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The Danger to the Status Quo of Thwarting Democracy

I have no doubt this dynamic plays itself out across Rhode Island, but as another instance, it seems the Tiverton Town Council thinks democracy is mostly legitimate to the extent that it empowers them to make decisions for everybody else, with minimal accountability:

Beware this trio’s “looking.” Take away the political spin, and the objection of [Town Council Member John Edwards, the Fifith,] and his posse is clearly to limit the ability of voters to have control over town government more often than every two years at a heated election with state and national races on the ballot. Because their political friends have an advantage during regular November elections, that’s when they want the key decisions made.

Every budget for the past six years of the [financial town referendum] has received a majority vote, and usually, it isn’t even close. Members of the Budget Committee who put forward last year’s low, 0.5%-increase budget were all elected. Members of the Charter Review Commission were also all elected. Edwards just doesn’t like that his friends didn’t win.

The responsibility for the rest of us is to make sure that the insiders learn one lesson good and hard:  At some point, we’re going to stop dabbling around the edges and take over the governing bodies, and when we do so, we’re going to change a whole lot more than the year-to-year tax increases.

Grover Norquist put his finger on something true when he said, at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s banquette on Friday, that progressives are motivated by the possibility of taking things from other people and making them do things, while conservatives are motivated by the desire to be left alone.

Too often, being left alone includes being able to avoid getting involved in the day to day operation of government, but there’s bound to be a breaking point.  People will put up with quite a bit of abuse if it means they get to keep their Monday nights more or less to themselves, but if the abuse becomes too substantial, they’ll give up those Monday nights to meetings… and then work to reduce the amount of time they have to spend telling other people what to do.

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Why Everybody Wants a Government Job

Howie Carr recently detailed some results from a Massachusetts inspector general report looking into the goldmine of unused sick time in the public sector, including some of the arguments for lavish pay and benefits.  Here’s a particularly trenchant juxtaposition:

On page 8: “(We must) pay a reasonable salary to the staff we have so that we could retain them.”

On page 13: Inability to promote younger hacks because “the only opportunities for advancement come about when someone leaves, which is an extremely rare event.”

Both of the above can’t be true. Either they’re leaving because they’re not getting paid enough or the jobs are so great that vacancies are “extremely rare.” Lack of turnover — it’s not a terribly pressing problem most places in the DPS like, say, the food court at your local mall.

When the Tiverton School Committee appeared before the Budget Committee last year and complained that its teachers are among the lowest-paid in the state, I asked how difficult the district finds it to be to fill positions.  Frankly, I don’t think most people involved with state or local government understand why those two points should even be connected.

As with other negotiations in which local government engages, people in office tend to negotiate against some abstract vision rather than with a focus on their constituents’ interests.  Without a profit motive, as private entities and businesses have, and with an apathetic electorate, they have no incentive to pull very hard in the tug of war.

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Negotiations in Municipal Government

On Tiverton Fact Check, the town’s negotiations with Twin River lead me to wonder about elected officials’ sense of negotiation:

Wait, hold on. Construction is already underway, and as Newport showed when it rejected a similar proposal, the process for Twin River to set up its government-run casino in a particular municipality is complicated, expensive, time consuming, and risky. So… what’s Twin River’s leverage in this negotiation for tax deals?

One gets the sense — at least at the local level — that elected officials aren’t negotiating so much in the bare-knuckle interests of their constituents as against some abstract and relative idea about what a “fair” result would look like.  In this case, construction is under way.  How is it that the negotiations are now moving toward giving Twin River a better deal, rather than getting more relief for taxpayers?

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The No-Brainer of Tiverton Casino Revenue Usage

I’ve got a post up on the redesigned and content-increased Tiverton Fact Check reviewing some of the scenarios that the Tiverton government is considering as it discusses what should be done with the pending windfall from state gambling revenue.  At this point, I’m leaning toward an “every penny” approach to tax reductions.  As I write in the post:

While the budget was exploding in the years before the financial town referendum (FTR) put an end to the abuse, spending advocates measured the taxes by how many cups of coffee Tiverton residents would have to give up each year — as in, “This is the equivalent of just one cup of coffee per day.”  Now that we’ve all adjusted our caffeine habits accordingly, revenue from the casino presents an opportunity for the people of Tiverton to keep enough of their earnings for things they shouldn’t have had to give up in the first place, like home repairs, vacations, and retirement savings.

Elected and appointed officials are convincing themselves that they have a higher perspective and a responsibility to figure out how to keep control of the money away from taxpayers, but in Tiverton, as everywhere, we really do have the authority and the right to tell local government to get off our backs.

It’s high time Rhode Islanders remembered their autonomy.  Do we really need any more evidence that people in government have no reasonable claim to competence?

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Electoral Politics and the Lament of the Well-Informed Observer

Although his focus is Fall River, Marc Monroe Dion’s lament of the well-informed observer in the Fall River Herald rings true much more broadly, certainly throughout this one-party region of festering apathy:

And Wednesday morning, when another dud of a Fall River election was over, there wasn’t anything left to do but pick up the crumpled napkins.

I say “dud” because hardly anyone votes, and I say “hardly anyone” because I write the history blog for this paper, and am often immersed in old newspaper stories from the days when a 60 or 70 percent turnout was the norm.

People who work in newsrooms live very close to the political process, so we overestimate the public’s level of interest, and we do that no matter how many 30 percent turnouts crop up in our stories. Politics in Fall River is like soccer in the rest the country. It’s going to get popular NEXT year.

As I’ve written again and again, what people seem most to want from government is the ability not to pay attention.  Back when those old newspaper articles that Dion references were written, life was more difficult and entertainment more scarce.  Moreover, government did less and was therefore easier to get one’s head around.

What the busy schedules of modern life haven’t pushed aside, the progressive big-government mudslide of the last century has swept away.  Not only has government been made to seem like the existential battle of partisan tribes, but it’s so pervasive and intricate that the average person feels unqualified to assert his or her own interests, at least in contravention of insiders’ priorities.  Add to those dynamics the promise that central planning can relieve us of the need to pay attention.

We’ve gotten to the point, however, that people just want to be left out of the pressure and vitriol, free to live their lives.  The way back from that feeling isn’t obvious, unless we can promote the principle that government has no right to do things beyond the ken of the people.

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Selling Assets as a “Once and for All” Pension Fix Is a Bad Idea

Reporting on WPRI, Dan McGowan and Walt Buteau explain that Democrat Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza is looking to sale of the city’s water supply as a means of filling the giant chasm of Providence employees’ pension fund:

Elorza, who is planning to run for re-election next year, said he’s seeking a “once and for all” solution to the city’s pension challenges.

 

As a general proposition, selling the water supply might or might not be a good idea, but this reason is horrible.  Just look to Woonsocket, which sold pension obligation bonds to fill its fund to 100% in 2003, but by 2011 was down to 57.7% funded.  The latest numbers on the Web site of the state Division of Municipal Finance put Woonsocket’s funding at 49.1%.

Unless a municipality fixes its underlying problems — such as overly generous employee packages and a more-realistic estimate for investment returns — every scheme will be a temporary fix.  In this case, Providence will have one fewer asset to help with unforeseen challenges in the future.

Even more, Elorza explicitly claims that another entity could run the system better because Providence is “so heavily regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.”  If that’s the problem, fix the PUC, and if Elorza thinks the PUC is little more than an expensive restriction, he should advocate for its abolishment. Otherwise, he’s just condemning those who drink and pay for Providence water to unnecessary expense (if the PUC is an excess) or unhealthy drinking water (if its regulations are actually needed).

By all means, if the city is having trouble running its water system, sell it off, but only if the new system is a better system of itself.  If a private company is willing to buy the water, it’s because there’s profit to be made (at least for employees), which indicates a problem with city management.  And if the money for the assets ultimately comes from the state, the whole thing will have been a one-time scam whose benefits for the city will rapidly disappear.

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Power Outages as Another Warning Sign

Rhode Islanders should take stories like Mark Reynolds’s in The Providence Journal as yet another warning sign that what can’t go on forever won’t:

As of 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, 83,227 homes and businesses were without power, according to National Grid’s website. Late Tuesday night, 102,432 had been without power.

The effort to restore power will be a “multiday effort,” a spokesman for National Grid said Monday.

The central purpose of government is to ensure baseline security and resilience, and infrastructure is near the top of that list.  When government becomes too big, insiders find it much more profitable to themselves to pursue other things first and to let their boring responsibilities suffer.

We appear to have reached the point, in Rhode Island, that government’s apparent first priority is to promise things, but not necessarily to manage to deliver them well.  Combine all of these power outages from a wind storm with the UHIP debacle and ask yourself:  Do you think the resources we allocate for government will have us properly prepared when something really terrible happens?

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Wariness of Helpful Government in Case the Picture Flips

Many college graduates over the past few decades will have come across live painting performances, in which the artist makes a performance out of the craft.  My recollection is that the guy I saw back in 1993 was a bit of a pioneer (Denny Dent, I think), and part of his set involved pretending to mess up a painting of Jimi Hendrix only to flip it over and reveal the work as a success.  The image of him flipping that painting over comes to mind when I read news like this, in the Providence Journal:

The Cranston Police Department and Cranston Public Schools are working together to implement a program that will help identify homes of children with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities.

The goal is to improve safety for children, and parents have the option to include their children in the registry, according to a news release from the chief of the Cranston Police Department, Col. Michael J. Winquist. Parents who wish to participate may fill out a form on the department’s website. Forms are also being distributed through the city’s public schools.

Yes, it’s well intentioned and voluntary.  But… but… I can’t help but think of CBS’s proclaiming Iceland’s supposed progress in “eliminating Down syndrome” by aborting unborn children who have it and the constant push to implement and expand legalization of euthanasia around the world.

While I wouldn’t criticize the city for implementing the program, or residents for utilizing it, I think it’s important to pause and recognize that the picture being painted in our culture has all the features of a truly terrifying portrait and may only require a flip to reveal where it was going all along.

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PawSox Hearings Giving Troubling Insight into Officials’ Thinking

The final Senate Finance hearing about the proposal for a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket, as reported by Kate Bramson of the Providence Journal, has a couple of details that ought to be warning signs to Rhode Islanders with respect to the attitudes of government officials in the state:

[Pawtucket City Commerce Director Jeanne] Boyle said city payments could be made in early years from money set aside in a capitalized-interest account from bond proceeds. She said the city could also assess a fee on property near the stadium so some additional money would flow into the city’s general fund right away.

If this is correctly reported, then it’s new.  Up to now, the hints that we’ve heard have been that the city might expand the tax increment finance (TIF) area around the stadium so that more taxes would go to the stadium.  Ultimately, that’s just a sneaky way to force an increase in taxes without immediately blaming it on the development.

This sounds like a direct tax on businesses and residents around the stadium under the assumption that they’re profiting somehow from the stadium.  That would be a terrible way to go.

On a different matter, consider this evidence that Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton Senator James Seveney isn’t really representing his own constituents:

… Sen. James A. Seveney pinpointed that the legislation says money from a surcharge on premium tickets (in corporate suites, for example) might help the state pay off its $23-million contribution. But as it is written, the legislation doesn’t allow that for the city’s payments.

“Maybe that should be in yours,” Seveney said, to which Grebien responded: “We’d gladly take that. Having said that, it was very difficult negotiations.”

Seveney continued: “I’m not too worried about the state’s position, and I’m not worried about the team’s position. I think they’re going to be fine. I am worried about you guys.”

Why is an East Bay senator more concerned about Pawtucket taxpayers than about the liability of the people who elected him?  Sure, we should care about Pawtucket’s problems, but Seveney is essentially putting forward his constituents as a cash cow.

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Political Monday with John DePetro, No. 31: Sick Outs and What It Means to Be a Democrat

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the Warwick sick outs, my ethics complaint, Josh Miller’s view of the Democrats, Raimondo’s remorse for hurting journalists’ feelings.

Open post for full audio.

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Ethics Commission Moves Forward on Edwards Complaint

Because the complaint that I filed with the state Ethics Commission against Town Council Vice President John Edwards, V, has become a subject of statewide interest, I’ll post updates as they occur.  Today, I received a letter from the Ethics Commission (click for PDF) informing me that the commission is moving the matter forward:

Pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-12(c)(2), and Commission Regulation 1003(c), the Rhode Island Ethics Commission determined on October 17, 2017, that the above-captioned Complaint alleges facts sufficient to constitute a violation of the provisions of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics.

The Commission will conduct an investigation of the allegations contained in the Complaint, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-12(c) and Commission Regulation 1004.  You will be informed of further action pursuant to the requirements of the Code of Ethics.

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Parents of Special Needs Students and School Budget Battles

Entirely by way of connecting observations from multiple districts, this detail of Katie Mulvaney’s  article on Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl’s ordering Warwick teachers to stop their sick-outs is worth lingering over:

Ellen F. Polo, head of the Robertson parent teacher organization, said she is fully behind the teachers, as are 80 percent of the parents she knows.

“I fully support the teachers,” Polo said Monday, citing the union’s push for smaller class sizes and concerns about compromising special-education services. “If there’s a strike, I’d support it.”

The district has been eliminating teaching assistant positions that are crucial to meeting students’ needs, said Polo, whose oldest daughter is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

I’ve noticed that the parents of special needs students are often prominent supporters of (even warriors for) local school districts, backing the regular push for more funds all around.  They are understandably grateful to the district, generally, and the teachers in particular, and they have incentive to push back against budget pressures.  One such parent estimated on social media that her child receives $100,000 worth of services annually from the local school system.

Most Rhode Islanders will agree that these are services we should support, although the specifics of what and how should, of course, always be under review with an eye toward improvement and efficiency.  Similarly to school building maintenance, however, the fast ratchet of personnel costs that politically active labor organizations have succeeded in building into the budgets of government, including schools, ensure that budget pressure never ends and everything always feels insecure.  (Indeed, a general sense of insecurity is necessary for unions and other special interests and political organizations to maintain their influence.)

Personal gratitude notwithstanding, reforming our education system so that its focus is more convincingly on the students and their families shouldn’t be seen as a threat to those with special needs students.  Indeed, NAEP trends show that “disabled” students are losing ground in Rhode Island, having fallen from above average, among states overall, to below average.  Holding on to the status quo, that is, carries more risk than working together to find a new path.

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