Things We Read Today (27), Wednesday


Let’s see… where was I when the power went out?

Campaign Finance Paperwork Waits for No Storm

Hunkered down, keeping my day-job rolling between the periodic momentary blackouts, it came to my attention that yet another finance report from my campaign for Tiverton School Committee had to be postmarked on the 30th.  I did my utmost to collect records by candle light and to email PDFs to the Board of Elections as the batteries waned on my laptop and mobile-hotspot-providing cell phone, but the postmark on my envelope is one day late.

I wouldn’t want anybody to be misled into thinking the many hours of service that I’m volunteering to offer over the next four years will be skewed by my sub-$500 campaign activities.

The experience brings to mind Edward Fitzpatrick’s article in the Sunday Providence Journal lamenting that “Too many offices are uncontested.”  It also brings to mind the one Board of Elections meeting that I’ve attended; most of the business had to do with people who’d wanted to do some good in their communities and wound up running afoul of the board.  And the strongest impression of the proceedings was of the board members’ insecurity, prompting multiple references to their nigh upon judicial authority.

John Marion, of Common Cause RI, told Fitzpatrick that his group is “focused on barriers to entry and incumbent advantage because they are process issues.”  Fitzpatrick paraphrases Marion as saying that “those in power create systems that perpetuate their dominance.” The experience of running for office hasn’t made it any clearer to me how objecting to such abuses can possibly be squared with his organization’s advocacy for strong (I would say, “stringent”) campaign finance regulations.

Via Twitter, today, Anchor Rising‘s Patrick Laverty questioned RI Democrat operative William Fischer on why  a campaign finance omission by progressive General Assembly challenger Mark Binder is “hypocrisy,” but  one by  incumbent House Speaker Gordon Fox was not.  Given the potential complexities of the law, the net effect of these policies is to make upstart challenges more difficult and less likely.

Who Put the Dam in the Ram-a-Dam Economy?

Speaking of Gordon Fox (and Patrick Laverty’s Twitter feed), here’s an interesting quotation from an Ian Donnis report on RI Public Radio:

Fox rose to the top post in the House in 2010. He says the multi-faceted causes of Rhode Island’s high unemployment can’t be laid at the feet of the General Assembly. The openly gay Fox says he plans to call a vote on same-sex marriage in the new legislative session starting in January.

To paraphrase: The economy is not the General Assembly’s fault, and people should vote for Fox based on a social/wedge issue. As this telling map from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows — beyond a shadow of a doubt, in my opinion — there is something very unique to Rhode Island that is keeping the state’s economy down, and I’d hazard to assert that it isn’t the lack of same-sex marriage.

Certainly, history, location, and culture play a role, but at least some of those factors should arguably be positives.  It isn’t presumptuous to suggest that public policy is the origin of a great deal of Rhode Island’s pain, and as the government body responsible for writing the laws that determine the policies, the General Assembly is clearly at the top of the list for accountability.

The only group higher on the list are the people of Rhode Island, who are responsible for choosing their representatives.  If that’s what Speaker Fox meant, he should have said so.

Where Chafee Leads, Obama Follows?

One agenda item that President Obama has presented for his second term sounds eerily familiar:

“We should have one Secretary of Business, instead of nine different departments that are dealing with things like giving loans to SBA or helping companies with exports,” Mr. Obama said in an interview that aired Monday on MSNBC. “There should be a one-stop shop.”

It almost seems as if the president is taking his cues from Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee:

There was broad agreement at the meeting that a high-ranking individual in state government needs to be tasked as the “focal point” for promoting and protecting commerce, according to Steinberg. Chafee said he is “very open” to the idea of making such an appointment, though it’s unclear whether he would add that position within the governor’s office or seek to create a new secretariat, as RIPEC proposed, which could require Senate confirmation.

We can debate whether or not it speaks well of the president’s ambitions that such parallels exist, but on the idea itself, I’m inclined to agree with Veronique de Rugy that it amounts to further “institutionalizing cronyism“:

… Think about it: The thing these agencies have in common is that their main goal is to deliver taxpayer dollars to the private sector. …

I think it is very possible that consolidating all the programs that grant privileges to a selected few could end up institutionalizing cronyism — or the unhealthy marriage between the private sector and government — more than it already is. Basically, this consolidation could make the job of lobbyists even easier. Whatever your private interest, in order to get government money, you would only have to make one stop instead of nine.

At the very least, entrenching a commerce czar is only dubiously labeled as an “economic development” initiative.  Chafee has said that, under his changes, “economic development efforts will be organized so they are agile, responsive, and accountable,” but that’s not really possible.  The only way agility and accountability can coexist is when an entity has the authority to be agile and is made accountable by loss of power and position.

The reality of the legislature means the czar cannot be sufficiently agile, and the reality of an elected governor means that an appointed official is more likely to be a scapegoat than a final authority.  And of course, the reality of basic economics is that a bureaucrat cannot possibly do more than react to the economy with incomplete information.

The Warning Sign of Sandy

My house lacked power until 2:00 a.m., this morning, and other areas of the state have had far worse experiences.  Still, as bad as it has been, pictures from New Jersey and New York City show that Rhode Island received only a glancing blow.

How would we have fared, here, if Hurricane Sandy had followed the coast a bit farther before hitting land?  I’m not optimistic.

For too long, Rhode Island government has made a habit of leaving its basic functions to bond questions on voter ballots and (as we’ve seen in Tiverton, with the Sakonnet River Bridge) cut corners on maintenance.  We should take the (let’s be honest) far-from-historic storms that have hobbled parts of the Ocean State in recent years as warning signs.

Our economy is an immediate disaster in need of get-government-out-of-the-way remedies, but our infrastructure is a natural disaster waiting to happen.  For that, we must reorder our priorities within the activities of government.

  • Just curious why a tech savvy guy like you wouldn't simply file online with the BoE instead of printing out and mailing a return!!??!!

  • justinkatz

    Because I couldn't find the form to register for a login… it certainly isn't as obvious as such forms usually are, the "ERTS User Manual" PDF on the right sidebar is in Spanish, and when you finally find an English version, it doesn't tell you anything about registering.