Things We Read Today (24), Thursday


West Warwick’s Preview for All of Rhode Island

Every Rhode Islander should print out this Alex Kuffner story about West Warwick’s budgetary problems and stick it to the fridge or put it in some other spot that they come across regularly:

The proposed solution that Stampfler presented in a half-full auditorium at West Warwick High School would affect every constituency in town — taxpayers, current town workers and workers who have retired.

Under his plan, the town would not only increase taxes — something the Town Council has refused to do for the past three years — but would enact the maximum increases allowed under state law for the foreseeable future.

For all current municipal workers, including police officers, firefighters and Town Hall employees, salaries would be frozen for five years and health insurance contributions would increase to 20 percent. Furthermore, minimum staffing requirements would be suspended and total overtime expenses would be reduced by 65 percent to an annual $500,000. Pension benefits would be slashed. For active workers, that would mean increasing the minimum retirement age and calculating benefits based on a five-year average rather than the last 12 months of employment. For those who are retired, benefits would be reduced by 20 percent. And for both groups, annual 2.25-percent cost-of-living adjustments would be eliminated.

Barring radical change in policy and economy, this scenario is coming to the state and to every city and town in Rhode Island, probably in five to ten years — depending how long the treasurer’s office, Retirement Board, and other bureaucrats manage to run everything through their crisis, critical, and catastrophic processes (however we want to refer to them). As the article goes on to explain, pension problems are at the heart of West Warwick’s difficulty.

Unless pension fund returns take a huge leap forward, that’s the time span that will get us to the Retirement Board’s new power to dictate the terms of pension reform to the General Assembly. Yes, legislators could change the law that gave them that power, but either way, no pension is fully funded by a safe estimate, and the problem is only getting worse.

Avoiding the Real Difference in Education Reform

Dana Goldstein, writing on Slate, says that Republican Mitt Romney proffered the farthest-left education reform currently in the mainstream debate — namely, allowing “poor and disabled schoolchildren to move their federal education funding across district lines.” But it takes her until the very last paragraph to get to (1) the reason that she’s probably wrong and (2) the fundamental difference between education reform extremists (if you will) on either side of the aisle:

No president can wave a magic wand and undo the strictly localized nature of the American public school system. If we want to blurry the far too harsh lines between school districts, we need cooperation at every level of government: federal and state funding incentives, of course, but even more crucially, actual laws and regulations requiring wealthy districts to cooperate with their less affluent neighbors.

That final clause is only true if one insists that public schools must remain entirely blind to things like aptitude and attitude. Think the lottery system used for charter schools; they’re better than an absence of options, but there’s nothing mutual about the choice. I’m sure, for example, that higher tiers of government would have no trouble persuading Barrington to take students from Warren or even Providence who met the criteria that they’re suited to absorb.

That means intelligence and behavior, of course, but it could also mean the types of disabilities. When severely disabled students enter a district, they require investment in very specific services. The latest data I’ve seen in Tiverton, for example, puts the cost per “average” student at $14,700, but the cost per special needs student at more than $60,000. If the town has, on staff or by contract, a specialist who can take on multiple children with the same disability, it would be very desirable to accept them.

The problem with leftist reforms is that they seek ways to force people to get with their program rather than to create systems that make cooperation win-win. (Put differently, they spin difficulties or platitudes like diversity for diversity’s sake as if they count as wins.)

RI: A Society in Decline

Look, when a society is both forward-looking in a socially conscious way and prosperous, people have children.  When it is not, they do not.

Ted Nesi notes that Rhode Island is last in the nation again, this time for fertility:

The study shows Rhode Islanders gave birth to 10,960 babies last year, which translates to 51.5 births for every 1,000 female residents between the ages of 15 and 44 – the lowest fertility rate of any state in the nation.

Well, you know, what do you expect in a society in which the capital city’s mayor (unless I missed something) refuses to marry the mother of his child and a growing percentage of public figures are reaching middle age childless?

Of course, the truly horrid economy, in this state, is another factor depressing the willingness to have children.  And it’s entirely possible that the sorts of folks who would establish families are heavily represented among those leaving the state.

However you want to rank the various factors, it’s undeniably more evidence that Rhode Island is a society in decline, and recovery will be a choice, not an accident of economic development policy.

Another Kind of Birth Lacking

But births of human beings aren’t the only births in decline in Rhode Island.  Hidden behind the GoLocalProv headline that “Rhode Island Ranks #19 In US For Entrepreneurship,” which is a relatively positive score for the Ocean State, is the fact that it’s one in seven states that lost non-farm establishments (i.e., businesses) from 2004 to 2011.  But we compensated by being one of only two states to actually lose population over that period, which explains why we’re 34th for establishment growth, but 23rd for establishment growth per person.

And our decline definitely helped us achieve our number 9 rank for “business formation rate,” which just means “new businesses per capita.” The race is on, in other words, to see which wins: economic collapse or social collapse.

Making Dependency Easy

John Stossel sent some interns out to investigate the current difficulty that the dependency portal will help alleviate:

… I sent four researchers around the area. They quickly found 40 job openings. Twenty-four were entry-level positions. One restaurant owner told me he would hire 12 people if workers would just apply. …

“First I went to the Manhattan Jobs Center and asked, “Can I get help finding a job?” They told me they don’t do that. ‘We sign people up for food stamps.’ I tried another jobs center. They told me to enroll for unemployment benefits.”

So the “jobs” centers help people get handouts. Neither center suggested people try the 40 job openings in the neighborhood.

It goes on.  It seems that our safety net isn’t so much protecting people from the abyss as from jobs that they don’t want to do.  Our current path, with health benefits exchanges that will eventually automatically provide other government handouts, is the wrong one.

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