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“Regular Order” in the U.S. Congress and Rhode Island

Angelo Codevilla summarizes the history of how the U.S. Congress undermined our system of government as the end of “regular order.”  By this, he means the process by which laws were supposed to be reviewed in committee and then passed on the floor, all in full view and deliberation, with each legislator ultimately accountable for votes.  But…

… For over a century, congressmen and senators’ procrastination had pressed legislative business into the last weeks before the end of congressional sessions. Members had noted that they could slip items into bills in frenzied times, which would not have survived regular order’s scrutiny. In the 1970s, some committees started to procrastinate on purpose, so that the end of the government’s fiscal year would come without an appropriation for one or more department of government. The Appropriations Committee would then prepare a “continuing resolution” to substitute for the uncompleted appropriations. These were supposed to just “keep thing going next year as in the previous year,” thus avoiding all issues. At the very least, they obviated whatever major changes anyone might want to make. But it was never that simple: from the beginning, these CRs always had riders. The more influence you had, the more you could slip into the CR.

This gave leadership more power, because they had more leeway to determine what could and couldn’t be “slipped into” continuing resolutions.  In the last decade, according to Codevilla, Harry Reid pushed Congress to the final step, essentially making continuing resolutions the rule for the whole budget and, therefore, the whole government.

If this sounds familiar to local ears, it’s because this is exactly the way in which the Rhode Island legislature operates.  The entire session is warm-up and theatrics for a final push during which the action is frenzied, the rules are suspended, and legislative leaders have all of the say.

The solution is the same, too:  Voters have to insist on regular order, not a few oligarchs who leverage a weak version of representative democracy for their own benefit.  Unfortunately, the corrupt system works well for special interests, too, who corrupt our electoral system.

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Vetoes and Non Vetoes

I’ll admit that I’m surprised that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed the eternal contracts bill:

In a veto message that echoed the strenuous arguments raised by city and town leaders, Raimondo wrote: “Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable.

“The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public’s position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”

Raimondo has seemed to me to make decisions on political grounds, and she’s in a precarious enough position that she can’t really afford to push away the teachers’ unions, which have been explicit about not intending to target her next time around.  This action could change that.

It’ll be telling to watch the political play.  If, for example, the General Assembly overrides the veto and the teachers’ unions (especially the National Education Association – Rhode Island) do nothing more than issue a strongly worded press release against the governor (which is already done), then it would indicate that there’s a political dance going on, meant to give the governor cover with taxpayer advocates and municipal leaders while not harming the unions.

As part of this picture, note that Raimondo “allowed a disability-pension bill that was also championed by organized labor to become law without her signature,” according to Kathy Gregg.  Here the calculation is slightly different.  She didn’t sign it, thereby providing herself a little cover with taxpayer advocates (being able to say she didn’t “support” it), but she didn’t veto it, saying it was simply a legal codification of existing practice.  I think she’ll be proven wrong on that, inasmuch as the law now explicitly allows for work-related physical and mental illnesses to be grounds for a disability pension, but one could see how her calculation would be different.

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Montanaro Investigation… Well, That Was Quick

I mentioned, yesterday, that John DePetro had different expectations for the likely outcome of the State Police investigation of state employee and labor-union prince Frank Montanaro, Jr., and his receipt of a college-tuition benefit to which he was dubiously entitled.  Existence of the investigation came to light early this week, with the subject having been interviewed on Friday.

Well, Tim White and Ted Nesi published this yesterday afternoon:

Just a day after confirming the investigation, the Rhode Island State Police said Tuesday they have completed their examination of a top State House staffer who got about $50,000 in free tuition, and forwarded their findings to the attorney general.

What might a quick resolution of the investigation mean?  It would seem that a law was either obviously broken or the State Police have passed along the nothing-to-see-here conclusion that I predicted.

We’ll see.

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State Police and Other Mechanisms for Responsive Government

During my weekly call today to the John DePetro Show on 1540 AM WADK, John and I disagreed, a little, on the news that, at Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s request, the State Police are investigating the process by which Frank Montanaro, Jr., got around $50,000 in free public-higher-education tuition as a benefit for a job that he no longer held with Rhode Island College.

The disagreement, minor as it was, involved John’s expectation that there’s legal fire behind the smoke of this issue and my skepticism that the State Police will find and pursue anything that’s actually a legal problem for Montanaro.  John mentioned other legislators who’ve been nailed on legal challenges, but with some of the more-notable cases (Fox & Gallison), federal officials were involved, not just the state.

I guess I’ve just reduced my expectations for the State Police in recent years, based on various seemingly political decisions they’ve made.  Maybe that’s fair, or maybe it’s not, but it’s my feeling.

A key point that I didn’t manage to make adequately on the radio is that Rhode Island has a dire need to start enforcing rules that aren’t quite laws.  The moment Montanaro was found to have filed false reports in pursuit of his benefit, he ought to have been gone, whether or not it proved to be illegal.  And to ensure that reform, we need something other than the State Police.

If the State Police come out and say that they found no evidence of criminal activity — however bad the whole thing might stink — that counts as absolution for crooked behavior.  What we need is some other authority, like an inspector general or something, who can bridge that gap, both recommending legal prosecution and providing credible analysis that a particular deal did not seem to jibe with the spirit of a personnel policy.

A lot of corruption can go on between completely legit government activities and clearly illegal behavior.  Our government officials have proven unwilling to enforce that gray area on the side of justice, so we need something more.

In the meantime, I’ll remain skeptical.

By capitulating to progressive-union pressure, and despite disingenuous claims that no broad-based taxes were imposed, Ocean Staters will once again bear increased burdens to pay for new taxes and regulations, more spending, and more union giveaways. Lawmakers chose to appease, rather than resist, the progressives’ job-killing, big-spending agenda.

Progressive Values Devalue Human Work

Message to General Assembly leadership: #JustStayHome! By kowtowing to pressure from the progressive-left, the provisions in the proposed 2018 budget, along with other crippling legislation, send a disturbing, but clear message to Rhode Islanders: hard work is valued less than unearned worker privileges. Rhode Islanders’ natural drive to engage in gainful and honest work and to invest in new ventures is corrupted by false promises that they can become part of a new “I got mine” special-interest crowd.

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At Least the Laborers Union Has Representation in the General Assembly

Don’t let the drama of a political fight over legislation distract you from this nugget in Kathryn Gregg’s Providence Journal article suggesting that differences over a new paid-leave mandate may have helped bring about the General Assembly’s surprise session ending:

In response to a Journal inquiry, House spokesman Larry Berman said this is what happened:

“The [paid leave] bill that was passed by the House did not include the Laborers’ because we believed they wanted to be exempt. Mike Sabitoni did not talk to the Speaker or anyone in the House until the bill was recommended for passage by the House Labor Committee on Thursday and the House was getting ready to vote on the bill.”

“When we were notified that the Laborers’ wanted to be included in the bill, the appropriate amendment was drafted on Friday morning and given to the Senate to amend the House bill.″

So, basically, the Laborers Union gets whatever it wants in the General Assembly.  They want exemption?  Why, it’s simply obvious that the legislation should be amended.  If they don’t, hey that’s no problem either.

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Budgeting Woes in the Northeast

A State House News Service story by Katie Lannan appearing in The Herald News of Fall River answers a question that I’d been wondering:

After Maine and New Jersey reached deals to end their government shutdowns, just six states remain in budgetary limbo: Massachusetts, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Interesting, isn’t it, that half of the states are from New England — specifically Southern New England.  Five of the laggard eight are Northeastern states.

Looking at the list, one’s tempted to muse about general similarities of the policies that these states have pursued over the past half-century.  Maybe the can has met the end of the road.

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Lucky Independence from the General Assembly

Even if I didn’t work there, I’d endorse the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s call for the General Assembly to stay out of the State House:

As America prepares to celebrate its independence, and in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and incomes of Ocean State families and businesses, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity recommends Rhode Island remain independent from further legislative tyranny. The Center today urges the state’s ruling class to officially close the General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session, keeping Representatives and Senators away from the State House so that they cannot inflict more damage this year.

Recent history clearly shows that the people of RI lose when the General Assembly is in session. Once again this year, the preliminary General Assembly Freedom Index shows that the vast majority of bills rated by the Center serve to decrease freedoms and limit the opportunity for prosperity for the majority, non-special-interest faction, of our state’s population.

I think the General Assembly should take a whole year off so legislators can work out their differences without having to worry about any actual legislation.

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Updated: A More-Relevant Budget Question

If you follow Rhode Island government news, you probably know that a last-minute Senate amendment to the House budget blew up the last days of the legislative session.  Everybody has quickly found out that state law continues the prior year budget to the new year if a new budget doesn’t pass.  Things will go on.

The bigger practical question is this year.  The revised 2017 budget that was part of this year’s budget that’s $265 million of spending that the state apparently has already done that is no longer authorized.  What happens now?  It seems to me that the government of Rhode Island will have deficit spent by that quarter billion dollars as of tomorrow.

Of course, we all know.  The state just ignores whatever laws or rules are necessary to keep its gravy train going, but what’s the cover story going to be?

ADDENDUM (6/30/17 10:06 p.m.):

This is weird.  A tweet from Ted Nesi says the RI Senate passed a bill giving additional money to RIPTA to keep up subsidized bus passes.  But that was in the House budget, which has not passed both chambers.

A little research shows that yesterday the House took a bill with related intent and amended it to match the language in the budget.  So, a bill that the House Finance committee had “held for further study” on May 9 suddenly reappeared in an amended form to match language that was supposedly expected to pass as part of the budget, and was rushed through the whole committee and floor-vote process the day before a surprise turn of events killing the budget.

I’m also hearing that some of the labor union gimmes that we’ve all assumed were quid pro quos to pass the speaker’s car tax phaseout managed to slip through despite the budget’s demise.  Although it is a bit more conspiracy-theoretical than I’m comfortable with, that does make me wonder how much of a surprise today’s events really were.

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Sales Tax and Another Threatened Lawsuit Against Money-Grabbing Government

Is it me or are the policies the Rhode Island General Assembly is implementing sparking more lawsuits, lately, indicating a desperation to find new ways to squeeze money out of a strangling economy? Here’s the latest:

The new rules order online retailers with no physical presence in the state to collect the state’s 7-percent sales tax on purchases by Rhode Island buyers or mail those buyers a letter notifying them that they owe the equivalent use tax on the items. Buyers already owe use tax on purchases made from out-of-state sellers, including websites, but very few actually pay it at the end of the year.

NetChoice, an e-commerce trade group that’s challenged online sales tax policies in states across the country — including a current lawsuit against Massachusetts — is urging senators to reject the sales tax provisions in the Rhode Island budget, which they call “privacy invading,” costly and unfair.

“Don’t pass this law,” said Carl Szabo, senior policy counsel at Washington, D.C.-based NetChoice. “It is hard to understand what the purpose of it is except for the perception that the Internet is hurting Main Street. Now Amazon, Walmart and most of the top 20 online retailers collect and remit sales tax for Rhode Island.”

NetChoice is coming off a victory on Wednesday when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, responding to the lawsuit, abruptly canceled plans to begin collecting sales tax on Internet purchases from out-of-state retailers.

The next question is who is going to sue over the fact that Rhode Island will effectively be double-taxing the thousands and thousands of Rhode Islanders who pay the minimum use tax on their income tax returns even though they’ve already paid sales tax on all of their online purchases?

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Naturally, the Politicians Use “Good Government” to Lock In Their Own Positions

This legislative session in Rhode Island is turning into a real assault on Rhode Islanders.  Here comes legislation making it more difficult to challenge political incumbents… now amended to avoid any further difficulty for those incumbents:

In the version of the bill passed out of committee, the [ballot] block on candidates with overdue fines remains, but random campaign account audits were replaced by audits on candidates who have failed to file at least two finance reports with the Board of Elections, or those who owe more than $1,000 in fines.

So, they’re still going after the grassroots little guy or gal who gets tripped up in the election regulations, but they’re letting themselves off the hook completely.  They have no right.  As has become increasingly clear, Rhode Island isn’t really a representative democracy.  It’s a kleptocracy.

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Disability Pensions and RI’s Rate of Pilferage

Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin has been making a lot of sense, lately.  Most recently, on “R.I.’s disability-pension gravy train”:

One of the bills, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown attorney, wants firefighter disability to include not just on-the-job injury, but illness, too — specifically, cardiovascular.

If a firefighter can no longer serve because of hypertension, stroke or heart disease, it would be considered work-related. Automatically.

Bingo — tax-free disability for life.

A second bill, introduced by four reps who are former cops, also makes “illness sustained while in the performance of duty” grounds for disability for police officers.

Companion bills have passed each chamber, meaning that the state House and Senate each has passed an identical version of the bill (H5601 and S0896). If either chamber passes the other chamber’s version, the legislation will go to the governor to be signed.

It’s tempting to say that Rhode Island has crossed some sort of line this year (probably as the jackals put in their conditions for negotiation with Democrat Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, so that he could get the car tax elimination he locked himself into providing), but the reality is that we were already over the line.

As this legislative session has proven, the “reasonable” position in state government isn’t to improve conditions in Rhode Island or to loosen the ropes on residents, but simply to insist on a slower pace for the pilfering of people’s wealth.  That may delay the Puerto Rico or Venezuela endgame, but perhaps not by much.

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Bad Legislation in the Light of Day

If Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) follows through with what he tells Ted Nesi, it will be an unambiguously positive development:

“My policy for as long as I’m speaker is going to be, 9 o’clock unless I can get it done by 10, and no later than 10 o’clock. I’ve heard from a lot of citizens, and the way we used to do business when I first got here – and that’s where I learned, when I first got here – the way they’ve always done it in the past is unacceptable today. The citizens don’t want it. So I’ve committed we’re not going to do it, and we won’t do it.” He added: “And we won’t do it as we finish session, either. It’s more important to me to do business at the right time than it is to get it done in a particular day. I’ll come back in the fall if I have to. I want to do business when our citizens can see what they’re doing and can be part of the process through their TV set or coming down to the State House and watching it, participating, rather than the early morning hours. That’s very, very important to me and that’s going to be a priority, and I’m going to maintain that as long as I’m speaker.”

The all-night, punch-drunk sessions of the General Assembly have been a real problem, not the least as part of the system that keeps Rhode Islanders confused and lets bad policy slip undetected into law.

Reviewing the terrible budget that just passed the House, in light of disastrous labor and regulatory legislation that seems to be coming closer to the finish line than it has in prior years, makes me wonder how much concessions like this are really just an acknowledgement that leaders now have a lock on the legislative game and don’t need the worst of the gimmicks.

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to compare Rhode Island political insiders, in this case, to thieves who are slowly discovering that they can just walk out the door with their booty rather than going through the trouble of sneaking.

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Budget Season: Opportunity for Articulating a Vision for Rhode Island

Every year, this time of year, the budget for the State of Rhode Island comes out and, accompanied with surrounding legislation (much of it premised, one can infer, on quid pro quo for budget votes) shows the vision of the insiders who run our state.  Every year, life in Rhode Island becomes more restrictive, business becomes harder, government budgets go up.

Earlier in this legislative season, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity put out a pair of “Hey, Dude!” radio ads illustrating the point from the perspective of somebody who wants more freebies and somebody who sees the opportunities inherent in a society out from under government’s thumb.

For a little fun, here’s a pair that I’ve put together.

Open post for audio.

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Legislation Holds Mobility Over the Heads of the Poor for Municipal Bucks

I’ve been very critical of Mike Araujo and his rhetoric on this site, but he is absolutely correct to object to this bill:

Tuesday night, the House Finance Committee passed a bill (H-6213A) that seeks to expand the denial of vehicle registration to individuals who may have outstanding unpaid interest or penalties on fines owed to a city or town, rather than only revoking it for the amount of the fines themselves owed to the municipality.

Legislation like this, making it easier for people to lose their licenses or registration based on financial debts, has been criticized all over the country for its problematic and counterproductive effects on poor Americans. Driving without a registered vehicle leads to substantial penalties or even a revoked license, which simply worsens the person’s financial issues and hardships. This in itself is challenging since the restrictions would deny the person the ability to drive to work, school, or any other related activity making them less able to meet their monetary obligations.

As an indication of how thoroughly aggressive the legislation is, even in the small details, consider this:  Right now, the legislation requires the city or town to pay the DMV $5 in order to request a registration denial, and that fee “may” be added to the total due from the driver.  This bill waives the up-front payment and says that the $5 “shall” be added to the total.

Where is the public interest in all of this, beyond wanting more money for profligate government?  People need to be mobile to have a shot in the modern world and making it more difficult for them to get right with the regulations for mobility undeniably makes it more likely that they will continue struggling and probably remain dependent on government.

The legislation’s primary sponsor is progressive Democrat Christopher Blazejewski of Providence, who apparently submitted it at the request of the city, but who, in doing so, proved that government always comes first for people in government.  Keeping others dependent on government isn’t exactly contrary to that goal.

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