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Overcoming Confusion About Government and Unions

Crossing over the state line, I came across a curious essay by often-acerbic Fall River Herald columnist Marc Munroe Dion.  To some extent, I’m sure, his iconoclasm is just keeping him from fitting into standard political categories, but I can’t help but think that he’s a little confused.

Dion complains about the growing disparity between the plush deals of government workers and the hardships of those paying the bill.  He even asks a question that’s been on my conservative, small-government mind lately when he ends his column, “When can we call this looting?” But Dion also insists:

It isn’t so much that city employees are getting too much, as it is that the rest of us are getting too little.

I don’t want to see police officers NOT have a union. I want to see YOU have a union, too.

I want the average working person to have health care and a pension. I want you to retire at 55. It’s too late for me. I’m 59, and still showing up every day.

A city can’t prosper if the financial gap between citizens and city employees keeps widening.

You’ve got government employees’ continuing to get privileged status — such as retiring at age 55 — and Dion recognizes it isn’t affordable and that the cost is creating a dead end for economic advancement.  So, to whom, I wonder, does he think private-sector unions would be able to pass a similar bill?  The mystical, mythical Rich?  To the extent that they exist as an identifiable class in a city’s economy, they’ll just move their operations elsewhere or close up shop and go to work for somebody else.

The bottom line is that unions function for government employees because government can force people to pay.  The private businesses with which private-sector unions must work can’t do that.

The only solution is to back government up so it’s affordable and not obtrusive with regulations in order to give the private sector as long as it needs to find a local angle.  The ensuing growth will increase the leverage of private-sector workers and the margin for public-sector workers, too.

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One Side Wants Both Public and Private Schools; the Other Wants a Monopoly

Denisha Merriweather has a powerful school choice story, as told by Alexandra DeSantis on National Review Online.  And it has made an advocate of her:

In her view, education policy ought to be a bipartisan issue, and she thinks the strength of the school-choice movement lies in its inclusive mindset. “I do feel like the public-school advocates or the teachers’ unions always want an ‘us or them’ mentality. In their minds, you can’t have both,” she explains.

“And we on the school-choice side are not saying that at all. We’re saying, ‘Let’s all be productive, and let’s all serve our children.’ That’s one thing that really sets us apart from those who are pushing for the public-school system,” Denisha continues. “Why can’t we have more choices, and all the choices? [The unions] can’t understand that we do want to keep the public schools. We just want all of these other choices, too.”

In some respects, she’s incorrect about that.  The unions, and the rest of the education establishment, have a different vision of what government schools should be — namely, the monopolistic control of all education, with only the exceptions that the very wealthy can carve out with their own money.  That’s what “both” means to them.

Where poor performance and high cost become so outrageous that a somnolent public begins to wake up to the problem, the establishment will concede very limited reforms, perhaps to the degree of setting up a private school system within government itself (that is, charter schools).  To rephrase Merriweather, it’s not that the establishment doesn’t believe that we can have both a public school sector and a healthy private school sector;  it’s that the establishment doesn’t want both to exist.

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Psst… Lack of Mandate Is Not Lack of Choice

The Trump administration’s change of course on the issue of transgender bathrooms (and similar facilities) — sending the question back to state governments — was excellent for illustrating the narrative-driven bias in the news.  The best expression that I’ve seen came from the Newport Daily News, which ran a front-page headline last Thursday proclaiming that “Transgender students lose bathroom choice.”

The McClatchy news service article beneath the headline, however, immediately tells a different story:

The Trump administration Wednesday told public school districts across the nation that they no longer have to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

In the progressive lexicon, when the federal government doesn’t force a position that progressives support, it is automatically forcing the opposite position.  In the terms of the headline, transgender students didn’t lose anything by this decision; rather, states gained a choice.

And what happened?  At least in Rhode Island (which should be the central concern of the Newport Daily News), Education Commissioner Ken Wagner immediately issued a statement to say:

The rescinding of this federal guidance does not change our policy – there is no room for discrimination in our schools, and we will continue to protect all students, including transgender and gender nonconforming students, from any type of bias.

Of course, what he says isn’t exactly true.  Students who aren’t comfortable sharing bathrooms with those of a different sex are “all students,” but the system is explicitly biased against accommodating them.  If they should be so bold as to express their discomfort, the state government suggests, “administrators and counseling staff” should get involved to change their beliefs.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the state of Rhode Island is perfectly able to continue setting its policy, and several school districts have made a point of proclaiming their agreement.

For some, though, that’s never sufficient.  They are incensed by the notion that people hundreds or thousands of miles away might be able to agree among themselves to disagree with the progressives of Rhode Island.  Our freedom is only ever to agree with the Left.

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Decisions in Federal Cooperation and the Direction of Profit

Something occurred to me while reading about the City of Providence’s refusal to go along with the federal government’s decision to increase the extent to which it enforces immigration laws:

Commissioner Pare said Providence won’t join a program that trains local cops to work as immigration officers. …

“Local law enforcement should not be immigration officers nor an arm of ICE,” Pare told Eyewitness News. “We will not be involved in the investigation or enforcement of immigration laws. This requires comprehensive immigration reform and should not be the responsibility of local law enforcement.”

Fair enough, but would the city participate in, say, an entrapment scheme involving the federal government and other agencies to net tens of millions of dollars in corporate money outside of their regular budgets?  Or is the government profit in illegal immigration all in allowing it to go on?

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Keeping Up with the Pros in the Bureaucracy

The odds are pretty obvious and challenging, if you think about it:  Government at all levels employs millions of people; many of them have access to information the public does not; many of them make decisions that affect their own compensation and that of their peers; and (at least for now) their continued wealth and opportunity depends on getting people to allow government to take their money away.

Since the years of Obama stimulus spending — let’s say Rhode Island’s fiscal years 2009 through 2011 — I’ve been convinced that the administration’s goal was to ensure that government agencies were insulated from the recession.  (Another goal was to launder money to left-wing activists, but that’s not my subject with this post.)  As time moves along and data becomes more available, it’ll just take some work to trace the dollars.

But it is a lot of work.  The general public, occupied during working hours in their own private-sector occupations, can’t hope to keep up.  This fund blends into that fund from the other source through technical accounting categories, with repositories here and there that must remain shielded from public view for privacy or other reasons.  The opportunity to mislead is structural.

In a small way, though, I think I’ve got a handle on how the Tiverton School Department transformed temporary stimulus money into a permanent increase in local funding and have written about it on Tiverton Fact Check:

In summary, when the state money shifted from regular aid to “restricted,” the school department built the excess into its budget.  But when the funds shifted back, the increase was buried in this “restatement,” so local taxpayers would remain forever responsible for the supposedly temporary increase.  As a matter of fact, the “restricted” aid didn’t actually decrease much; the accounts just changed.

Thus, the Tiverton schools maintained healthy budget growth even as the Great Recession wore on and housing values plummeted.

I’d be surprised if something similar wasn’t accomplished by school districts throughout Rhode Island and across the United States.  Actual stimulus would have been a government reduction in taxes, but that wasn’t Obama’s goal.

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Educational Efficiency Requires Lower Spending

Here’s an interesting study.  It’s from GEMS Educational Solutions, and I found it via a positive mention in a Guardian article, so we’re probably not talking a right-wing group, here.

The study compares certain educational statistics across countries, and one of its principles is that “inefficiency can be a result of either underpaying or overpaying teachers.”  By that measure, the United States would become more efficient (better managing results versus tax rates) by lowering salaries by five percent and increasing class sizes by 10%.

Rhode Island’s teacher salaries are top 10 for the country, so 5% would be too low for our state.  Also, the 15.3 student:teacher ratio listed on GEMS’s application compares with a Rhode Island average of 8.

To be clear, these are back-of-the-envelope comparisons.  A more-thorough review might require adjustments of the numbers (different years, different teacher roles included in the student ratios, etc.).  I come across people, though, especially locally, who find inconceivable the idea that less spending on anything government does might be bad.

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The Rigged System of Unions and Town Government

The cliché about the news media is that readers will always find reports in their own areas of expertise erroneous, and something similar applies to news reports from one’s own town:  What’s happening locally seems to prove the point of the whole broad world.

Even adjusting for that tendency, though, I have to say that Tiverton controversies are starting to feel as if we’ve come just an inch away from making it legal for town employees to walk into our homes and take our money. As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

Such proclamations become more difficult to believe each time it appears that town employees are learning the lesson from former colleagues’ reaping the rewards of (alleged) bad behavior. We had Town Foreman Bob Martin and his pal, former Town Administrator Jim Goncalo. Last year, it was an entire shift of police officers led by overtime king Lieutenant Timothy Panell. And now it’s the fire department’s turn, with firefighter Patrick White:

The case of a firefighter who was terminated in early 2015 for allegedly abusing sick leave has been settled, with the town agreeing to pay $175,000.

That’s right. We paid him (and his union lawyer, naturally). The “neutral” arbitrator in the complaint sided with the union member.

One of the problems with settling is that neither side can claim vindication.  The institutional bias toward that sort of ambiguity, like union contracts and arbitration practices, is part of the problem.  Rhode Island has created a fundamentally dishonest system of government.

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When School Budgets Become Sky’s the Limit

I’ve got a post on Tiverton Fact Check pointing out the oddly divergent trends of school enrollment and budgets:

Think of it this way:  When the PTOs send out notices that the Budget Committee will be considering the school budget, parents and teachers fill the town hall.  How many of them show up at School Committee meetings when important curricular questions are on the table?  How many parents step forward during contract-negotiations to express concern that large increases for employees could eat up funds for innovative technology or even for fixing roofs and HVAC systems?

The taxpayers of Tiverton should absolutely provide the resources necessary to ensure our children and our neighbors’ children have every opportunity to succeed.  But acknowledging that principle still leaves us having to answer an important question:  How much is really necessary?

The following chart shows the trends in student enrollment in Tiverton public schools and the school department’s budget since the 2001-2002 school year.

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Ah, the General Assembly’s Legislative Grant Program

Here’s a telling little tidbit that slipped through the strainer of Tiverton politics, from a not-online Newport Daily News article by Marcia Pobzeznik on January 30.

Town Council Member John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat State Representative John Edwards the Fourth) appears quietly to have planned a beach bonfire for Christmas trees, which left his fellow council members feeling like “the Town Council was the last to know,” per councilor Denise DeMedeiros.  They finally found out when they were called to a special meeting to decide whether to cancel the event because of gusty winds.

Here’s the telling part that makes the anecdote of statewide interest:

Firefighters and a fire engine would have been required at the beach, deMedeiros said, along with a police detail for crowd control.  She asked Edwards if he had considered the costs.

A legislative grant would take care of the costs of the firefighters and the police detail, said Edwards, son of Rep. John “Jay” Edwards, D-Tiverton.

There is no such grant on the House’s list, although it’s dated only through October 1.  The Senate’s list is more up to date and has some grants for Tiverton, but whether or not they’re associated isn’t possible to tell.

Think of the process, here, especially involving the son of the legislator who successfully pushed legislation to make it more difficult for individuals to participate in local politics, creating hurdles for them to jump in the name of “transparency.”  A Town Council member almost pulled off a public event involving town property and the use of town employees without the knowledge of at least some of his fellow councilors, and the whole thing was supposedly going to be funded through a General Assembly handout that, likewise, nobody else had any idea about.

Obviously, given the lack of transparency, there’s no way to know whether this is relevant, but as I’ve written before, the state Ethics Commission would find no problem with a member of the General Assembly pushing to use state taxpayer money to fund a politically helpful event secretly orchestrated by his son because everybody involved is acting in official government capacity.

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Political Omissions in Worcester Story

For some reason the Providence Journal ran a minor story on a Worcester, Massachusetts, political incident.  In doing so, however, the paper spotlights a curious… let’s say… tic of the mainstream media:

Mayor Joseph M. Petty is now apologizing for remarks he made that, unbeknownst to him, were picked up by an open microphone at the beginning of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

The remarks were unflattering observations about some of protesters attending the meeting. Earlier, there was a rally at City Hall attended by people unhappy with President Donald J. Trump’s immigration policy.

Funny — Don’t you think? — that the article doesn’t mention that Petty is a Democrat and the main voice speaking out against him, Michael T. Gaffney, although in a non-partisan seat, has been backed by Republicans.  Why do you suppose that is?  How do you suppose the reporting might have been different if it were a Republican mayor badmouthing a Tea Party group?

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School Choice Makes Families Consumers, Not Commodities

A great short report for which I’ve done some research, but which I never manage to get to, would look at the effects of Vermont’s legacy school choice program.  Given the long-rural history of the state, some districts offer students actual school choice, including to private schools, and a key finding that Rhode Island homeowners should find interesting is that property values go up significantly in areas with choice.  Geoffrey Norman doesn’t offer more than a nod to that dynamic in a recent article in The Weekly Standard, but he does use the current debate in Vermont to make a key, fundamental point (emphasis added):

So, school choice is not—and could never be—supported by the education bureaucracy. It threatens not just their convictions but their livelihoods. Where parents can take their kids and the public money that is being spent on them out of one school and move them, and it, to another—well, this threatens the entire system.

Why it might even, in the dark vision of one of the prominent Vermont opponents of school choice, “turn children into commodities.”

Which of course stands the whole thing on its head. Commodities don’t make choices. They are manipulated, packaged, and bundled. As are students in the grip of the industrial-education complex.

What Norman is touching on, here, is the government plantation.  Attracting people to an area who are likely to need government assistance, binding them to their region with government dependency, and locking their children in government schools creates a captive audience with little power to affect the services their receiving.  Again, “commodities don’t make choices,” but when human beings are “manipulated, packaged, and bundled,” they lose the authority to do anything but sit on the shelf until they’re of use to some powerful consumer.

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Discount Rate Assumptions and the Certainty of Tax Increases

After years attempting to interpret public documents related to pension funds to understand the method of deciding what a reasonable investment return assumption would be, I finally have it straight from a municipal investment advisor. As I’ve posted on Tiverton Fact Check:

Me: So if a town comes to you and says, “We want to hit this number,” you say, “Well, what’s your risk?,” and that’ll play into seven-and-a-half percent.  The fact that the town can then in 20, 30 years increase taxes to make up for the loss, then you have a little higher tolerance for risk, so you can go up to 7.5%, which you may never hit, but in the end of 20, 30 years, you’ve got other assets — taxpayers — you can take money from.  Is that part of the conversation?

Gene McCabe, Director of Investments for Washington Trust:It is.

In the not-too-distant future, I suspect it’ll become unreasonably expensive for us municipal assets.  Elected officials and government employees should start pondering what will happen when assumptions about how much money can be confiscated from Rhode Islanders prove as fanciful as assumptions about high returns at the stock market roulette wheel.

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When the Tolerant People Go to the City Council to Silence Those with Whom They Disagree

Writing in the Newport Daily News, reporter Colin Howarth slips in a helpful reminder — as we watch the Left attempt to make American life a non-stop political rally — of Lefitsts’ understanding of the role of government (emphasis added):

Locals have used social media to voice their concerns about DePetro’s rhetoric in the past, citing what they perceive as misogynistic and hateful remarks. A day after the announcement, a Facebook group was created titled “Get John DePetro off WADK.” Two local residents used the citizen’s forum at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to express their concerns about DePetro.

That’s right.  Progressives in Newport are going to the government in an attempt to silence somebody with whom they disagree.  As Mayor Harry Winthrop says, when others criticize him for welcoming a new talk-show-host to the market, “It’s unfortunate people don’t understand the role of mayor.”

WADK President and Owner Bonnie Gomes notes that, if boycotts threaten anybody, they threaten the 15 employees of the station.

For a long time, in our country, those of a progressive persuasion have been sold on the idea that opposing views are illegitimate.  It’s OK to silence conservatives while proclaiming dedication to free speech.  It’s OK to lock those who hold traditional religious views out of self-governance (by ruling their worldview unconstitutional) while pretending to be an advocate for religious freedom.

It’s time to insist on bringing real tolerance into American society, not just the phony one-sided version that progressives like to put on bumper stickers.

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When the “Home-School Community” Is Separate from “the Community”

In Tiverton, the School Committee sees public education as promoting government-branded schools, not ensuring educational services that suit the needs of all of our children, as I’ve written on Tiverton Fact Check:

This distinction became clear at the January 24 meeting of the Tiverton School Committee, which introduced a new policy explicitly denying home-schooled students the opportunity to take classes — particularly technical and vocational classes — outside of the district through arrangements that Tiverton has made. Students enrolled in Tiverton schools can take such classes, even attending alternative schools full time at no cost to their families. …

The education officials in Tiverton have already decided that it is the responsibility of taxpayers to cover the tuition of students who want courses of education that they can’t get within the district. They are just applying that policy in a discriminatory way. No matter how much you may pay in taxes or contribute to the town in some other way, unless you put your children under their complete control, you are part of “the home-school community,” which is apparently separate from simply “the community.”

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Another Government-Wall-Street Scheme; Of Course, RI Is In

The Wall Street Journal’s Kirsten Grind raises a red flag over another mortgage-related investment scheme:

About $3.4 billion has been lent so far for residential projects, and industry executives predict the total will double within the next year. That would likely rank PACE loans as the fastest-growing type of financing in the U.S.

As the loans spread, so do problems that echo the subprime mortgage crisis. Plumbers and repairmen essentially function as loan brokers but have scant training and oversight. They often pitch PACE loans to help land contracting jobs and earn referral fees from lenders, according to loan documents and more than two dozen borrowers, industry executives and employees.

The referring contractor gets a cut.  The municipality gets a cut.  And taxpayers will wind up on the hook if things go wrong.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Rhode Island has this.  Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the legislation into law in 2013, after Democrat Art Handy (Cranston) passed H6019 and a gang of Democrat state senators led by William Conley (East Providence, Pawtucket) passed S0900.  The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity did include this legislation in the 2013 iteration of the Freedom Index.

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How a Pension Discount Rate Deceives the Public

Over on Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve used Tiverton’s police pension as an example to show how the high assumptions for investment returns work to give taxpayers a false sense of security:

The problem is that 7.5% is a very high return to hit every year.  According to the latest actuarial report, Tiverton’s pension fund lost$332,601 last year, which is about -3.4%.  In other words, because we needed a 7.5% increase, we were 10.9% short.  Tiverton should havestarted this year with another $1,065,971 or so in the bank.

Investment professionals will tell you not to panic, because we have to expect the market to go up and down, and what’s important is the average over years and decades.  One bad year is not the end of the world, and during the three years prior to this loss, Tiverton beat its 7.5% every year.

Two things make this picture too bright.  The first is that 0% isn’t the break-even number in this calculation — 7.5% is — which means every loss is huge and every gain is smaller than it seems. The second is that coming up short one year means there’s less in the bank to invest the next year, so the gain the next year has to be even bigger.

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Left and Right Need to Acknowledge Decisions Based on Policy

Hugh Hewitt makes a great point that conservatives like me sometimes need to hear:

It would be fair to announce the end of the mortgage-interest deduction in 30 years. It would be fair to phrase out the deductibility of state taxes by, say, 2050. But not overnight. Not unless you want to give the gavel back to Nancy Pelosi.

Purists have great arguments against “market distortions” in the tax code—in theory. But Americans don’t live in theory. They live in homes they bought at a value based on the existing deduction, in states whose taxes were partly offset through the federal code. Change those rules and what’s left of the GOP in high-tax states will be gone.

While those on the Left would like to treat this sort of consideration as justification for keeping government programs going forever, those on the Right do have to acknowledge that people make decisions based on bad government policy, and it can be overly harsh to the point of injustice to drop onto their heads the roofs that they’ve built over the policy framework.

Unfortunately, as with everything else, we can expect that reasonable concessions from conservatives will not be reciprocated.  For example, with the beginning of this century, special interests pushing bonds and Tiverton’s Town Council doubled the tax levy in Tiverton in less than a decade, to the point that house buyers who shop based on the monthly payment on a 30-year mortgage payment would have to pay around 15% less for a house in Tiverton than in Westport, Massachusetts, next door.

Those who bought in Tiverton before this punishment was dished out have been unfairly penalized, and many have been responding by cutting their losses and leaving town, not just because of the cost, but also because of the injustice.

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Public-Options-Only School Choice Relies on Irrational Prejudice

Notice anything about the recent op-ed from RI Education Commissioner Ken Wagner?

Some claim that charters take money that is owed to district schools. In my view, the money is not “owed” to district schools or any other education provider. Local, state and national taxpayers raised this money for a specific purpose: to educate the youth of a community. We have an obligation to ensure the money serves the children rather than simply maintains the current system.

This is the core of the argument that I’ve been proffering for total school choice.  Public dollars aren’t collected and expended for the maintenance of a government-branded school system, but for the cause of educating the public.  Whatever structure or method will accomplish that goal most effectively and economically is the proper one.

Indeed, just about every argument in Wagner’s essay would apply to education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, or any other school choice vehicle and could be added to the Bright Today list of myths.

It is only through the devotion of insiders to the status quo and their control of public information that this point remains sufficiently obscure that Wagner doesn’t feel he has to address it.  The people are starting to figure it out, though, and it is yet another area in which those of us who really wish to move Rhode Island forward for the benefit of its people need only guide their natural conclusions.

Consider Dan McGowan’s WPRI article on public testimony regarding the Achievement First charter school expansion proposal before the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.  The article is 17 paragraphs long.  Here’s the 13th:

But the majority of individuals who testified about Achievement First Tuesday encouraged the council to back the expansion.

That is, after 12 paragraphs — three-quarters of the article — conveying the points of view of insiders, who are in the minority, McGowan finally gets to what should arguably have been the headline of the article: that people want school choice.  When all is said, the only argument to prevent the people from using public funds for their preferred public policy is maintenance of the government plantation.

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The Hidden Agenda of Progressive Roadway Innovations

Shawn Cohen, in the New York Post, provides a policy blacklight that may reveal unseen motivations of progressives’ favored innovations on urban roadways (via Instapundit):

“The traffic is being engineered,” a former top NYPD official told The Post, explaining a long-term plan that began under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and hasn’t slowed with Mayor de Blasio.

“The city streets are being engineered to create traffic congestion, to slow traffic down, to favor bikers and pedestrians,” the former official said. …

“They’re not coming out and saying it, but they’re doing other things to cut down on traffic coming into city, things such as taking streets that had four lanes and making them three by creating bike lanes, or putting a plaza in, creating pedestrian islands,” the source said.

Those who follow transportation issues even casually may have seen people argue against them for such reasons, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that our roadways are perfect as they are, but as progressives attempt to move people into urban areas and make them more reliant on city services to get around, each proposal deserves scrutiny.

After all, when everybody else is on foot or in government-controlled transportation, the mobile elite will have yet another advantage.  The source in the article says Mayor Bill DeBlasio “doesn’t care about traffic,” meaning that he can blame others (like resident Donald Trump), but one can’t help but wonder what effect police escorts and helicopters have on his perspective.

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