Attorney General against the other four councilors: Robert Coulter, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and me, all of us members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA). The complaint included three separate accusations, and after five months, more than $1,500 in expenses to the town, and many hours of lost time, all three counts have been dismissed. As the Attorney General’s ruling states, “we find that the Town Council did not violate the OMA.”

As I note at the second link above, this is all part of an ongoing effort to keep a disruptive Gotcha game going to color public perception.  If the people of Tiverton follow the example of the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General, review the facts, and talk to us, they’ll probably join the conspiracy, too.

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Hair Braider Freedom and Keeping the Rules Small Positives in a Dark Session

Let’s take a moment to celebrate something positive out of the General Assembly: the passage of legislation that would free natural hair braiders of the need to become licensed as full beauticians:

“For centuries, natural hair braiding has been a common practice for African and African American women and men. Hair braiding skills and techniques are passed down from generation to generation and do not require formal training. Forcing natural hair braiders to meet the same licensing requirements as cosmetologists is a clear injustice. This bill rights a wrong and allows entrepreneurs — including a lot of women from low-income neighborhoods — to make a living,” said Representative Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence). “Natural hair braiding is an art form, limited only by the braider’s creativity. The state does not require licenses to produce art, yet, that is in effect what is occurring now with natural hair braiders. Finally lifting this senseless requirement is a triumph for our community, not only freeing braiders from onerous regulations but also bringing about a bit of sorely needed cultural sensitivity.”

The bill (2019-H 5677A, 2019-S 0260A) defines natural hair braiding as “a service of twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending, locking, or braiding hair by hand or with mechanical devices.” The bill allows braiders to use natural or synthetic hair extensions, decorative beads and other hair accessories; to perform minor trimming of natural hair or hair extensions incidental to twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending, locking or braiding hair; and to use topical agents such as conditioners, gels, moisturizers, oils, pomades, and shampoos in conjunction with hair braiding as well as clips, combs, crochet hooks, curlers, curling irons, hairpins, rollers, scissors, blunt-tipped needles, thread, and hair binders. They may also make wigs from natural hair, natural fibers, synthetic fibers and hair extensions.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has been pushing for this legislation for years, now, so it’s good to see those efforts bear some fruit.  That said, it’s difficult not to see a dark lining to this silver cloud:  all that effort for this minor concession to freedom.  Observers must also wonder what the sponsors of this legislation had to vote for as the trade-off.

Similarly, it’s a positive development that House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (R, Block Island, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown) forced the legislature to finish up without suspending its rules, but as we move on from the 2019 session, we should ponder whether “not as bad as it could have been” is good enough.

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Cashless Businesses and a Boundaryless Legislature

As the budget rolls its way through the General Assembly, it’s useful to look for reminders about the political philosophy of our legislators.  In that vein, consider the legislation to ban cashless retail:

The General Assembly today passed legislation introduced by Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln) and Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket) that would protect the rights of customers to pay for things in cash.

“More and more retailers are shifting to cashless transactions in other parts of the country for various reasons,” said Representative Ackerman. “From a consumer perspective, this could have a negative impact on working class customers, senior citizens and college students who don’t have credit cards.”

The legislation (2019-H 5116A, 2019-S 0889) would make it unlawful for any retail establishment offering goods or services for sale to discriminate against a prospective customer by requiring the use of credit for purchase of goods or services.

Once again, we see legislators — led, in this case, by a real estate title examiner and a lawyer — who presume to set minute policy for every business in Rhode Island.  Even if one buys their argument that, all things being equal, it would be more just for businesses to accept cash, imposing that view as a blanket matter across the state makes it that much harder for people to find innovative ways to offer goods and services to each other.

Suppose, for example, there is a particular area prone to robbery.  Being able to advertise that there is never any cash on the premises might make the difference between whether a particular business finds it worthwhile to set up shop at all.  This problem is easier to understand if you think of a store that sells more-expensive products.

Or think of online sales, which the legislation exempts from the rule.  In essence, this bill would make it more difficult for somebody to compete with an online business by providing some person-to-person interaction.  That innovator couldn’t set up shop unless he or she is willing to go so far as to create processes for accepting and handling cash, which also includes having change to return to the customer.

One could say not only that this legislation is dumb, but also that it is dangerous and economically destructive to have a legislature that believes it’s even within the appropriate scope of its authority.

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Straight Up Taxpayer Dollars for Promise of a New Treatment

After Steve Ahlquist firstbrought attention to the million dollar handout that the Rhode Island House wishes to give to Dr. Victor Pedro for his Cortical Integrative Therapy (CIT), a WPRI report covered the history of Pedro’s taxpayer funding.  One can’t help but feel that there must be more to the story:

  • Legislative leaders have long gone to bat for the doctor.
  • The executive branch has apparently made extra efforts to secure Medicaid funding for his treatments.
  • And even mild-mannered Lieutenant Governor Daniel McGee has spoken well of Pedro, including his activities in Cumberland schools back when McKee was mainly known as a mayor for that town.

Amazingly, though, nobody has yet mentioned the connection of pop star Paula Abdul, which takes an only-in-Rhode-Island turn.  Says Abdul:

I wish I’d had Cortical Integrative Therapy when I first discovered I had RSD, and I wish Dr. Pedro had been a part of my support system then like he is now.  The treatment replaces the old tapes in your head that have held onto the tapes of pain.  It helps your brain to allow for new experiences and new memories that don’t involve pain.  Think of it in terms of a computer — you’re deleting old files so you can free up more space.  I didn’t find out about Cortical Integrative Therapy until recently, and it has proved to be a life-changing treatment for my RSD.

The strange Rhode Island turn is that Abdul has another connection to Rhode Island as the long-time girlfriend of John Caprio, son of Caught in Providence star judge Frank Caprio and brother of the former treasurer and gubernatorial candidate of the same name as well as former representative David Caprio.  Various online sources also seem to indicate that Abdul has set up various businesses at 2220 Plainfield Pike in Cranston in the past.

This topic could certainly take a serious turn into political theory as an example of why government shouldn’t be in the investment and research business, why Rhode Island should end legislative grants, and why the governor should have the line-item veto.  If Pedro is an innovative practitioner of alternative medicine for the stars, he shouldn’t need government subsidies.

For this post, though, let’s just close with a sincere hope that Rhode Island’s press is sufficiently interested to unravel this entire peculiar tale.

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Discrimination at the University of Rhode Island

Mark Perry, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), notes that the University of Rhode Island has made the list of American institutions of higher education under investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for possible violations of Title IX:

The University just accepted $1 million from Karen L. Adams for single-sex, female-only scholarships that will discriminate based on sex (no male students are allowed to apply and that scholarship funding openly excludes male students from participation based on sex, and that scholarship funding openly denies male students from the benefits of that funding in violation of Title IX.

This isn’t the only discriminatory program at URI.  In 2017, I became aware of a chemistry camp at the university available for free to Rhode Island middle school students, as long as they are female.  The 2019 camp was in April.  In fact, the week-long camp is so popular that it’s full, and participation is limited to those who have not gone in the past:

A weeklong chemistry camp for Rhode Island girls in grades 6-8. Girls will come to URI every day (transportation not included) from 9 am to 4 pm April 15-19, and take part in a full day of interactive science education. Each day has a THEME, will include lunch and snack, and will allow girls to participate in hands-on science experiments. No experience is necessary, just an interest in science and a sense of fun! We will talk with female scientists in interesting professions, travel to Mystic Aquarium, and visit the Narragansett Bay Commission. THE CAMP IS FREE; students are expected to figure out their own transportation to and from URI daily.

When I first noticed the program, I contacted the professor who runs it, Mindy Levine.  She acknowledged that “research that [she had] read on boys’ education indicates clearly that current educational models are designed for girls and the way girls learn, and that all children (but especially boys) would benefit from more extensive hands-on, experiential learning.”  Professor Levine said she would be willing to work with somebody on a program for boys, but I’m not able to find any that have been developed.

This is the seventh year of the girls program, funded by Pfizer, and it accommodates 40 girls (or boys who identify as girls).

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Center Hosts Fourth Annual Shotguns & Cigars Fundraiser At Addieville

On Friday, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity hosted one of our signature events— our fourth annual Shotguns & Cigars fundraiser was a huge success. The day features outdoor fun, camaraderie, cigars, bourbon and wine, and a juicy steak all at Addieville East Farm. Teams of four enjoyed practicing our shotgun skills with sporting clays. We, once again, proved that our Second Amendment rights can be used responsibly.

Here are some images from this incredible day. Please e-mail Info@RIFreedom.org to inquire about joining us next year.

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Like Plaque, Education Bureaucracies Are Cumulative

It was to be expected that even inadequate, sound-good education reforms from Rhode Island’s General Assembly would come at a cost, as reported by the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg:

The Senate Finance Committee last month asked Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green what she would need to take on the new responsibilities included in this package of legislation, which, among other things, calls for instituting high-quality civics instruction, expanding world languages statewide, improving instruction for students with dyslexia and giving principals more authority.

“To fully support the requirements of these legislative priorities and to transform the department to focus more on supporting educators, students, and the community, RIDE needs additional expertise and capacity across a wide range of areas, such as implementing high-quality curriculum and supporting school leaders,” said Rhode Island Department of Education spokesman Pete Janhunen. “The request contains a list of proposed positions that align with the priorities of both the commissioner and the General Assembly.”

The ask is for $1.9 million, mostly to hire new personnel.  One question remains unasked, however.  If this is a “shift” in the nature of the department, are there no roles that no longer need to be filled?

This is another $1.9 million for the state’s education bureaucracy, so it can edge in on the territory of local decision makers.  Actually, it’s fig-leaf spending and reorganizing in order to avoid addressing the actual problem:  Our public schools have insufficient accountability and are structured for the benefit of the adults who work in them, rather than the children who attend them.

Until Rhode Islanders have had enough and are willing to force elected officials to address that problem, every proposed solution will amount to merely more or less wasted money and time.

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Relentless Perpetuation of the “Equal Pay” Myth via Legislation

Helpful headlines notwithstanding, the Rhode Island Senate once again passed legislation to address the mythical “wage gap”:

A plan to close the gender wage gap in Rhode Island by adding new, sharper teeth to the state’s fair pay law and banning employers from asking job candidates their salary history sailed through the state Senate again Thursday.

“Rhode Island first passed an equal pay law in the 1950s, and I am sure it was revolutionary at the time, but we have not gone back and updated it unlike many other states,” said Sen. Gayle Goldin, lead sponsor of the pay equity legislation. “Passing this bill is not going to resolve the wage gap on its own, rather, this bill in combination with so many things we have worked on… is the way we will address the gender wage gap.”

And so it goes.  As long as progressives want to foster division and grievance, this legislation will keep appearing.  Maybe some year the gears of political necessity will get it over the finish line.  As that process plays on from year to year, opponents will tire of saying the same thing over and over again.  That’s the advantage of the left-wing approach to public “debate”:  When you refuse to acknowledge the other side’s arguments and just keep repeating the talking points, the other side moves to other topics, and the public just becomes used to the deception.

By way of a preventative measure, here’s my op-ed on the topic, from the Providence Journal last year around this time, which I published in more casual, expansive form in this space the month before:

Plainly put, this gives the government power to investigate just about any business and dictate changes to its pay policies, because the only pay differentials that wouldn’t have legal risks would be those between people of the same race, religion, sex, orientation, gender identity, disability, age, and nationality.  That is, for any two employees who aren’t more or less demographically identical, the lower-paid one could initiate a complaint with the state with the same treatment as complaints that the employer withheld pay, and the burden is on the employer to explain it and to prove that no other business practice could erase it.

Think about how much of an encroachment on private activity and interactions that is, as well as the presumption that government is some sort of neutral judge that can accurately assess every business decision.

If this legislation ever passes, I expect it will have some degree of the same effect as the ill-advised paid leave legislation which progressives did manage to pass last yearl.

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How the Issues Blend in the General Assembly

Maybe I’m being a little too cynical, but a serendipitous press release from the Rhode Island Senate at least provides an opportunity to contemplate how things operate at the State House.

As readers probably have heard by now, the Democrat leadership of the Senate engaged in an unprecedented last minute political stunt by pulling an abortion bill that decriminalizes fetal homicide from the Judiciary Committee and sends it to the Health and Human Services Committee, which everybody expects to pass it.  The reason for this unusual move was that Senate Republicans looked like they were going to leverage their rights as a minority under the chamber’s rules to add two votes to the “nay” side and stop the radical, unnecessary, and deceptive legislation.

The odd thing about it is that Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D, Warwick) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D, Providence, North Providence) could have done the same thing.  Instead, the Senate president managed to ensure that the bill passes committee without admitting that he voted for it.

Now the press release posted on the Web the same day as the committee maneuver:

The Senate today passed legislation (2019-S-803Aaa) sponsored by President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, North Providence, Providence) that takes a new approach to economic development on large tracts of state land. Spurred by delays and impediments imposed upon the Hope Point Tower proposal for the I-195 Redevelopment District, the bill intends to create a more streamlined process for approvals on these state-owned parcels moving forward.

“We have a rare opportunity for development at the former I-195 land and some other areas across the state,” said Senator Ruggerio. “In the I-195 District, a developer is hoping to invest more than a quarter of a billion dollars to create an iconic structure that redefines the skyline. We should have welcomed this investment with open arms. Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away. Thankfully, he’s still here. This process has sent a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island.”

This is a big-money deal of particular interest to labor unions, for which Ruggerio worked until he retired after becoming Senate president.  The only reason I hesitate to link this with the abortion bill is that the vote wasn’t really that close: 28 to 8.  On the other hand, eight “nay” votes is pretty substantial in our one-sided legislature.  Had 10 votes flipped, the bill would have failed.  When the bill was in Senate Judiciary, four flipped votes would have stopped it.

So, the lesson:  When considering the up-and-down votes on any particular bill, you can’t assume legislators are judging the merits alone.  The lives of unborn children, in this case, can perhaps be sacrificed for the sake of a crony development deal.  Or perhaps some other backroom deal has been struck so that the House will stop the legislation in exchange for a return favor from the Senate.

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Analogizing Over Constitutional Rights

Elsewhere in the Boston Globe, Ed Fitzpatrick takes up the topic of requiring a license to purchase ammunition.  This part is especially telling about the gun-control lobby’s point of view:

The study noted a gun without ammunition is no more dangerous than any other blunt object. But “unlike the public health view on drug policy, which recognizes the importance of limiting access to both the agent of harm (the narcotic) and the instrument of delivery (for example, syringe), gun policy has focused primarily on limiting access to the instrument of delivery, firearms,” it noted.

The study said guns and ammunition are more likely to be used in violent crimes when they’re in the hands of felons (such as Charlie Vick) and others prohibited from owning weapons

Frankly, I take this to be evidence of an intention to infringe, when it comes to gun regulation.  Drugs are not explicitly protected on the Constitution, guns are.  To equate the two plows right through the Bill of Rights and steals the base of asserting that both drugs and weapons are inherently harmful.

As for the likelihood of crimes, that’s pretty much a tautology.  It would be a pretty useless regulation that didn’t forbid ownership of an item to people who were more likely to abuse that right.  Even so, the fact that people who tend toward crime will be more likely to use an item for illicit purposes doesn’t justify making it a crime for other people to buy it without a license.

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