General Assembly RSS feed for this section
mattiello-030812

The Ambiguous Middle in the General Assembly

I’m not sure if the Providence Journal’s Political Scene crew is right to summarize the General Assembly’s left-right divide based solely on abortion and gun rights, but the reported numbers do raise an interesting question: Are the relatively conservative legislative leaders on the edge of a progressive precipice, or are the legislators whose views aren’t explicitly known more conservative than they want to show in floor votes, thereby exposing themselves to progressive attack?

Cranston Republican Steven Frias seems to think the former:

Frias said his own analysis of the ratings suggests that “Mattiello is in the minority among House Democrats on abortion and guns, which helps explain why [he] has dropped the ‘firewall’ rhetoric.”

“Mattiello’s dilemma is whether to allow a floor vote where representatives will be allowed to vote their conscience on legislation related to abortion and guns. Regardless of what he decides, someone will feel duped,″ either the “House liberals … [or] the cultural conservatives who backed [him] for reelection thinking he would be the ‘firewall’ on abortion and guns.”

Frias’ argument: “If Mattiello betrays his culturally conservative constituents it would be a signal to cultural conservatives that they cannot rely on the Democratic House leadership and they should vote Republican in General Assembly races.”

A corresponding dilemma faces quiet conservatives. As long as legislators are allowed to remain fuzzy on these issues, relatively conservative constituents will continue to rely on the good graces of “firewalls” like Mattiello. An unambiguous understanding of the danger would be clarifying as people make their decisions as voters, volunteers, and donors.

mike-stenhouse-avatar

Center Recommends Constitutional Amendment to Codify Legislative Process Reforms

The legislative sausage-making process in Rhode Island is in dire need of reform. Those reforms that should be codified through a constitutional amendment, so that Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership. Now is the time to demand better government.

Our state needs less control by leadership over what legislation will advance, with more power provided to legislative committees.

spotlightonspending-featured

The Noises of an Expected Problem

This sure looks like an action done with the awareness of Rhode Island’s chief executive, with full knowledge that overspending was part of a long-term budget-management scheme:

House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney publicly vented his “disappointment″ that the directors of Rhode Island’s overspending state agencies did not come to the hearing to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The House’s chief fiscal adviser, Sharon Reynolds Ferland, shared her own frustration at what she described as the lax response of state agencies to direct instructions from the state budget office to lay out specific options for averting a potential $47.2-million deficit this year, and scaling back their budget requests for next year.

She attributed the potential current year deficit “primarily … [to] unmet expenditure savings and unbudgeted policy choices.”

They don’t have plans because they don’t feel like they need them. Everybody in state government is on basically the same page about the primacy of government spending. This will continue until (1) politicians start paying a price for going along with it or (2) bankruptcy.

freespeech-featured

The Constitutional Importance of Our Legislators’ Authority

Rhode Island has had lengthy debates about who, outside of the legislature, should have authority to judge what our state representatives and senators do in their official capacity, and few questioned whether that sort of protection belonged in the state constitution. Yet, nobody has yet suggested that legislators deserve the same level of protection from the abuses of other legislators, specifically when it comes to the House and Senate rules.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is signing on to calls for rules that reduce the power of legislative leaders and give it back to legislators, but with the caveat that it ought to happen where new factions can’t change the rules back if they take control:

In calling for a dual-legislative track, the Center’s primary objective is to ensure that elected Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership.

The first piece of legislation would immediately implement certain reforms for the 2019 General Assembly session, while the second piece would call for a ballot-referendum in 2020, whereby voters could approve codification of those reforms into the Rhode Island constitution.

The political Left, in particular, has exhibited a tendency to back individual rights until such time as Leftists are able to impose their preferred regime, at which point individual dissent suddenly becomes illegitimate. With legislative rules, as with our rights, we should move them as far out of reach as possible while we still have some semblance of representative democracy.

RI-statehouse-yellowdome-featured

A Possible Misunderstanding of the Status of Representatives

We’re only hearing murmurs, but already one #MeToo-era bill potentially on track for introduction into the Rhode Island General Assembly for the upcoming legislative session suggests that lawmakers don’t quite understand their unique roles in our system:

A top Democrat in the state House of Representatives has written legislation that would create an “Equal Opportunity Employment Officer” in state government with the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment within the General Assembly.

Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, the deputy majority whip in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, plans to pre-file a bill creating the office and a special committee on professional conduct with “broad investigatory and disciplinary powers,” he said in a news release.

A new office with “broad” powers to discipline elected legislators?  That’s not how this stuff is supposed to work.  Legislators aren’t employees; they’re representatives.  The state government didn’t hire them.  They aren’t there by contract or the assent of the other legislators.  They’re supposed to answer to their constituents.  Period.

That doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card if they break the law, but it should suggest wariness about appointing independent government officials with the power to “discipline” them.  The potential for mischief is huge.  From a narrowly political standpoint, such an officer could selectively enforce the rules and abuse the investigatory power to tar disfavored politicians.  From a wider philosophical standpoint, one can easily imagine circumstances in which a district elects a legislator explicitly because of his or her beliefs about men and women only to find expression of those beliefs to be subject to discipline.

Representative Katherine Kazarian reinforces the impression that some legislators are losing sight of their unique role when she says, “All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation.”  Again, they are not employees, nor are they constituents.  They are adults whom we sent to the State House to battle for policy on our behalf.

They should be able to utilize the political system to hold their fellow legislators accountable and turn to voters for accountability.  This sort of legislation makes profound changes to the roles of the people in our political system.

mattiello-062613-featured

Mattiello Promotes Thwarting Representative Democracy

Here’s something that jumps out at me from Katherine Gregg’s article about Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello’s race against Republican challenger Stephen Frias:

He also says the rules concentrating power in the speaker were adopted to prevent the “wrong things” from reaching the House floor for votes, such as a vote to slash the state’s 7-percent sales tax.

“At some point someone is going to come up with that,” he said. “You are going to force every member to start taking votes to not do something that is terribly irresponsible … [that] will just become fodder for political season.”

One’s first reaction (especially if one has been advocating for precisely that legislation for a number of years) is:  That’s the policy that comes to Mattiello’s mind as irresponsible?  Really?

A more important reaction, however, is to note that Mattiello is essentially acknowledging that his role as Speaker of the House is to thwart the healthy operation of our representative democracy.  What he describes as a problem is how government is supposed to work.

Legislators with incentive to give people what they want bring policies forward, forcing other representatives to take a stand.  If voters don’t like the result, they vote for other people who will better represent their interests and their values.  Under this system, being responsible in the face of popular demands is supposed to come at a cost; that is what balances the self governance of democracy with the prudence of judgment.

If legislative leaders can kill legislation in an opaque process, the electorate can’t be represented, because we can’t know where our legislators will stand when a bill is before them.

trillo-rage-featured

The Too-Obvious Plot of RI’s Made-for-TV Politics

What can one say about the revelation — the minuscule import of which is mirrored in the mammoth coverage it has received — that a 30-something Joe Trillo once faced charges for whacking a young-teen Nicholas Mattiello?

As Trillo tells it, he was outside working on his house when he heard a young girl’s screams coming from a nearby home. He saw a group of young boys pounding on the front door of the home, where the girl – who by Trillo’s recollection was was around 12 or 13 – had been left alone.

“I immediately dropped everything I was doing and ran over to the house, and started waving my arms around furiously to disband the group of boys doing everything they could to get in that house,” Trillo said in a statement issued Wednesday morning. “That’s when one of my arms unintentionally struck young Nicholas Mattiello, who was approximately 14 years old.”

According to reports from WPRO radio, Mattiello’s family pressed charges, Trillo pleaded no contest, and, eventually, the assault charge was expunged from the gubernatorial candidate’s record.

WPRI has since found that Trillo was actually found not guilty, and Nicholas Mattiello clearly bears him no ill will, but the most telling detail of the anecdote, for my money, is that the Mattiellos insisted on pressing charges against their neighbor for accidental contact with their son in defense of a young girl.  But going down that line of inquiry would require one to believe that an incident from the year of my birth might contribute more to voters’ understanding of the candidate than the behavior that has been on display for the public in more-recent decades.

The larger concern for Rhode Islanders should be the degree to which the whole thing just feels so Rhode Island.  People talk about how everybody knows everybody in our state, but that isn’t true.  It would absolutely be possible to fill the State House with elected officials who were not each other’s neighbors at any point in the past half century.

The problem is that our government is set up to elevate colorful characters and people of a certain sort and disposition.  That’s what needs to change, and its causes ought to be the subject of our public discourse.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

The Little League Lesson on Legislative Grants

Legislative grants have been an issue as long as I have been paying attention to Rhode Island politics.  They are so obviously a vote-buying scheme that legislative leaders use to reward representatives and senators who help to keep the insider game going.  They are therefore an excellent symbol for everything that is wrong with Rhode Island politics.

The Providence Journal Political Scene today emphasizes the increase in grants going to groups in the name of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, who had a too-close-for-comfort campaign result last time around and has clearly wanted to avoid a second roll of the dice:

The Cranston Police Department ($65,000), Western Cranston Garden Club ($1,000) and Cranston Western Little League ($15,000) were among the groups on which Mattiello bestowed 32 grants under the General Assembly’s legislative grant program this year.

No state lawmaker sponsored more grants individually than Mattiello or more total cash than the $205,048 in those grants, nearly 30 percent more than the $158,500 Mattiello sponsored the previous year, according to a Political Scene review of legislative grants for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

If legislative grants stand as an archetype of Rhode Island corruption, the Little League grants are especially revealing about the unfairness of the granting system.  Twenty-eight grants totaling $84,000 went to organizations with “Little League” in their names this legislative session.  Mattiello’s gift was the biggest, but that wasn’t it.  Cranston, as a municipality, received by far the most Little League grants in Rhode Island:  $32,500.  The second-place municipality was Warwick, receiving only $11,500.

RI-legislativegrants-littleleagues-2018

 

Those grants go to 19 Little League organizations in 14 cities and towns (out of 39) and are the work of 25 legislators (out of 113).  Democrat Senator Felag managed to spread his wealth to all three towns that he represents: Bristol, Warren, and Tiverton.  A few more legislators requested Little League donations in their names that don’t appear to have been granted.

There is no justification for a government program that picks and chooses which children’s baseball clubs deserve taxpayer dollars based on the political fidelity of their representatives and senators.  But the clear purpose is to keep our elected officials in line and to send a message to voters that the price of replacing their representation at the State House could be access to millions of dollars in cash for their kids and their pet projects.

monique-chartier-avatar

Truck Tolls: *Sigh* No, Peter and Gene, We Cannot Conclude that Truck Drivers Support Them

Every Thursday morning, as you probably know, WPRO’s Gene Valicenti hosts RIDOT Director Peter Alviti on the WPRO Morning News for a half hour plus segment. (Yeah, I know, I find it annoying, too.) Alviti takes questions from callers and spends a significant amount of air time promoting Governor Gina Raimondo’s wasteful, unnecessary, highly damaging RhodeWorks toll scheme.

On July 19, Alviti ratcheted it up a notch by involving his host.

mike-stenhouse-avatar

Conservative Policies Produce Rapid Economic Growth

For eight years, progressive-left politicians have told us that the ‘new normal’ for economic growth would be limited to the 2% range. And for years, our Center and other free-market advocates argued that major tax and regulatory reductions would reverse this course and lead to rapid economic growth, meaning more money and prosperity for families. After this week’s 4.1% GDP growth report, there can no longer be any doubt that we were right.

monique-chartier-avatar

Next/Last Round of Toll Gantries: Raimondo Administration Solicits Public Comment on an UNFINISHED Environmental Assessment

A couple of weeks ago, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Department of Transportation announced the locations of the balance of ten toll gantries and released an Environmental Assessment [PDF] of them. They also announced that hearings to take questions and comments on the E.A. would occur in three locations on July 27 – tonight, as a matter of fact.

Yes, that’s right, RIDOT is holding public hearings on a very significant project on a summer Friday evening. Quite similar in spirit, as a matter of fact, to the scheduling and location of the hearing for the first Environmental Assessment – in that case, two days before Thanksgiving hard by a cow pasture in South County so remote, the cows themselves need GPS to get there.

monique-chartier-avatar

​National Trucking Unloads on Rhode Island’s Truck-Only Tolls

This afternoon, the American Trucking Associations filed suit against Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, stating that it violates the Commerce Clause, citing its discriminatory nature and challenging its constitutionality. (View the lawsuit here.) Tune in now to 630 WPRO now, by the way, to hear the famous Mike Collins talking to John Loughlin (filling in for Dan Yorke) about the lawsuit.

The national truckers are not messing around: they are represented by ​Mayer ​Brown, the fifteenth largest law firm in the United States. Heavy artillery has been cut loose on a highly destructive, unnecessary new revenue program. On a certain, visceral level, that’s a beautiful thing and one wishes that this would happen with far more bad government programs.

Unfortunately, a highly likely outcome of the case will be an order to the State of Rhode Island to either desist tolling trucks or make it non-discriminatory by spreading the cancer to all vehicles including cars. Yet not one but two studies confirmed that tolls of any kind are not needed to repair Rhode Island’s bridges.

There have been many unanswered questions swirling around Gina Raimondo’s highly dubious, highly destructive toll plan.

Why was Governor Raimondo only capable of coming up with a cutting-edge, outside-of-the-box program that is destructive and burdensome rather than positive and propitious?

How did RIDOT get the truck counts and diversion rate, a critical basis for restricting tolls to only certain classes of vehicles, so wrong?

How did RhodeWorks tolls explode from $400M (per Governor Gina Raimondo in August of 2016 at Minute 15:00) to a completely open-ended, multi-billion dollar revenue stream?

Did Gina Raimondo, Nicholas Mattiello and Theresa Paiva-Weed truly believe that tolling trucks only, something that no other state does – a “unique approach” as RIDOT itself admits – was going to pass a legal challenge?

But the biggest question: if the lawsuit goes sideways and RhodeWorks tolls are ruled unconstitutional, will Nicholas Mattiello, Gina Raimondo and all Rhode Island legislators stand by their promise that tolls will never go on cars and scrap the RhodeWorks tolls?

[Monique has been volunteer spokesperson for StopTollsRI.com since tolls were first proposed three+ years ago and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]

After years of citizen outrage against truck-tolls in the Ocean State, the American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers representing the industry are brining a federal lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island on constitutional grounds likely to cost taxpayers millions.

Tolls Force ATA Lawsuit That Could Cost Rhode Island Taxpayers Millions In Legal Fees

After years of citizen outrage against truck-tolls in the Ocean State, the American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers representing the industry are bringing a federal lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island on constitutional grounds likely to cost taxpayers millions.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

In Rhode Island, Everything’s in a Name

The Rhode Island House Republicans’ Twitter account tweeted out a bit of deep insight from Mike O’Reilly of the Federal Communications Commission on C-SPAN:

“I was dealing with Rhode Island. They decided they were not going correct it, withstanding all the promises early in the year. They rename the program for the following year, thinking it’s going to fix the problem.” FCC Commissioner @mikeofcc

He’s talking about the 911 fee that the state government has come under scrutiny for misappropriating, but this is common in Rhode Island.  After 38 Studios, the General Assembly changed the name of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to the Commerce Corporation and, voila, all is right with Rhode Island policy.  In the season of education reform, Rhode Island shifted some names and org charts of state-level education boards around and all of a sudden children began a new educational voyage… I guess.

Once again the reminder:  Elected officials will keep doing this stuff until it stops working for them.

mike-stenhouse-avatar

Wasted Opportunity – 2019 Budget Graded “D-” by the Center

When will Rhode Island’s political leaders remember of the real needs of families? Despite a large and unexpected revenue windfall and clear policy lesson, resulting from the recent federal tax and regulatory cuts, Rhode Island’s General Assembly has wasted an opportunity for reform and, instead, are seeking to maintain the status quo in the FY2019 Budget.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

A Big Lesson from a (Relatively) Small Tax Increase

I’ve got an op-ed in the Valley Breeze today taking the opportunity of a new sales tax on software as a service products to illustrate the harmful thinking of our legislators:

In short, the state government is going to tax an innovation that empowers productive, motivated Rhode Island families who are making the most of technology that levels the economic playing field. Even if it’s “only” $4.8 million, why would the state government do that? …

So, when Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat from Cranston, tells reporters that “to not expect (the budget) to rise every year is not realistic,” he’s really saying it is unrealistic to expect state government only to grow at the same speed or more slowly than the household budgets of Rhode Island families. If that’s the expectation, then the governor and the General Assembly must find new ways to take more money from Rhode Islanders.

After all, the politicians have to find some way to pay for election-year raises for unionized state employees. If they’re going to increase the tax credits for producers who film movies here, they’re going to have to start taxing your Netflix account. If they’re going to promise a big chunk of the state’s income, sales, and corporate taxes to the PawSox for a new stadium, they’re going to have to increase those taxes even more to break even.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Legislators Get That Old Elementary School Thrill Over Motion Picture Filming

I still remember the excitement around the elementary school when a house in the neighborhood was used to film some part of a movie or TV show.  (Obviously, my memory isn’t that clear, although I don’t know whether any of us ever actually knew what it was that was being filmed.)  It’s almost like finding a door to another dimension when a place in this world is used in the creation of some fictional world on the screen.

As with everything else, however, the excitement sours when politics enter the mix:

A major TV show is expected to start filming in Rhode Island soon and may have helped persuade lawmakers to sweeten the state’s motion picture incentive program. …

We aren’t allowed to know what the show is or who is in it before our elected representatives commit to giving it more money — much less whether it is the kind of content we would want to subsidize — but:

… they say it is big, with $34 million in estimated production costs, which would make it the most expensive Rhode Island motion picture since the $41.5-million canine superhero flick “Underdog” in 2006.

… those credits could swell to $10.2 million thanks to an amendment inserted into the state budget passed by the House on Friday night, which would allow productions to get 30 percent of their costs back instead of 25 percent.

So why are we doing this?  As Patrick Anderson reports in his Providence Journal article, the state’s own office of Revenue Analysis finds that these tax credits don’t come anywhere close to returning their investment for the State of Rhode Island (by which I understand the report to mean the state government).

Perhaps that old elementary school excitement about local movie making doesn’t ever sour for those who get to spend other people’s money to make it happen.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Summing Up the Budget (And RI’s Problem) in One Sentence

The Providence Journal article on the Rhode Island House’s budget vote last night captures in one quotation the problem our state is struggling to overcome:

“I expect the budget to rise every year,” said House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello after the final vote, a few minutes before 10 p.m., in response to Republican complaints about overspending. “To not expect it to rise every year is not realistic.”

First, let’s go along with the premise that the state budget should rise every year.  Does it have to go up 3.9% every year, regardless of the health of the economy or changes in taxpayers’ ability to pay?  That’s the important next question.  From Mattiello’s explanation, it doesn’t seem that there is any limiting principle.  From his comments to WPRI’s Ted Nesi:

“I always look at the specifics,” he said. “The level of spending in this case was appropriate to the needs of our society.” He noted that the cost of social services continues to rise faster than other areas.

But there is no reason a budget this big has to climb every year.  If it’s possible that annual growth of 3.9% is too much, then it’s possible for it to be too high, right now.  Sadly, state leaders exhibit is no underlying philosophy.  There is only a balance of various interest groups’ power.  Raises for state employees.  Increases in welfare-related spending.  More crony deals (as foreshadowed by the increased generosity of tax credits for movie productions).

Taxpayers will only become a consideration when they do one of two things:

  1. Change their voting habits in a way that threatens entrenched politicians.
  2. Leave the state in sufficient numbers that the politicians have no choice but to reduce spending or squeeze those who remain painfully enough that they notice (and resort to #1).
justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

Quantcast