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The Bubble Begets Tone-Deafness on Eternal Contracts

So, the teachers unions’ annual attempt to give themselves even more leverage in negotiations by making their contracts eternal is back in the mix.  The lobbying by union employees and donations to politicians are ultimately taxpayer funded, so this bill probably won’t go away until it passes someday.

What’s notable, this time around, is that the bill accompanies a labor dispute in Warwick, leading to this telling point from Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh:

Netcoh said the bill “levels the playing field between employers and employees.”

Referring to [Warwick Schools Supt. Philip] Thornton, she added: “Would he go to work every day if he didn’t have a contract? I don’t think so.”

One wonders how it could have escaped Netcoh’s attention that plenty of Rhode Islanders go to work every day without contracts.  See, it’s called “a mutually beneficial transaction.”  The employer has work that has to be done, and the employee has a need to earn income.  If a contract makes sense in a particular circumstance, then the parties draw one up and abide by it; otherwise, the contract is essentially a casual, even verbal, agreement to do work and to pay for work that’s done.

In government, though, it’s not about that mutually beneficial transaction, in part because nobody’s spending their own money.  Contracts for government employees are fundamentally agreements about how much one party will take from taxpayers and transfer to the other party, and so they’ve become a mechanism for labor unions to get politicians to lock taxpayers into expenses.

This eternal contract legislation is about ensuring that taxpayers are locked in to the promises of elected officials (often elected with the help of the employees) to an even greater degree.

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About that Tuition Waiver While on Leave…

WPRI’s Ted Nesi and Tim White have kept on the story of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s three-year job-holding leave from Rhode Island College and the $50,000 benefit of free tuition he claimed through it, and this is starting to look like more than merely an ill-advised contractual benefit for employees.  Apparently, he took up the habit of filling out forms at the University of Rhode Island asserting that he was not on leave:

Asked why he stated he was not on leave during a time when he was in fact on leave, Montanaro said in an email: “As you can see all waivers were reviewed and approved by RIC. If there was a mistake they would have had me correct it before approval.” He also said a RIC staff member assisted him in filling out the forms.

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis refused to say why the college allowed Montanaro to avoid disclosing his leave of absence on the form forwarded to URI, but told Target 12: “In this case, there was an existing agreement that enabled the authorization of a tuition waiver.” (RIC and Montanaro declined to provide a copy of that agreement.)

Seems to me there are three possibilities:

  1. The “benefit” was simply a special crony handout offered to a government insider.
  2. A six-figure employee of the General Assembly made a habit of submitting fraudulent forms to secure a valuable benefit.
  3. That six-figure employee was so inept or careless at filling out forms as to be of disqualifying competence for his high-paying job.

At the end of the article, Republican state senator from Coventry Nick Kettle suggests that Montanaro “should pay [the tuition] back or resign.”  How about both?  And maybe face prosecution, as well, along with anybody at Rhode Island College who facilitated any fraud?

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Expanded Disability Pensions Will Be Boon for Investigative Journalists

The bright side, if the bills that Ted Nesi summarizes for WPRI were to pass into law, would be a boom in gotcha-journalism stories about questionable disability pensions:

The first bill, sponsored by Providence Rep. Joe Almeida, would allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury,” the current wording – to be cause for the granting of a tax-free accidental disability pension to a police officer or firefighter. It would also increase how long officers have to file a disability claim from 18 months after the incident to 36 months. …

The second bill, sponsored by North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven, would mandate that any firefighter who suffers from hypertension, stroke or heart disease will be “presumed to have suffered an in-the-line-of-duty disability” and therefore be eligible for a disability pension, unless there was evidence of the condition in his or her entrance exam.

When first published, Nesi’s story noted that the bills had been posted for votes, implying passage, but after his story went live, they were removed:

“They were posted prematurely,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in an email. “Both bills were on a preliminary list for possible posting and then were posted in error. Those two bills are still being reviewed.”

Even if it ends there, this episode is a good reminder that special interests (ultimately funded with taxpayer dollars) are constantly working the system to expand benefits for government union members at the public expense.  They work to elect friendly officials to local office for generous contracts, and they work to elect friendly legislators to write generous benefits into the law.

Something dramatic and structural has to happen to change this, because our system has no countervailing forces short of bankruptcy that will withstand the year after year after year push.  The embarrassment of hidden camera stories about retirees abusing their benefits will only go so far in restraining ever-more-unsustainable benefits from being bestowed.

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Lord Stephen Archambault Threatens Peasant Terry Gorman

Earlier today, Tara Granahan tweeted criticism of behavior by Democrat Senator Stephen Archambault (Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) during the June 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Judiciary concerning drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.  Here’s the moment in question:

Out-of-state guests with whom the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has interacted when they’ve come to our state to testify on legislation have commented about the terrible behavior of legislators, with very similar circumstances to those to which Gorman objected.  The legislators — clearly treating hearings as a way to go through the motions and let people believe we still have a representative democracy — lapse into joking around with each other.  Even if they aren’t laughing at the people offering testimony, the signal of disrespect is huge.

The shocking part of this video, though, is Archambault’s chastising Gorman as if the senator is some sort of feudal lord putting a peasant in his place.  Archambault insists that “whatever I’m saying back here is my business.”  Well, no, Lord Steve.  You’re “back there” as a representative of Rhode Islanders in your district.  Gorman isn’t coming into your space under your good-hearted sufferance.  You’re privileged to be there on behalf of others.

But Senator Archambault pushes folly to offense when he repeatedly insists, “Don’t ever do that again.  Ever.”  Or what?

If we didn’t live in such a corrupt, one-party state, the committee chairwoman, Democrat Erin Lynch Prata (Warwick, Cranston) would have insisted that Archambault stand down and apologized to Mr. Gorman.  But we do live in such a state, which means we must constantly be reminded that they don’t work for us; we work for them.  We don’t bestow privileges upon them; they bestow them upon us.

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Legislation “Mutually Acceptable” to Whom?

I’ve long objected to the Rhode Island General Assembly’s seeing itself as a sort of corporate board for the lives of all Rhode Islanders.  In a related way, I’ve argued that groups like chambers of commerce are no longer acting as advocacy groups for the interests of private people or organizations, but rather are satellites of government that maintain their relevance to the extent that they can act as government’s liaisons to businesses.

Something in Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article about legislation to forbid all Rhode Island businesses from automatically reducing employee pay for just about any reason — from in-company fines to compensation for broken merchandise — sets off alarm bells.  The legislation is objectionable enough; it isn’t government’s role to set narrow, specific terms under which people can interact for business purposes.  (Labor unions back the bill, naturally, because it makes it harder for non-union organizations to compete.)

But meddling in Rhode Islanders’ lives is simply par for the course for our politicians.  This is the part that really caught my attention:

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s state Department of Labor and Training supports the bill and worked to find language acceptable to workers, the Rhode Island Hospital Association and Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, according to a letter from DLT Assistant Director Matthew Weldon.

Weldon said the current bill language, tweaked from prior year versions, was “mutually acceptable and delivers what we believe to be a clear and enforceable amendment.”

“Mutually acceptable” to whom?  Are we now to behave as if the Rhode Island Hospital Association and Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce are satisfactory stand-ins for every business in the state?  And are we supposed to believe that the fact that nobody showed up to testify for the legislation proves that there’s no opposition?  Think of the implications of that.  

Taxes and regulations already make Rhode Island a difficult place in which to operate a company or make a living (unless you’re tied in with government, somehow).  Does every business owner, of companies large and small, have to devote resources to constant vigilance and influence-buying lest our supposed political representatives “negotiate” their rights away?

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The Electoral Incentives of Big Government in District 13

Newport Daily News article about the race to replace Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed in Rhode Island’s District 13 gives a snapshot for the “how did we get here” file.  Here are the seven candidates, with reporter Sean Flynn’s short description of each:

  • Green candidate Gregory Larson, “a retired history and economics teacher from Classical High School in Providence”
  • Independent (Libertarian) candidate Kimberly Ripoli, “a retired Navy officer and former associate director of state Veterans Affairs”
  • Republican candidate Michael Smith, “owner of Industry Electric Inc.”
  • Democrat candidate David Allard, “a state Department of Education employee and former outreach manager for Gov. Gina Raimondo”
  • Democrat candidate Dawn Euer, an attorney and “a social activist who is co-project director of the Newport Open Space Partnership”
  • Democrat candidate John Florez, a city councilman and “owner of the firm Drupal Connect”
  • Democrat candidate David Hanos, school committee chairman and “a captain on the Newport Fire Department and owner of DC Hanos Contracting LLC”

Out of seven candidates, four are either active or retired government employees (even the libertarian!), and one is a big government, central-planning activist.  The odds would seem to be against any candidate who correctly identifies that an over-sized government, including an over-sized government workforce with over-sized compensation packages, is Rhode Island’s central problem.

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Rhode Islanders Are Voting With Their Feet

Perhaps nothing is more telling about whether Americans see a state as providing sufficient opportunities for prosperity and a better quality of life than whether or not they are flocking to or fleeing from its borders. No other measure paints a more realistic picture of whether or not a particular state is an ideal place to raise a family or build a career than how people “vote with their feet.”

At the Center, we know that that the high levels of taxation and over-regulation imposed in the ever-growing state budget is the main culprit in causing Rhode Island’s stagnant performance.

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“I Followed the Process Afforded to Me Under My Contract.”

The phrase quoted in the title of this post ought to make Rhode Islanders’ blood boil.  It’s the excuse rolled out for government employees’ abuse of taxpayers on a small scale, and it’s the central complaint of those who fear that the impossibly generous pension system will ultimately not pay out as well as they’d hoped.

As Ted Nesi and Tim White report, in this case, it’s the statement of former Democrat Representative Frank Montanaro Jr. of Cranston, son of labor union poobah Frank Montanaro, Sr., as he addresses questions about his own sweet little deal.  Under the aforementioned contract, he was able to leave his lucrative job with Rhode Island College (RIC) and try out an even more lucrative job working for the General Assembly while RIC held his job open for him for three years — which is long enough perhaps to act as insurance if your political patron loses office in the next election.

As a technical, though not active, employee of RIC, Montanaro kept (under his contract) the benefit of free tuition for his son and somebody else whom he’s calling “a guardian.”  Nesi and White peg the value to the Montanaros of that benefit at just under $50,000.

To some extent, Montanaro’s got a point.  What’s he supposed to be — a saint who refuses this $50,000 gift despite the $73,000 raise he secured by moving from RIC to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services?

On the other hand, as with pensions, Montanaro may be the poster child for how labor unions abuse our government in order to negotiate these deals for themselves, their families, and their cronies.  In that light, it looks more than a little like a racketeering scheme out of Crimetown.

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The Pretense of Legislative Knowledge

So, progressive legislators in the Rhode Island General Assembly are looking to “compromise” on a policy forcing Rhode Island businesses to give a minimum sick-leave benefit.  The notion of this as “compromise” is a complete perversion of the very notion of compromising, which requires all parties to have some direct investment in the result.  The indirect benefit of being able to collect votes that you’ve bought from one party to the “negotiation” by forcing the other party to do something doesn’t count.

Pay particular attention to this quotation from Katherine Gregg’s “Political Scene” article in the Providence Journal:

Last week, [Progressive Democrat Representative from Providence Aaron] Regunberg and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin — the sponsor of a matching Senate bill — acknowledged the need for compromise.

In a commentary piece targeted for publication, they wrote: “We feel confident that it’s possible to strike the right balance between employers and employees.”

Psst, folks.  That isn’t your role.  “The right balance” depends on the job, on the employer, and on the employee.  It’s for them to figure out in full, specific consideration of the pay, the nature of the job, the availability of other opportunities, and so on.  It’s their role, their right, and their responsibility as fully autonomous adults.

The arrogance of these politicians to think that they can figure out among themselves what must work for every two Rhode Islanders in an employee-employer relationship throughout all of Rhode Island from now unto forever is astonishing.

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One Hundred New State Jobs Would Only Perpetuate Failures & Failed Approach

Both the proven failure of a budget-centric approach and Governor Raimondo’s dismal public policy track record should give the General Assembly real pause when considering her reported request for one hundred new state hires – and other initiatives, past and prospective.

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Government That Primarily Seeks To Grow Itself

We know that that the high levels of taxation and over-regulation imposed for the sake of the state budget are the primary culprit in causing the Ocean State’s stagnant performance. Put another way, overspending by a government that primarily seeks to perpetuate and grow itself, actually works against the best-interests of the very people it is supposed to be serving. Instead of seeking to grow prosperity, government seeks to grow itself.

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The Direct Line to the Voting Booth

In case readers didn’t have a chance to click through the link in my post, yesterday, related to voter fraud, I’d like to highlight another key point from the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) report that was the foundation for J. Christian Adams’s essay.

It’s important to break the data down so you understand what we’re talking about, here.  PILF found that, in Virginia, more than 5,500 people who had been registered to vote were removed for citizenship reasons.  Of those 5,500, 1,852 had actually voted, casting an average of four ballots each.  Many of them, according to Adams, had been registered to vote even though they checked the box saying they were non-citizens.

I emphasize this point because the House chamber of the Rhode Island General Assembly has approved legislation that would greatly expand automatic registration of people to vote:

Legislation to automatically put anyone who applies for a Rhode Island driver’s license on the state’s voter rolls, unless they opt out, cleared the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, despite GOP efforts to block the same practice at other state agencies with troubled computer histories. …

But along the way, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, sought to strip the bill of language allowing any state agencies — other than the Division of Motor Vehicles — to automatically place applicants for unemployment, public assistance and other state benefits on the voter rolls. Her move failed on a 62-to-10 party-line vote.

Welcome to the world of “one-stop shopping.”  When the Rhode Island insiders are done, anybody who checks in with the state government for any reason will be automatically signed up for any welfare benefits for which they might be eligible and registered to vote.  “Here’s your free stuff and a voter registration card so you can be sure to keep electing the people giving it to you.”

And in all this, we’re supposed to believe that a state government that can’t launch a computer system or accurately determine who should get Medicaid or SNAP benefits, while resisting efforts to use basic means of control, like eVerify for immigration, will keep the voter rolls clean?

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The Budget: The Progressive Approach

Despite the false hopes expressed by lawmakers based solely on a reduced unemployment rate, Rhode Island families are hurting. The Ocean State suffers under the worst business climate, and 48th rank on our Center’s Job’s & Opportunity Index. Furthermore, Rhode Island was the only state in New England to see its labor force decline in size in recent years, as hundreds of thousands of people have chosen to leave our state since 2004. This is not a recovery.

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General Assembly Must Step In – Tolls Have Taken A Dangerous Turn

Below is a statement that StopTollsRI.com (for which I am spokesperson) placed on its Facebook page last night. The R.I. Trucking Association and the American Trucking Association have announced that they would wait until all 30+ toll gantries were installed before they would challenge the legality of truck tolls in court. This alarming development first came to light Thursday night in testimony before House Finance. See Mike Collins’ testimony starting at approximately minute 1:52:40.

Tolls have taken a dangerous turn for Rhode Island residents and taxpayers. It is now imperative that state legislators and General Assembly leadership step in for the good of the state and end the truck toll program.

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Know Their Love for Innovation by Their Actions

Rhode Island politicians like to give lip service to making the state a hub for technology companies, but they seem to think that means encouraging interactions between groups that can only survive with government subsidies, mainly because of (and by means of) government’s imposition of high barriers to entry and costs of doing business.  The secret to generating new industries in Rhode Island is to lower costs so all variety of businesses can afford experiment (without government approval, as expressed through the subsidies) and reduce restrictions on what they’re permitted to do.

RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse and Taxpayer Protection Alliance Senior Scholar Drew Johnson highlight a great example in today’s Providence Journal:

Fortunately, the free market recently developed a way to bypass the optometrists’ office. New technology — known as “ocular telemedicine” — allows consumers to accurately measure their prescription strength on a smartphone or computer screen from the comfort of their own homes. A board-certified ophthalmologist then emails a vision prescription based on the results.

Patients can then use that e-prescription to purchase lenses or glasses wherever they choose, typically at much lower prices. With this technology, healthy adults only need to visit a brick-and-mortar eye doctor once every two years for a full eye health exam (as recommended by the American Optometric Association) instead of every time a lens refill is needed.

Naturally, entrenched interests have pushed for legislation to halt (or at least slow down) such innovations, and of course, some Rhode Island legislators are answering the call… no doubt with entirely selfless reasons.  It’s funny how protecting people from themselves so often seems to profit somebody else, at least when it comes to regulations.

Can we stop that sort of behavior, please?  Why not just let people figure out how to provide other people what they want?

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The Budget: RI Government Seeks To Grow Itself, Not the Economy

Should the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Rhode Island families be limited by an arbitrary, politically-driven budget number at the bottom of a spreadsheet? Unfortunately, our state is now suffering the consequences of such an approach, fueled by the progressive-left’s big-spending agenda.

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Crony Legislation to Cost Parents Time and Aggravation

When I first read the proposed legislation (H5457) to require all parents of young adults seeking their drivers’ licenses to take a course, I wondered why Rhode Island’s politicians presume the authority to behave like parents to every adult in the state.  One could imagine House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D, Warwick) overhearing some parent giving a child bad driving advice and determining to solve that perceived problem by implementing a blanket mandate for all parents.

This detail in a related AP story, though, makes me wonder if the motivation might be a bit more politically crass than that:

AAA Northeast is backing the bill, which was introduced by Democratic House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi. The legislation describes the organization as a possible course provider.

The legislation requires the course to be free to participants — treating their stolen time as without value — and doesn’t explicitly call for the state to pay providers.  Indeed, it says that if nobody wants to provide the program, it will cease to be required.  So, maybe there’s some payment from the state, or maybe AAA will only provide it to members (effectively forcing people to join), or maybe it’s a little more innocent and just an opportunity for AAA to give a sales pitch to a constant flow of captive audiences.

It’s the fact that AAA is “backing the bill” that raises my eyebrow.  Is this something for which the organization has actively lobbied?  Is it some sort of payback for, say, supporting RhodeWorks?

As I mentioned last year, I was a AAA member from the time I started driving (25 years ago, tomorrow).  The organization’s active support for RhodeWorks led me to quit, and finding it in bed with Rhode Island insiders who take their power over us as a marketable good to trade for cash and favors affirms my decision.

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Imagine Every Rep Surveying Constituents

One of the topics on my weekly call-in to the John DePetro Show, today, was the idea of Democrat House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s surveying his constituents regarding their views on various issues as the House moves into its annual race to do everything that’s important within a couple of months.  No doubt, he’s got some sense of the responses he’ll get and (inasmuch as he’s keeping the results secret) will only release those data points that serve his political interests.

But still, let’s not let cynicism brush off what I would argue is an excellent development.  I’ve confirmed with the speaker’s office that he used campaign funds for the survey.  Imagine if every representative and senator used his or her campaign funds to survey constituents annually (at least) specifically on current issues of political debate.  Then imagine if they made a practice of releasing the results and then working to justify, to their own constituents, any areas in which they voted inconsistently with their preferences.

Why, that might be something like representative democracy!

Of course, in this case and in Rhode Island, one can’t step away from the cynicism of noting that this survey of the speaker’s specific 10,000ish voter span in Cranston could be setting the policy terms for a state of around one million people.  But even then, if an open process of surveying constituents were part of the culture of the State House, it would be immediately clear who was voting with their constituents and who was finding excuses to vote with legislative leadership.

As a bonus, this practice would give incumbents something to spend their campaign money on, maybe avoiding the trap of letting it build up into the tempting pots that have been tripping up Providence City Council members.

 

If I were of a progressive bent, I’d suggest passing a law to require legislators to use campaign funds in this way.  Being reasonable (which is to say, being a conservative), I’d just suggest that it’s a good reason for all politicians to face political opposition every election, as Mattiello did last year.

And as a hint to potential candidates, it wouldn’t be a bad campaign pledge to make.

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The Corporate Welfare Strategy Has Failed

The massive budget shortfall is proof that the state government’s corporate welfare strategy has failed. Rhode Island’s current corporate tax-credit economic development strategy is highly inefficient as it creates relatively few jobs at an extremely high cost per job to taxpayers. This targeted ‘advanced industry’ approach does little if anything to improve the overall business climate, which is necessary if organic entrepreneurial growth is to occur on its own. A 3.0% sales tax would disproportionately help low-income families.

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What Do Non-Rhode Islanders Care About a State Rep or Lieutenant Governor

Pondering why a young, still-new state representative from Rhode Island would have $128,000 sitting around in campaign donations, I thought I’d run his name through Rhode Island’s campaign finance search tool.  Regunberg is reportedly considering a run for lieutenant governor, which anybody who watches Rhode Island politics knows is essentially a political holding spot by which to live off of taxpayers while gathering media attention in preparation for a more-significant office, a political appointment, or some sort of private-sector payoff.

That being the case, why has 51% (i.e., a majority) of Regunberg’s campaign cash, gathered since he started collecting it in 2014, come from beyond the borders of Rhode Island?  The average Rhode Island donor has given him $273, while the average non-Rhode Island donor has given him $582.  What are the donors hoping to get for their money?

For some comparison, consider Regunberg’s fellow legislator House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who has collected fully 94% of her campaign money from within the Ocean State.  Moreover, Rhode Islanders have given her an average of $277, while non-Rhode Islanders have given her an average of $197.  Alternately, look at Regunberg’s fellow Democrat, current Lieutenant Governor (and former Cumberland Mayor) Dan McKee.  His in-state percentage for money is 85%, with RI donations averaging $261 and non-RI donations averaging $343.

There are two possibilities, with both probably playing a role:

  • As we’re seeing with our current governor, out-of-state Regunberg donors may be interested in pushing their nationally focused agenda within Rhode Island, or
  • they may see Rhode Island as one of the increasingly limited staging grounds for left-wing politicians.

In neither of those cases should we expect the well-being of Rhode Islanders as Rhode Islanders to be the top priority of the donor, and we can reasonably wonder how much weight Rhode Islanders’ well-being will have on the politician’s scales as he makes decisions when in office.

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Important Questions for Rhode Island In A Reshaped Healthcare Landscape

If the final federal healthcare law that eventually emerges from Washington, D.C. is similar to the version that passed the House of Representatives in early May of 2017, Rhode Island lawmakers will find themselves in the middle of largely reshaped federal and state healthcare landscape. Soon they may be faced with multiple important questions; and they will also realize that they will be newly empowered to make state-specific decisions for the people of Rhode Island.

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