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Another Complaint Against Tiverton Council Dismissed

The Facebook spin after the Ethics Commission complaints against three Tiverton Town Council members (including me) were dismissed without investigation was that we only got away with it because we have friends on the commission.  (If you’ve watched state-level politics for a while, you may need to pause for a moment to finish laughing about that allegation before reading on.)

It will be interesting to see whether the same spin is tried against the Attorney General now that his office has joined the conspiracy:

On January 17, three members of the Tiverton Town Council – Patricia Hilton, Denise DeMedeiros, and Joseph Perry – filed an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint with the Rhode Island Attorney General against the other four councilors: Robert Coulter, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and me, all of us members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA). The complaint included three separate accusations, and after five months, more than $1,500 in expenses to the town, and many hours of lost time, all three counts have been dismissed. As the Attorney General’s ruling states, “we find that the Town Council did not violate the OMA.”

As I note at the second link above, this is all part of an ongoing effort to keep a disruptive Gotcha game going to color public perception.  If the people of Tiverton follow the example of the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General, review the facts, and talk to us, they’ll probably join the conspiracy, too.

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The Many Ways to Shuffle Around Money and Influence

Dan McGowan’s recent Boston Globe article about Democrat Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s curious fundraising relationship with a local nonprofit is a excellent representation of the way things increasingly work in politics:

Because there is no state law prohibiting politicians from raising money for nonprofits, the operation appears to be legal. But it has created a “back door way” for companies to “ingratiate themselves with public officials,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a good-government advocacy group. …

Elorza, who was first elected in 2014 and won another four-year term last year, has raised more than $500,000 for the tourism fund, using a portion of the money to travel to places including China and New Orleans.

That’s not all.  In keeping with the practices of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, the nonprofit is also part of a larger job network for Elorza’s political allies.  When he makes calls to solicit money for the nonprofit, Elorza goes to Campaign Finance Officers, “the consulting firm that has overseen his political fund-raising operation for five years.”  Those dots connect much more closely:

When Elorza took office, he installed three of his supporters as the sole members of the fund’s board of directors.

One of those three is Meg Clurman, who is a partner at the aforementioned Campaign Finance Officers.  One of the organization’s employees is Andrew Moore, who is also Elorza’s campaign finance director and has been paid by the Providence Tourism Fund in the past.

An important lesson from this revelation is that the very idea of campaign finance reform is wrongheaded.  Once a politician hits a certain level of money and power, the opportunities to find workarounds are too extensive.  Giving him travel money, helping to keep his allies employed, and even providing him money to spend on feel-good things through a nonprofit are all tangible benefits that donors are providing to the mayor.

Thus, laws that target more straightforward transactions disproportionately trip up only those who are trying to build momentum in order to make provide accountability through competition at the ballot box, which is where corruption ultimately has to be called to account.

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Picking the Monopoly Among Government Schools

Linda Borg reports in the Providence Journal that the Chariho regional school district has been permitted to continue in its suit against the State of Rhode Island for allowing additional career and technical centers in the region, allegedly in breach of their agreement:

… Chariho filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the education department had breached its contract by approving similar vocational programs at Westerly and Narragansett High Schools. Chariho also sought a permanent injunction to prohibit the state from authorizing other career and tech centers in the region.

Chariho has long complained that Wagner’s efforts to expand school choice have hurt preexisting vocational programs. Wagner, in an effort to promote Gov. Gina Raimondo’s support for career and technical education, has encouraged traditional high schools to open their own career and tech programs.

The outcome of the lawsuit is probably going to hinge on whether a program opened at an existing high school counts as a “center.”  Chariho cares, as Superintendent Barri Ricci makes clear in the article, because the district must pay another district if students within its boundaries choose to cross those boundaries for a particular program.  Though more difficult to track,  the district also loses revenue to the extent students from other districts decide to stay within their own boundaries for similar programs.

Contract provisions aside, the case illustrates a broader point about government services.  Chariho is claiming a contractual right to a monopoly on career and technical training within the public school system in that area.  If families want to pay extra to send children to private academies, the district has little say.  It is only because we’ve set up this system of schools for which we insist students’ families can’t be expected to pay that this is an issue.

Most within-government school choice — notably charter schools — takes the form of the public sector competing with the private sector.  Taxpayers are simply forced to pay for the education services for which families would otherwise have had to pay, giving government schools a massive advantage in attracting customers.

When the competition is between government schools, however, choices become subject to the political process.  The state government gets to decide what choices families have and what government agencies get the monopoly advantages.

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Help Spread the Word About the Cost of Government Unions

Wow, has our report shaken up the status quo! We have done the research, and we have connected the dots. The number one driver of the Ocean State’s declining population and jobs numbers – the high property taxes we all pay – can now be directly connected to the excessive costs of government, as mandated by government union collective bargaining agreements.

Now, we are asking your support to help us spread the word.

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Rhode Island’s Political Leaders Are Failing on Their Promise to Help Average Families

At $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s 1 million residents, a family of four is paying over $3,500 annually for excessive compensation deals for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

With almost two-thirds of these excessive costs being heaped upon municipal taxpayers, the report further estimates that property taxes could be reduced by 25% if more reasonable, market-based collective bargaining agreements were negotiated.

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Solving Government’s Bad Attitude About Lunch Bills by Replacing Parents with Government

It appears that another embarrassing Rhode Island story has captured the imagination of the nation: Lunch shaming, or giving students a minimal meal when their parents have built up a tab for school lunches.  Locally, the topic has been around for quite a while; it was a topic in one of my podcasts from April 2017.

In a nutshell, my take was to suggest that we’ve lost our way if we’re having public policy debates about how school districts should deal with parents who are deadbeats when it comes to lunch money.  I mean, can you imagine a private school shaming their customers’ children over a $5 lunch tab?  The whole attitude is different, even to the point of seeing students and their families as customers rather than something more like wards or even burdens.

The expansion of that attitude rears its head in a policy proposal that is making its way through Rhode Island’s brain trust:

[Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count] is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

The unhealthy perspective engendered by big government has had the unhappy consequence of shaming children.  The solution, we’re told, is to expand government further into the role of parents, thus expanding the reach of the big-government attitude.  This will have consequences for Rhode Island families that can be as disastrous, in aggregate, as they are unmeasurable.

Providing for your children is part of what makes parenthood worthwhile.  Packing a lunch with love is one of the most straightforward and basic expressions of that responsibility.

Go away, big government.  Let us be families.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the argument that government schools have to instruct all children according to the state’s beliefs about sex because some minority of parents will do a poor job educating their own children.  In the case of school lunches, statists don’t want to single out children who need help funding lunch, so they’re going to edge in on the relationship of most parents and their children.

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How Much Union Members Are Paid, And How Much Taxpayers Can Afford

With the third highest property taxes in the country, a major encumbrance within an overall anti-taxpayer and anti-business climate that has dropped Rhode Island into bottom-10 rankings in a number of critical national indexes, the excessive costs of collectively bargained government services can be directly linked to this statewide problem.

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Who Is Working For You? New Major Report Coming Soon From The Center

Who does the Rhode Island General Assembly really work for? Too often, the people of our state are left voiceless as special interest dominate the conversation. Recently, the Ocean State Current broke a major story that ignited media coverage across the state. In H5662 and Whom Rhode Island Representatives Represent, Research Director Justin Katz, uncovers a key admission from the political class.

During the March 11th Tiverton Town Council meeting, a member of the General Assembly admitted that he put forward the bill at the request of Speaker of the House, without regard to the cost to the town he represents for the state firefighters union.

Don’t wait, you can catch the video on the Current by clicking the link here. You can also find the followup here.

In the coming weeks, the Center will be releasing a major report on the cost of collective bargaining in the Ocean State. This will be the longest and most in-depth research project the Center has ever undertaken on any topic. We invite you to be on the lookout for this critical report.

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The Pressure the General Assembly Is Trying to Control

The Providence Journal today has published an op-ed in which I address the admission of Representative John “Jay” Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) that he put in legislation for the state firefighters union, by way of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, without much consideration of its effect on the people he’s supposed to represent:

Watch Rhode Island politics for even a short time, and you’ll catch on to certain truths. Everybody seems to know them, and sometimes an op-ed or talk radio show will blurt them out. By now, in 2019, these truths have been sufficiently longstanding and have produced so many of their inevitable consequences that Rhode Islanders feel them in their bones. They are why few run for office and why many leave the state, year after year.

Still, a person who’s watched Rhode Island politics can’t help but be surprised when an insider, who ought to have the good taste to pretend these truths aren’t true, admits one of them. I had this experience at the March 11 meeting of the Tiverton Town Council, of which I am the vice president. We were engaged in a ritual conversation with our town’s representatives and senators, and I asked state Rep. John “Jay” Edwards about one of his bills.

One important lesson shouldn’t be lost as this matter predictably falls along lines of unions versus taxpayers.  With legislation like the bills Mattiello asked Edwards to submit, legislators aren’t only elevating the interests of the unions over those of the broader public.  They’re also advancing the statewide unions’ interests over those of the union locals and their workers.

That’s ultimately the upshot of having the General Assembly put limits on what the sides can negotiate in any particular city or town.  Inherently, both sides of the negotiating table are restricted in what they’re able to negotiate.

The pressure on budgets doesn’t go away.  Elected officials and municipal employees simply have to find other ways to release it.  Perhaps Mattiello and Edwards expect or hope that the “release” will come in the form of big tax increases in an already over-taxed state.  More likely, the result will be exacerbated under-funding of pensions, infrastructure, and other areas of the budget that aren’t as straightforward.

If the budget pressure can’t be released in those ways, the bubble will only grow, to the point that we’re talking about privatization and regionalization.  Maybe those are good ideas and maybe they’re not, but the only way to truly know is to let the people closest to negotiations talk about and try everything.

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Negotiating with the Speaker in the Room

Thanks to the reporting of Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg we have some explanation of the motivation behind Democrat state Representative John “Jay” Edwards legislation to change overtime rules in favor of fire fighters.  Unfortunately, the explanation comes not from the Tiverton/Portsmouth representative who put the bill in, but the Speaker of the House who told him to do it:

During an interview with The Journal on Tuesday, Democrat Mattiello, of Cranston, acknowledged he is an enthusiastic supporter of the legislation that Cranston Deputy Fire Chief Paul Valletta has been pushing at the State House in his role as the $3,035.58-a-month lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters. …

“We had the opportunity to pass this bill several years ago. We elected not to at that point and I remember knocking on one of my constituent’s doors. He was a Providence firefighter and he was a little frustrated and he said, ‘I am still going to vote for you speaker but I’m angry with you. … I have not seen my wife and my 8-year-old daughter in a year.’ That is inappropriate,″ Mattiello said. “The schedules that three platoons create are horrific on families … and if communities are going to do that, they should at least be required to pay the overtime.”

Mattiello acknowledges that he did no research concerning this issue or how other states have addressed it.  Despite the distance from Cranston to the East Bay, he might at least have made some inquiries about things in Tiverton.  We’ve worked hard on a solution — through a contract negotiated in good faith that is on track to be signed within mere weeks — precisely because employees were unhappy with the arrangement and it has affected morale, retention, and hiring.  In fact, his interference at the state level has complicated the situation locally.

Readers of this site know that I’m (let’s just say) skeptical of unionization, especially of government employees, but even by labor’s own standards the whole idea is that two sides come to the table and work out an agreement.  If the Speaker of the House is in the room, too, then the arrangement deserves much more than skepticism.

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Numbers, Facts, and Another Budget Battle

Over in Tiverton, we’re engaged in our annual budget debate, during which I have the new-to-me experience of being on the Town Council, this year.  This budget year is also unique because the full $3 million in minimum revenue from the new Twin River casino is in the budget for the first time.

Given these realities, I’ve been pushing for a compromise that would allow the town to reset local politics and spend the next year developing a long-term plan that allows us all to get our expectations on the table.  Maybe, just maybe, we could move forward from that exercise working together like a community rather than lurching from election to budget to election in a whipsaw of factions.

Unfortunately, given the recent history of the town, trust is an issue, and (from my perspective) it seems as if the old familiar strategies are difficult to move beyond:

During his initial pitch to the Budget Committee, Tiverton’s new superintendent, Peter Sanchioni, suggested that people had to trust him to set our school system aright.  He is correct that trust is critical, and distrust is the major hurdle facing anybody who wishes to bring Tiverton back to a place of compromise and cooperation.  That is why the superintendent’s final presentation to the Budget Committee before it voted on a budget for his department was so disappointing.

At the highest level, the School Committee never really compromised.  They asked the town for the highest budget they could possibly request by law.  (Actually their request exceeded the maximum by $3,624.)  On top of that, they appear to have overestimated state aid by $92,004 (which local taxpayers would have to make up for) and added $311,000 in “critical” capital expenses that they’d planned to fund out of their own reserves but now want the town to cover.

Two more-specific parts of the presentation, however, are where trust really takes a hit.

The closing sentiment of the post is key for Rhode Island as well as for Tiverton:  numbers have to be seen as an area of common ground rather than as an opportunity to mislead.  If I present numbers that lead me to a particular conclusion, somebody who opposes my position should explain which statements are incorrect or why they should lead to some other conclusion.  We at least have to share the the goal of agreeing on what the facts are, even if nobody changes his or her views because of them.

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Nepotism and Letting Representative Democracy Do It’s Work

Nepotism is not good for ethical reasons and for practical ones, because if a decision maker is hiring based on family relationships, he or she is not hiring based on merit.  Setting hard rules from a distance and on a blanket basis in every situation is also not good, because it presumes much more sagacity than human beings can reasonably claim.

That’s basically the perspective with which I approach Walt Buteau’s reporting on what seems to me to be a non-story:

One recent example — Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon’s appointment of second cousin Tarah Provencal to the city’s three-member Board of Public Safety does not violate the [state Code of Ethics].

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion said while the nepotism line had to be drawn somewhere, appointing a second cousin would seem to violate the spirit of the law.

“You should not be given a position of public trust because a member of your family gave you that. It isn’t theirs to give away,” [John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island] said. “It’s the public’s to give away.”

At some point, this becomes silly.  Yes, public appointments are the public’s to give away, but the public elected the mayor to make such decisions.  I’d agree that a person should not be given a position of influence just because his or her parent’s cousin is the mayor, but should it really be the case that a person cannot be given a position of influence for the same reason?

We have to let our political system do its work, and a representative democracy is one in which elected officials figure out what they were elected to do and why, and it is for voters to figure out whether to reelect them.  The more we take away those two instances of authority, the less we have a representative democracy, but rather an aristocracy that decides for us what decisions we can make and what we’re supposed to care about.

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East Greenwich’s Cienki in the Race for State GOP Chair

Suzanne Cienki, the East Greenwich Town Council president whose local leadership had the town’s government in the headlines for a year, has announced her candidacy to be chairwoman of the state Republican Party:

“The State of Rhode Island is run by the Democratic Party,” Cienki said in letter to GOP Central Committee members. “Unfortunately, this one-party system is the same as a no-party system. The balancing of ideas and checks and balances by opposing parties is vital to a democratic society. The RIGOP needs to clearly identify a platform and educate voters in Rhode Island as to how Republicans will do things differently.” …

“I have the leadership skills, time and energy to devote to the position of chair,” Cienki wrote in her letter to party faithful. “I am not afraid of a challenge and willing to speak out on behalf of taxpayers on many important issues. The state party’s main goals should have a clearly identifiable message, focus on fundraising efforts, and recruit candidates to run for statewide offices.”

Amid the behind-the-scenes chatter, I’ve heard it said that Cienki would be a bad choice because she led her council into a rout by the local Democrats, but Republicans should be wary of that argument.  The idea that somebody with the gumption to take on Rhode Island’s established interests should be penalized because she has had to learn from her experience is antithetical to an active movement that can advance a cause.

The way to gain advantage over time is to experiment, take risks, and then learn from the results, both good and bad.  Rather than writing off anybody who has a bad result, a movement that reassesses based on that experience and renews the charge will make progress.  And if the people who made the mistakes are willing to do the same, they’re particularly well suited to guide the change, at the same time that their participation makes it more likely that the opposition will learn the wrong lessons.

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Another Consideration with Binding Arbitration for Teachers

A Providence Journal editorial worries that the teachers unions may have finally bought themselves binding arbitration from the legislature and governor this year.

Such a change would mean that the unions could dig in their heels when a contract is due and try their luck with a three-person arbitration panel that ultimately doesn’t have to worry about where the money will come from or what other priorities might be sacrificed, as elected boards must do.  The editors note the political imbalance:

Labor interests have immense financial resources, politicians in their pockets and batteries of relentless lobbyists to help secure their gains at the State House. Citizens have little more than their own vote and their voice in trying to restrain property taxes and move Rhode Island in a healthier direction. But voices and votes, if used, can frighten enough politicians into doing the right thing.

The leverage of citizens and their elected officials in negotiations is something I’ve learned a bit about since I was elected to the Tiverton Town Council in November.  When it comes to police and fire, the dynamic is very different.  Not only are they dealing with emergencies and public safety, but their 24/7 schedules create challenges that fall squarely within management rights.  That means arbitrators cannot touch them.

What are management rights when it comes to teachers unions?  Maybe I’ve been missing something, but I’ve never gotten the sense that school departments could simply force teachers to stay in their classrooms longer without negotiating that into their contracts, for example.  And any such moves may also impose requirements on students and families, making them less likely.

In other words, binding arbitration not only has less justification for teacher unions than public safety unions, but it also comes with less leverage for management.  That is, it’s simply a flex of political muscle that will create huge imbalance in local budgeting.

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Roland Benjamin: Look to Mass for Both Educational Outcomes and Budgeting Approach

Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago. Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years. For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.

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Roland Benjamin: Why Are We Spending So Much More on Education than Massachusetts?

In 1980, the State of Massachusetts recognized the limitations and threats of relying too heavily on expanding property taxes to fund our public education systems. Proposition 2 ½ was passed to limit the increases a town could levy through its property taxes each year. Named for the enacted cap of 2.5%, any town that needed to increase its levy beyond it could do so, but only through a town wide referendum. For the last 35 years or so, Massachusetts has tamed its property taxes and runaway school spending.

Rhode Island enacted our own, lighter version, of a tax cap. Unfortunately we chose 4% as our limit and waited almost 30 years to implement it. During the lead up to the cap, can you imagine what districts did? In South Kingstown, we ramped our baseline spending up between 6% to 12% each year despite losing about 100 kids per year from our enrollment.

The chart here shows how this played out over the last 2 decades.

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Happy New Year from the Center! How to Start Winning Conservative Victories in 2019.

Happy New Year from everyone at the Center! Do you want to start winning conservative victories in 2019? It is my view that conservatives in our state MUST boldly and relentlessly stand for the core values that have always bonded Americans together, and translate those values into kitchen-table issues that benefit families.

Our vision is based upon the core values of love of country, freedom of religion, self-sufficiency, and preservation of the individual rights granted by God to every American, as defined in our constitution.

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Another Route to Side Deals in Warwick

The latest extra-contractual agreement for Warwick firefighters, as reported by Mark Reynolds in the Providence Journal, is the sort of thing we should watch for across the state:

An unauthorized practice has overpaid retiring city firefighters for accumulations of vacation time since 2015, a Providence Journal investigation shows.

Asked about documents and information developed by The Journal, Mayor Joseph J. Solomon said Friday he was ordering a halt to the practice. …

“I know the contract that Scott Avedisian signed was not the contract that was voted by the City Council,” he said.

That last detail makes this deal substantively different from the other side deal, unearthed in October, because Avedisian denied even knowing about that one.

These side deals — and the next level, at which employees take resources and time without even the cover of somebody’s approval — show the sense of entitlement and impunity. Government employees in Rhode Island already get employment agreements well beyond what the market would set, but that isn’t enough.  It’s never enough.

One wonders if the motivation isn’t greed so much as seeing how much they can get away with.  And why not?  When there are never any consequences, grabbing more and more becomes a game.

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