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One Thing is Clear: The Progressive Agenda Is A Failure

Despite the false hopes expressed by lawmakers based solely on a reduced unemployment rate, Rhode Island families are hurting. The Ocean State suffers under a terrible business climate, and remains stuck 48th rank on our Center’s Job’s & Opportunity Index. Just this week, it was announced that Benny’s, a Rhode Island institution, is closing.

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Center Blasts Newest Truck Toll Tyranny; RIDOT’s Laughable Denial

It has come to light that, on August 11, RIDOT *corrected* requested a hearing, scheduled for today, to issue commercial truck route restrictions within the state. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity (for whom I am Communications Manager) has just issued a statement strongly condemning this. It says, in part,

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About the Legislators’ Conditions on “Free Tuition”

This morning, I expressed some reservations about free community college as a program that meddles with young adults’ decision-making process.  A wonkier concern is what Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article says about legislating in Rhode Island.  Here’s the red flag:

Once they enroll, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA. There is no longer a requirement that CCRI graduates remain in Rhode Island, although college officials said about 90 percent of their students wind up staying here after leaving CCRI.

The sentence about remaining in Rhode Island is not correct.  According to the language of the legislation that passed with the state budget, “to be considered for the scholarship, a student”:

Must commit to live, work, or continue their education in Rhode Island after graduation. The Community College of Rhode Island shall develop a policy that will secure this commitment from recipient-students.

Via email, Borg states that CCRI’s Vice President of Student Affairs/Chief Outcomes Officer, Sara Enright, told her that the requirement had been removed.  If Enright is expressing actual policy, then CCRI and, by extension, the Raimondo Administration intend to simply ignore language that our elected representatives had insisted be in the bill.  This point is underlined by the fact that the governor’s initial version of the legislation did not include this provision.  In other words, this is a condition that the legislature decided was necessary in order to put the program into law.

It would be one thing for CCRI to implement “a policy that will secure this commitment” that tacitly has no enforcement mechanism, but the administration apparently doesn’t even intend to pretend that students have a moral obligation to honor a commitment.  That’s not how the rule of law is supposed to work in Rhode Island, and the legislature should take steps to enforce its prerogative on the administration.

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Incumbents Comply with Incumbent-Protection Regulation

Is anybody really surprised that only 7% of Rhode Island politicians (neutrally meant) with open campaign finance accounts failed to comply with a new law requiring them to submit their bank accounts to the state, as Political Scene reports?

The law, which went into effect in 2016, requires all candidates and officeholders to submit bank statements to the Board of Elections following fourth-quarter campaign finance reports. This year marked the first time the statements had to be filed. While copies of the bank statements are not public documents under the law, the Board of Elections provided Political Scene with the names of those who have not yet complied.

As of this week, 49 of 668 individuals with active campaign-finance accounts had failed to file their bank statements. Another 24 of 199 political action committees also failed to file the statements in the required time frame.

The most significant effect of such legislation is to dissuade people from running for public office.  So I have to file a campaign finance report regularly with the state?  OK, I guess I can do that.  And an Ethics Commission report, too?  Well, that’s a lot of forms.  What’s that?  Open a new, separate bank account and give copies of statements to the state government?  Gee, this local volunteer office is looking like more trouble than it’s worth.

Here’s a noteworthy indication of how carefully legislators review the laws that they pass:

Reached last week, [Democrat Representative from Cranston Arthur] Handy said… he initially misunderstood the new law and thought he was exempt because he didn’t meet a spending threshold. (Another campaign-finance bill passed in 2015 requires that candidates who raise or spend $10,000 or more in a year retain a treasurer or deputy treasurer other than themselves.)

From my conversations with the folks at the Board of Elections, all candidates are supposed to have separate bank accounts for campaign purposes, even if they raise no money, but realizing how ridiculous that is, the board isn’t enforcing it against those who don’t have to file campaign reports.  Of course, the way to avoid it all is to not volunteer in the first place.

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Chilling: H5069, Single Payer Healthcare (And the Inconsistencies It Poses)

In the course of reviewing certain bills filed during this year’s General Assembly session, I clicked on H5069 — and stared in growing horror at all of the red-lining (i.e., everything to be struck from current law). I turned to the succinct description of this bill written by Justin Katz, Research Director for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, for the Center’s Freedom Index and the horror did not abate:

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Who Can Solve the Mysterious Energy Cost Increases?

Ian Opaluch, of WPRI, provides the latest forum for local politicians to go after National Grid for seeking a 53% increase in its energy rates.  Says Democrat Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee: “National Grid’s proposed 53-percent standard offer rate increase is unacceptable. Another rate hike is a step in the wrong direction when it comes to making Rhode Island a better place to live, work and own a business.”  Republican Senator Elaine Morgan calls the request “unconscionable.”  

But there’s a mystery:

… Laws in Rhode Island prohibit National Grid from making a profit on the energy supply itself, and the company said the price hike is necessary to deal with rising energy costs.

In addition, the price increase would not affect delivery fees, so the average bill would go up by about 19% if the rate hike is approved, according to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

In short, National Grid won’t profit from this increase, but rather is just passing increased costs along.  What could be driving the request, then?

Rhode Islanders should wonder how any reporters could cover this issue without noting the culpability of state governments.  Even with fracking holding down the price of energy worldwide, New England politicians are happy to cave to activists on actions like shutting down the Brayton Point energy plant, delaying and maybe stopping a new energy facility in Burrillville, forcing us all pay for expensive renewable energy mandates, imposing additional taxes on fossil fuels, and on and on.

Morgan is right; it is unconscionable for Rhode Islanders to be saddled with skyrocketing energy costs when our country is becoming a world leader in energy production.  But the people taking the unconscionable actions are those who work in the same building as Morgan and McKee.  Every year, they take many steps in the wrong direction, across a variety of issues.

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A Flat Budget? The Horror, the Horror.

In an op-ed today, Gio Cicione observes that carrying over last year’s state budget — and nothing more — wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world:

Elsewhere in our great nation, state legislatures only meet every other year, and some go home after a couple months each year with no ill effect. Is it really so bad if ours goes home after six months of flailing? If anything, Rhode Island has suffered for most of its recent history from an over-abundance of well-intentioned but amazingly harmful legislative activity. (Remember 38 Studios? Of course you do.)

For context, we must keep in mind that carrying forward the old budget still sticks us with almost $9 billion of state spending. Without an increase, we still spend more per person than virtually every other state government in the country. (According to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers, no New England state spends more per capita and eight states nationally spent less than half of the $9,146 per person that Rhode Island spent in 2016.) We would still be giving $3.3 billion to fund education, $2.7 billion for health and social services, and yes, even that all-important $1.35 million to maintain our own Atomic Energy Commission.

But urgency is how news media sells stories and politicians sell “solutions.”  Moreover, government and its satellites don’t create wealth, so they have to make sure that their take keeps growing, and in a state with a long-stagnant economy, like Rhode Island, they can’t just rely on regular ol’ tolerance for inflation.

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Regulatory Reform Requires Different Elected Officials

Don’t get me wrong.  I like the regulatory suggestion put forward by Republican U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, as Eric Boehm describes on Reason thus:

The Supreme Court in 2014 overturned a North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners ban on non-dentists offering teeth whitening services. The ruling opened the door to lawsuits against state-level licensing boards that behave like private-sector monopolies by enforcing anti-competitive rules against their very own potential competitors. …

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on Thursday will introduce a bill that would give states two paths to immunity. The first by bringing state licensing boards under direct supervision by the legislative and executive branches. The second by requiring states to show why a certain licensing requirement is necessary to protect public health and safety.

Lee’s “Restoring Board Immunity Act” creates a limited, conditional exemption shielding licensing boards from federal antitrust lawsuits, but only for states that change how their licensing boards operate and how courts handle disputes between those boards and individuals subjected to their rules.

The problem, in Rhode Island, is that I think the new rules would apply only to licensing bureaucrats, not legislators, and that’s where the problem lies.  For a forthcoming brief from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, I’ve been reviewing the (let’s pretend) deliberative process behind some legislation introduced into the state’s General Assembly with an eye toward pricing some of the proposals, and I found the experience depressing.

Consider the paid-time-off legislation that is on the cusp of passing into law.  From what I can tell, nobody in our government made any effort to estimate how much this mandate would our neighbors’ businesses.  (It’s a lot.)  To them, the cost is beside the point.

As for the supposedly limited authority of government, our elected officials simply don’t believe in the concept.  Any freedoms that you continue to enjoy in Rhode Island, you enjoy entirely by their sufferance.  Your money is theirs to collect.  Your psychiatry is theirs to control.  Your actions are theirs to regulate.

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Single-Payer Healthcare is an Assault on Families’ Rights to Make Personal Medical Decisions

Recently on the world stage, we’ve witnessed the unthinkable results of a government-controlled health care system in Great Britain. The tragic story of Charlie Gard’s death and his parents battle against a socialist health care system has broken the hearts of you, me, and people around the world.

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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.

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