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Having a Standard Policy on Government’s Consumer Leverage

The Town of North Smithfield has entered into a “boycott” of Nike over the company’s elevation of the controversial football player Colin Kaepernick as its poster boy.  As a general rule, I’m not a fan of the government’s use of its economic power to push political positions — not so much because politics is inappropriate to government, but because of the government’s responsibility to be a good steward of public dollars.

Of all the reasons a town government might select a shoe, a ball, or a shirt for purchase, politics ought to be vanishingly minor.  Buy the product that best suits the town’s needs.  That said, if the people of North Smithfield have a different political philosophy, the importance of my opinion, standing at my desk over here in Tiverton, is also vanishingly minor.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island isn’t quite as circumspect:

“The Town Council’s passage of this inflammatory resolution over the objections of the many residents who came out to oppose it is shameful,” the ACLU said in a statement. “By punishing the right to peacefully protest and refusing to recognize the racial injustice prompting that protest, the resolution shows a disdain for both freedom and equality. Rhode Island is better than this.”

Lamentably, neither the ACLU nor journalist Linda Borg mentions that Kaepernick was more specifically insulting at the beginning of the whole controversy, notably with socks depicting police officers as pigs.  Be that as it may, I don’t happen to recall the ACLU’s shaming of either of our last two state treasurers for the long list of corporate decisions for which they wish to use our public investments as leverage.  Raimondo’s preferred activism was to hurt gun companies, while Magaziner has preferred environmentalism and identity politics.

In these instances, again, I’d suggest that government officials should just buy the products and make the investments that best serve within the narrow range of what the products and investments are for.  If a Nike product suits a town’s needs, go ahead and buy it.  If the best candidate to run a company in which the state has invested happens to be a white man, don’t stand in the way of the company’s hiring him.

Making decisions on some other basis comes with a cost, and as a general matter, that cost will be larger than the benefit of an activist’s statement.

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Yorke, Stenhouse, Walsh, and One-Way Fairness

In all the heat and contention, an important point slipped through on the episode of Dan Yorke State of Mind on which RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse debated National Education Association of Rhode Island Executive Director Robert Walsh:

Stenhouse was arguing, correctly, that teachers have a legal right to representation outside of their labor union.  Walsh was arguing, correctly, that the labor union has an increased interest in conflicts that arise within the “four walls of the contract” — that is, grievances arising from matters that fall under its unique scope.  And Yorke was stating, reasonably, that it isn’t really fair to force unions to spend money representing people who don’t pay into it.

On that last point, Stenhouse noted that the Supreme Court itself balanced this “free rider” issue against the decades of money that unions have collected from non-members against their will.  I’d go a bit farther, though.  Supporters of labor unions find it fair to force employees in a workplace to belong to unions and adhere to union contracts even if they’d prefer to make their own arrangements because that is for the good of the whole.  Just so, having a unified system for representing people in a bargaining unit could be said to be in everybody’s interests, even if those people don’t pay into it.  More directly, offering “free” services to non-members can still be in the financial interest of the union because accepting that burden gives them access to the larger, unionized workforce.

Fairness has to go both ways.

Now to the legal point:  Walsh is correct to cite the four walls of the contract.  In each district, that contract binds the school department, the union’s members, the non-union teachers, and the union.  As I’ve already explained, at least in the case of Bristol-Warren, the existing contract does not allow an additional fee.  However, it does place the burden of representing all teachers in grievances on the union.

If the union thinks this is unfair, then it must renegotiate the contract to include a fee, a concession for which a responsible school committee would extract something.  The union can’t simply create new terms in its favor just because one of its provisions turned out to violate the rights of non-members. In asserting this future possibility as a present fact, the union is deceiving teachers.

Again: Fairness has to go both ways.

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The Inherent Politicization of Government Unions

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s new chairman, Stephen Skoly makes an important point in a recent op-ed (emphasis added):

At the root of the Janus case is the inherently political nature of government unions, which negotiate for taxpayer funded benefits. Prior to Janus, these activities were subsidized with dollars forcibly taken in dues or fees from public employee paychecks. Now that workers have been restored their rights to choose whether or not to pay, unions must become more transparent and diverse in their election and legislative advocacy, if they are to keep their members. Employees should know how their dues money is spent; this, too, will be part of our campaign.

For a sense of how true this inherent politicization is, look no farther than Dan Yorke’s interview with the director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, Bob Walsh.  Walsh makes light of the political allegation by breaking down the unions’ individual activities into their component parts, but that’s a distraction.  Instead, look toward the end of the interview, when Yorke turns the conversation to politics.

Note, in particular, that Walsh is explicitly speaking in his role as a union leader and that his points are inextricable from the union’s activities.  Explaining the two sides of the scale when it comes to his union’s decision not to endorse a gubernatorial candidate for the upcoming primary, Walsh says that Governor Gina Raimondo was “helpful in replacing Commissioner Gist.”

This is a reference to former Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who tried to bring some measure of reform to Rhode Island’s system, in which it is badly needed.  The union did not like her efforts to make its members accountable, so it helped to bring somebody into office who would appoint a commissioner more to its liking.  One can see the same thing in unions’ efforts to determine with whom they’ll be negotiating in local school committee races.

Thus, government unions are on every side of every negotiating table, leveraging taxpayer funds that until Janus employees had no choice but to give them to affect who will be elected.  That would be inherently political even if the unions weren’t leading advocates for a far-left ideology on issues having nothing to do with representing employees.

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A Familiar Name on the Twin River Picket Line

Scarcely had the new Twin River Casino opened in Tiverton than a labor union was out on the street reminding people that this is still Rhode Island:

The union representing security guards at the Twin River’s Tiverton Casino Hotel said it will hold an informational picket at Saturday’s grand opening of the casino following the firing of five security guards, including union president Charles Mulcahy and union secretary Timothy Panell.

“We just want people to be aware that they’re opening a brand new beautiful casino and we want to be a part of the casino,” said Ralph Ezovski, a spokesman for the Casino Security Officers Association of Rhode Island. “But we feel we’re being treated unfairly.”

Introduction of the concept of fairness at the end of the second paragraph might bring the eyes of Tiverton residents back to the name at the end of the first paragraph.  Unless it is an incredible coincidence of names, Timothy Panell is the police lieutenant who lost his job in Tiverton under accusations that he put in for hours that he did not work (including overtime) and led his entire shift in a habitual early morning nap time.  The Town Council allowed him to retire with a big check for all of his “unused” time off and health care coverage to the age of 65.

A man’s got to go on with his life, even after losing a job in disgrace, but as I keep saying, a little humility would be nice.

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Providence School Unions Send Parents a Message

… and that message ought to be: These unions have too much power over your lives.

First up is the threat of a strike by the Teamsters who represent the bus drivers:

The union representing 200 bus drivers for Providence schools is threatening to strike.

A strike authorization was approved by the membership of Teamsters Local 251, secretary-treasurer Matthew Taibi said Wednesday.

Astonishingly, what they want is for the bus company for which they work, First Student, to switch out their 401ks for a pension.  A pension!  Everybody in the world is learning that defined-benefit pensions just don’t work.  Reasonable contributions and a realistic rate of investment returns just can’t produce enough money to keep people living as well as they want for as long as they live.  Wanting in to this system would be insane, except that the unions are banking on their ability to make governments (and government contractors) increase the cost of services to taxpayers.

Yet, precisely this sort of shenanigan is what should make taxpayers less sympathetic to their plight.  The next time we have to choose between huge tax increases to “honor our promises” to employees and reducing the benefits that employees receive, remember that the unions are key players in forcing those promises to be made despite the risks.

Next up is the threat of work-to-rule from the teachers union:

The Providence Teachers Union has voted overwhelmingly to authorize work-to-rule in the event that tomorrow’s negotiations with the city do not show progress, according to PTU President Maribeth Calabro.

She said 1,940 members voted Monday to move to work-to-rule after two years without a new teachers’ contract. Work-to-rule means that teachers only do what’s is laid out in their contract.

Ah, life in a workers’ paradise, where bus drivers striking in order to enter a broken pension system could force families struggling to make ends meet to find some other way to get their children to schools in which well-paid teachers who work a significantly shortened work year refuse to do anything beyond the minimum in order to protect and expand their employment deal.

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Rhode Island Cities’ Immigration Lawsuit

Maybe I’m just getting tired of political drama, but I can’t get wrapped up in the political argument implicit in the lawsuit that the cities of Providence and Central Falls have brought against the Trump administration.  It’s really just… I guess cloying is the word.

First of all, nobody should actually believe that the progressive mayors of these two cities have a principled objection to the federal government’s use of grants to apply pressure on policy goals — even barely related policy goals.  We’ve just recently come off an eight-year lesson that, when the federal government is in progressive hands, the Left is happy to leverage whatever method of pen, phone, and policy will advance their ideological imperatives.  Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is therefore not credible when he says the following:

“We unequivocally reject this false choice,” he said. “We will not allow the federal government to weaponize federal grant funding in an effort to advance this administration’s agenda.”

Actually, the mayor included a sly wiggle:  “this administration’s agenda.”  Weaponizing federal grant funding would presumably be fine in order to advance another administration’s agenda.

Second of all, the amounts in question are arguably not in keeping with claims about “critical” funding:

Friday is the deadline to accept the funds that were awarded with the new conditions, they said. Providence was awarded more than $200,000 for fiscal year 2017. Central Falls was awarded nearly $30,000.

Providence has used the funding awarded in past years to pay for a bilingual liaison to work with families and pay for overtime for enforcement patrols. Central Falls has paid for technology upgrades. Police chiefs from both cities said these conditions shouldn’t be attached to grants that are crucial to police operations.

For Providence, that grant amount is just 0.03% of its total budget.  It’s 0.12% of its public safety budget.  If these programs are so important, the mayors can find (or raise) the money for them.

In short, this is just a couple of mayors using taxpayers’ legal resources to posture.  Worse, they are doing so in order to grandstand against a requirement that American municipalities make modest concessions to the federal government’s effort to enforce federal law.

We could have a variety of debates about the wisdom of every policy involved — from federal immigration law to local reliance on federal grants — but debate would require getting past these mayors’ tiresome political rhetoric.

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The Obvious Conclusion of a Charter Charade

Checking in on the progress of Tiverton’s charter review on Tiverton Fact Check, I find the Town Council coming to the conclusion it intended all along:

… it is clear that the Charter does not intend for the Town Council simply to brush aside the work of the Charter Review Commission.  Why would we hold an election for the positions if that were the intent?  It would save the town money and be more efficient simply to have the council appoint the commission members.  That is why no council has ever blocked a CRC proposal before, to the knowledge of people who’ve watched these matters closely.

The strong impression of the last year of charter review politics is that the Town Council called for a review because its members were hoping to claim authority over casino revenue for themselves and to drain the financial town referendum (FTR) of its ability to protect taxpayers. Voters did not elect a single commissioner who wanted to do those things, so the council spent the next year doing its best to ignore the commission. Now, the council members are simply going to pretend the CRC never happened and put forward their own recommendations to voters.

It’s discouraging whenever personal interests (and personalities) corrupt a representative democracy, especially when it happens at the local level.  One can only hope that voters are keeping close enough track and will impose a reckoning.

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Taxpayers “Share” Their Bicycles in Providence

The mayor’s office tells The Current that a $400,000 TIGER grant of federal taxpayer money from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation enabled Providence’s new bike sharing program:

JUMP, which is owned by the ride sharing company Uber, has bike-share programs in six other U.S. cities. The City of Providence, along with Lifespan, Tufts Health Plan and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, sponsored JUMP’s Providence launch. …

Four hundred JUMP bikes will be available throughout the city in August, said Victor Morente, spokesman for Mayor Elorza’s office. Riders will be able to park and pick up bikes at 46 stations as well as at public bike racks. …

Bikes will be available for rent at $2 for every 30 minutes of riding. Memberships will also be available for $20 per month for 60 minutes of ride time a day. JUMP will offer reduced-cost memberships to people with low incomes.

As always, with such programs, the first question is why some entrepreneur didn’t find it worth the $1,000-per-bike investment to get this project off the ground.  The answer may be that, even at the highest price point ($4 per hour), every single bike will have to be ridden for more than 31 hours to pay for itself, and that’s if we assume no maintenance or replacement costs.  Moreover, the business model must require that some percentage of the bikes not be used at any given time, or else nobody would be willing to rely on their availability.

In short, the use of other people’s money (taxpayers) was probably the only way to overcome doubts about the demonstrated demand.  When the local Walmart will sell an adult bike for $100, most people who want them can find them.  With the subsidy, most of each sale can be profit for as long as the bikes last.

Those profits come at somebody else’s expense.  In San Francisco (with its better, more-predictable weather), JUMP bikes are cannibalizing Uber business.  The company claims to be happy about the exchange, but each lost Uber ride is a driver with no customer.  The subsidy could also block other innovations; an entrepreneur who was working on an app to allow people to share their own bikes (i.e., without the huge up-front investment for any one company) now has to compete with more-expensive, pedal-assisted bikes.

In the effort to make us behave as government wants us to be have, however, sacrificing the livelihoods and opportunities of a few unseen people is a small price to pay.

ADDENDUM (10:13 a.m., 7/21/18):

By the way, anybody who’s still having difficulty understanding how government involvement in the market produces income inequality should consider this to be an example.  The bicycles used for this offering are constructed in a largely automated process (presumably) and “shared” through an app that requires minimal human involvement, so customers’ money is flowing to the top of the income ladder, probably in distant states or countries.  Meanwhile, local Uber and taxi drivers lose customers, as do any small bike-rental shops or other actual Rhode Islanders who might offer some service that this tramples.

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Grumbling About East Side Progressives

One hopes (but doubts) that John Walsh’s opinion is on the increase in Rhode Island:

Our elected representatives on the East Side are progressives, a misnomer if ever there was one. Their priorities are ranting at President Donald Trump, advocating for more illegal immigrants, concern over Roe v. Wade, and other “progressive” issues.

As the quality of life deteriorates here, no one seems to be concerned over the many local issues. The criminals who prey on the East Side are not worried about being caught. They immediately go shopping with the stolen credit cards.

As the elections are almost upon us, it seems all the candidates claim to be progressive. What a shame. We’re getting very little value for the taxes we pay here.

The thing is:  Progressivism doesn’t work to produce the lives that people want to live, so progressives must always be directing your eyes elsewhere.

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Casino Money May Go to Pay for Town Council’s Lawsuit Gambles

So, Tiverton has this big influx of revenue coming with the Twin River casino, and it sure does appear that the Town Council could lose a lot of it in court, as residents and local businesses win lawsuits related to reckless or poorly executed enforcement actions.  Here’s one instance, from Tiverton Fact Check:

The town approved an incorrect site plan for McLaughlin’s garage, allowing him to build it too close to his property lines, and later told him to take it down.  In February 2016, the town voted to hire a demolition crew one week after a court order allowed it to do so and knocked the garage down, even though litigation was ongoing.  Rather than wait for McLaughlin to exhaust all of his court appeals, the Town Council decided it was an urgent matter to remove the garage, which was, after all, still 16 feet from one property line and 22 from another.  It had to send a message to the people of Tiverton.

The problem was that the wrong town body brought the suit, and now McLaughlin is moving forward in search of millions of dollars in damages.  One wonders how much less likely an incompetent town government would be to insist on arrogant shows of power if it wouldn’t always be able to simply pass on the cost to taxpayers.

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The Conditions Under Which Progressives Will Lease Us to Businesses

One last minute bill in the Rhode Island General Assembly, H8324, may or may not be going anywhere, but it’s worth a look as an educational exercise.

Very simply, it would require any “hosting platform” (e.g., AirBnB) that allows people to “offer any property for tourist or transient use” to be responsible for making sure that the rentals are in compliance with state and local laws and regulations.  It would also require the platform operators to take a more active role in the collection and transfer of all relevant taxes.

This little change in law, affecting a narrow portion of a single industry in the state, carries some important questions of the sort that we don’t consider thoroughly enough.  What is the nature of commerce?  Who works for whom?  Who has responsibility for whom?

From a free-market perspective that starts with the individual as the origin of all economic activity, the property owners are responsible for the product that they are offering, and the hosting platforms work for them.  Because they are the constituents of state and local government, they have a say in that government and can arguably be said to have consented to granting it some authority to regulate their activities.

The progressive perspective that has long been insinuating itself into Rhode Island government and encroaching on Rhode Islanders’ rights is very different.  That view doesn’t begin with individuals as autonomous sources of responsibility and power.  The Rhode Islanders seeking to rent their property don’t truly have ownership of themselves.  Rather state and local government has claims on their activities, and the hosting platforms own their rental businesses.  It is therefore reasonable for the government to require platforms to make sure that their workers comply with its requirements.

From a free-market perspective, a government that imposes requirements on people might create incentive for them to hire a contractor to do tasks for them — for AirBnB to provide inspections for regulatory compliance, for example, with an extra fee.  But from a progressive perspective, the government has a right to tell companies that intend to draw profits from its people what conditions they must impose, or else they cannot do business here.

In other words, progressives implicitly believe that the government is renting us out to the companies.

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A Relatively Small Sports Gambling Payoff for Host Communities

As I highlighted on Tiverton Fact Check, the budget proposal from the Rhode Island House would change the legislation initiating sports gambling at the two Twin River establishments: 

Now another chunk of cash looks likely. When we mentioned that a Supreme Court ruling had put sports gambling on the table for Twin River, supporters of Budget #1 took to social media to say it was misleading even to hint that the town might receive revenue from this new source. Well, with the introduction of the Rhode Island House’s version of the budget, Friday, a number has been put on that windfall:

The state shall pay the Town of Lincoln an annual flat fee of one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) and the Town of Tiverton an annual flat fee of one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) in compensation for serving as the host communities for sports wagering.

Of course, while that’s something, it doesn’t seem like much in comparison with the $23 million the state’s expecting for itself.  Why the state wouldn’t simply define sports gambling as either a table game or a video slot for the purposes of calculating host community shares (which would be 1% or 1.45% of revenue, respectively), is not clear.  Local residents of Tiverton and Lincoln should hope their representatives and senators are still pushing for more.

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A Side Lesson of One in Five Boys Not Graduating on Time in Tiverton

That’s the central finding of a post of mine on Tiverton Fact Check:

Tiverton’s four-year graduation rate (that is, the percentage of students who graduate in the typical four years) was 85.5% in 2017, whereas the average suburban high school managed 90.8%. Tiverton was down from 89.1% the prior year.  Nearby Portsmouth and Middletown beat the 2017 suburban average by healthy margins, with 96.7% and 93.8%, respectively.

The picture becomes more bleak if we look just at a population that’s been struggling in recent years: boys.  In Tiverton, one in five high school boys (81.7%) did not graduate within four years.  For the average suburban school, it was closer to one in 10.  Portsmouth was second best in the state, with only about one in 35 boys failing to graduate on time.

And yet, I haven’t seen a single letter to the editor taking the school committee or administration to task for this.

We have a curious political dynamic in town — one that’s probably the same pretty much throughout Rhode Island:  Work to give voters lower-tax options, and anything and everything can and will be said about you, often by parents who think they’re defending their children.  Preside over the lowest non-city four-year graduation rate in the state, and the silence probably means you’ll coast to reelection.

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When Government Can Get a Project Done Early

The week before Tiverton’s financial town referendum (FTR), I reported that state estimates of revenue from the Twin River casino in Tiverton were based on a September 1 opening — a full month before earlier estimates and two months before the date that some preferred for local purposes.  The budget that I submitted, Budget #2, which would have reduced the tax levy by 2.9% and finally brought our tax rate back into line with neighboring Portsmouth’s, used the September 1 estimate (although with revenue estimates still lower than the latest from the state).

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the week after the town government’s higher-tax budget won the referendum, with questions about casino revenue front and center, Twin River could no longer contain its enthusiasm and proclaimed:

Twin River beat the odds and will get gamblers to the tables a month earlier than expected.

John Taylor Jr., chairman of Twin River Management Group, said the casino will open on Sept. 1 instead of the previous forecast of an Oct. 1 opening.

In the past, the elector petitions have tended to win by 60% versus 40%, but this year Budget #2 lost roughly 45% to 55%.  The Budget #1 advocates managed to erode or eliminate the typical margin relying heavily on exaggerated warnings about what would happen if the assumed casino revenue didn’t materialized.  The victory, however, arguably came from the defection of people who typically vote for the lower-tax budgets but found use of the casino revenue to conflict with their conservative inclinations.

In fairness, on our side of the aisle, when we talk about government projects, we tend to assume that they can never come in on time.  In this case, that assumption misses the key fact that the state government is relying on this revenue.  Roads, bridges, and public works projects can take forever because the money is endless and the economic downsides primarily hit the private sector.  The casino is part of a race to get ahead of the competition with other states.

Twin River’s optimism may still prove to be misplaced, but it looks unlikely, and frankly, my expectation is that the initial revenue estimate for the town is likely to prove to be about half what comes in.  We’ll see.

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A Question of Ballot Design

With the still-recent change in voting technology in Rhode Island, it behooves advocates to keep a close eye on how ballots are designed, as we’re learning in Tiverton:

I took it as evidence that double-checking work is very important when, while creating a sample ballot to hand out at the polls, I marked the circle for the wrong budget at this year’s financial town referendum (FTR).  I was tired and rushed, and it was natural to fill in the oval directly under Budget #2.  Of course, it took only a moment to realize the mistake and correct the error.

However, standing outside the high school on Saturday, members of Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) were actually surprised at the number of comments supporters made about how confusing the ballot was.  Those comments continued after the results were announced, with people writing by email and Facebook message, even stopping us on the street.

It’s very unlikely that this confusion changed the outcome, but for the sake of completeness, we’ll be asking to take a look at the completed ballots, as well as asking the local Board of Canvassers to take steps to make the voting clearer next time.

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A Canary in Seattle

The city of Seattle is blazing trails in the assault on business and disincentive for job creation, and Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton is correct to warn of a reckoning:

One thing is clear. The tax will not be paid by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, or any other real or imagined toffs running the targeted companies. It will be “paid” by hiring fewer people here, making fewer investments, thus perhaps reducing overall taxes to the city. This is not sticking it to The Man.

One of the fascinating aspects of the jobs tax is how it reveals a tectonic shift in Seattle politics.

The slow-moving but generally pragmatic center-left that governed for years has collapsed.

Some of Talton’s lessons are either (it seems to me) either off base or specific to Seattle.  I’m suspicious, notably, of the blame that he puts on the GOP for becoming a “hard-right party” that exploded its leverage by booting its centrists.  One needn’t change the tilt of one’s head too much to see that as something more like a center-right party that didn’t move far enough to the left to keep progressive activists from attacking its donors and volunteers.

Consider Talton’s complaint that voters don’t have options; that can be a sign that people won’t run, given the charged atmosphere.  In short, this probably isn’t quite the distinct trend that he presents it as:

Meanwhile, a hard-left movement arose with the activist foot soldiers, infrastructure and energy to win municipal elections. It might represent a minority of voters, but given the withering away of the old order, it can win. Voters don’t have alternatives.

This lesson is probably increasingly universal across the country.  An activist infrastructure has been built up with funding from embedded interests (like labor unions), a supremely wealthy progressive elite, and siphoned taxpayer money from the Obama Administration.  At the local level, it targets any politician or grassroots organization that attempts to offer an alternative, and so the alternative doesn’t get a voice.

So… the city gets insane tax-and-spend policies that create obvious incentives against economic activity and for reliance on public subsidies.  A reckoning will come, indeed.

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A Glimpse at Changing Property Tax Tides

Here’s an interesting milestone over here in the East Bay, as I wrote on Tiverton Fact Check

Looking at the actual comparison for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, if Budget #2wins at this week’s FTR, Tiverton’s tax rate is projected to be $15.96.  Meanwhile, the proposed budget in Portsmouth is projected to bring that town’s tax rate to $15.97, and taxpayer advocates tell Tiverton Fact Check that the proposal is likely to be accepted.

Matching Portsmouth’s rate shouldn’t be the finish line for Tiverton, but it is a major milestone.  Notably, the comparison should take some of the shackles off of the high-end real estate market in Tiverton and help to balance out the tax burden around town.

Obviously, I’m observing these tax trends in the thick of a budget battle (with voting in Tiverton’s financial town referendum going on today, tomorrow, and Saturday), but in general, it’s disappointing that we don’t have these discussions more often at the local level.  Many factors can move what might be seen as a theoretically appropriate tax rate up or down, but comparisons from town to town do make a difference.

More importantly, we’d all be much better off (and maybe even more civil) if we were more thoroughly conversant about why various government numbers matter.

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Trading Water for a Fix

With his criticism of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo for appointing Democrat Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s son, Charles, to the Narragansett Bay Commission, Republican Mayor of Cranston Allan Fung has drawn attention back to the City of Providence’s perennial effort to turn its big water asset into a one-time payment, largely to infuse the city’s pension system with cash.

The immediate controversy is that Ruggerio, the younger, works in multiple roles as a lawyer for the city, but his appointment is most significant as a flash point to illustrate how government works, in Rhode Island.  The city has been after this for years.  In 2013, it took the form of an objectionable regional water authority.  Now, the strategy is to bring in the quasi-public Narragansett Bay Commission.

In every case, the goal appears to have been to come up with some excuse to saddle taxpayers and/or ratepayers with the additional burden of that one-time payment to the city.

Making matters worse is the general evidence that thinking about pension funds in this way is a mistake.  Just after the turn of the century, for example, the City of Woonsocket took on debt with the calculation that its investment returns would exceed the interest, and it could get its pension system on track.  That didn’t work out so well.

The Providence deal is different, of course, and would require a more thorough review prior to decisive pronouncements, but the impression one gets is that the primary difference is that the Woonsocket deal saddled the same people who owed the pension debt with the bond debt, while Providence is looking for somebody else to take on the new debt. Of course, Providence will also have offloaded an asset as a one-time part of the deal.

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Picking and Choosing What Voters Get to Consider

Last night, Tiverton’s Board of Canvassers decided that it had the authority to pick and choose what voters could vote on based on their feelings about it.  The Town Council is hostile to the resolutions, and the town solicitor, who serves in his $98,000-a-year position at the pleasure of the Town Council, told the canvassers that they might face a complaint if voters passed the resolutions.

Never mind that the board was nearly certain to face complaints for blocking the resolutions and the solicitor couldn’t say which lawsuits would be more likely to win.  The canvassers chose to disenfranchise electors rather than do something that the Town Council didn’t want.

As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

This is the Board of Canvassers.  They’re supposed to be completely neutral referees making sure that all sides in a political dispute have equal access to the ballot.  In this case, the Town Solicitor — who has $98,000-plus reasons to do whatever the Town Council wants him to do — said people might file complaints against the town if voters agreed with the resolutions, and the Board of Canvassers decided to take the vote away from them.

It would be hard to overstate how shocking that is.  Tiverton’s Home Rule Charter states that “All… Elector Resolutions shall be included on the ballot for the Financial Town Referendum and presented at the Financial Town Hearing provided that they are accompanied by 50 qualified elector signatures.”  There is absolutely no dispute that the resolutions the Board of Canvassers blocked had 50 signatures and followed the process in every way, because they followed the same process and had almost identical signatures as other resolutions that were not blocked.

Once again, government officials in Rhode Island show their belief that the law is whatever they say it is at any given moment.  Hopefully, a judge will conclude differently.

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Yes, Divorce Is Catchy, but So Should Be Good Marriages

A headline proclaiming that “Divorce is contagious” probably ought to spark the immediate reaction, “of course it is.”  As the essay suggests, all of these big life events are contagious.  I observed among my wife’s friends as well as other circles of friend clusters that marriages, child births, divorces, and other relationship events that seem mainly between a husband and wife seem conspicuously to spread around a group of female friends.

Writes Bek Day:

There is a big social component to the times at which we each decide to make major life decisions like marriage – including, research suggests, when and if those marriages end.

According to a study conducted across three US universities, you’re 75% more likely to get divorced if at least one member of your close friendship circle ends their marriage.

Yep, 75%.

Researchers arrived at this extraordinary figure using a longitudinal study which examined participants over a 32-year period. Their findings, published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that divorce was something that could be passed on through ‘social contagion’.

That’s why we have to make marriage contagious.  As I wrote again and again during the same-sex marriage debate, the designation matters because it allows those of us who maintain long-term relationships with the other who is significant because we two have created children to invest the institution with meaning.  (That applies even among couples that have no children, provided their relationship does not contradict the ability to create children as a central premise… that is, provided one is a man and one is a woman.)

So, to counter the contagion of divorce, we have to have marriages that neither person wants to leave and that other people would take as a model.  That means we must take seriously our responsibility to seriously work out our differences, and in the end, that is most likely when we enter the relationship with the understanding that divorce is simply not an option. It also means those considering divorce should consider how their decisions will affect those around them.

Yes, marriage is a two-person relationship, but its effects are much broader than that.

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