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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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Penn Station and the CCRI Observatory: Where the Money Goes

Boy, taxes and the cost of government must have really fallen for this to be the case:

Penn Station is just one symptom of a larger illness. With an aging subway system subject to a recent state-of-emergency order by Cuomo, and a 67-year-old bus terminal called “appalling” and “functionally obsolete” by officials of the agency that runs it, the New York area’s transportation systems embody America’s inability, or unwillingness, to address its aging infrastructure.

Of course, far from shrinking, the cost of government has exploded over the lives of Penn Station and the bus station, so where is the money going?  In brief, our tax dollars are being redirected to pet projects, progressive redistribution, and (I would say) special deals that amount to outright theft.  A core tenet of blue-state spending is that the people will always accept more debt and higher costs if the last things they get to pay for are the things they find most critical.

We don’t have to go to the Big Apple or major infrastructure for the lesson.  Take a look at this somewhat-cryptic Providence Journal article by Alex Kuffner:

The Community College of Rhode Island organized an open house on Saturday at its Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory to celebrate the completion of a $45,000 renovation that included a new control desk, new seating and repairs to the roof-opening mechanism. …

But the event was clouded by a demonstration outside the observatory’s doors by faculty members and students who protested what they allege is mistreatment of the astronomy professor who has overseen operation of the observatory for the past decade. …

Britton was hired in 2007 to teach astronomy to students and to operate the observatory for his classes and on nights when it’s open to the public. Last month, when the administration changed the way he would be compensated for the public nights, resulting in less pay, he balked.

Kuffner never details the change, but the context suggests that the college may now be paying only a non-faculty rate for the public night.  That is, a special deal has gone away.

One needn’t look far at all to find other examples.

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Hey, Who Needs a Legislature?

As far as I can tell, the one interesting thing that Rhode Island’s Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo said of interest at her press conference yesterday was that she intends to find the money to fund her “free tuition” policy at CCRI:

Raimondo told a press conference she is not exactly sure where she will find the $2.75 million-plus needed, at minimum, to launch the free-tuition pilot program, but she voiced confidence that she would be able to do so within the $8.9-billion year-old budget cap in which the state is currently operating.

One hopes some lawyer or other on the governor’s staff is aware that money is only part of the question.   Our state’s constitution still vests the General Assembly with the authority to make law, not her, and if nothing else, her campaigning has made clear that this is a new policy.

Governors are not without authority, of course; readers may recall that Lincoln Chafee signed us on to ObamaCare and health benefits exchanges via executive order.  So, Raimondo may be able to get away with this, if only because the politics of actively stopping her would be much stickier than the politics of not creating a new program in the first place.

That said, the rule of law is already a problem in Rhode Island, so causing further damage to it should do the governor political harm, if she goes in that direction.

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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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Redefining Humanity with No Allowance for Dissent

On National Review Online, Wesley Smith writes about a push in the United Kingdom to publicly fund womb transplants for men who want to become women:

This would be wrong on so many levels, ranging from safety concerns for both patient and potential future baby, the prospect of doctors and hospitals being forced to participate even if it violates their religious or moral beliefs–already beginning to happen–to the question of whether going to such extremes to satisfy individual yearnings constitutes wise and public policy.

But make no mistake: Powerful political and cultural forces will be–are–pushing us hard in this direction.

An advocate for the policy quoted in the Daily Mail “predicts” that this technology will eventually be in demand among not only homosexual men, but also heterosexual men who want to experience childbirth.

Smith focuses on the way in which this episode illustrates the impossibility of ever controlling health care costs, when the incentive for providers and government is constantly to broaden the services for which other people must pay.  I’m not sure, though, that Smith isn’t writing with his tongue in his cheek, because health care costs and the concerns he articulates in the above quotation are among the least of the concerns in the envisioned brave new world.

Go right to the profound:  If this sort of technology advances to perfection, people could install and remove organs as they desire them, which would make us more like organic machines than human beings.

We’re coming to a decision point at which individuals and society will have to decide in a very fundamental way what it means to be human, or even to exist.  It greatly aggravates the dangers of that decision point if we accept a pervasive attitude that everything’s a civil right at public expense and those who disagree must be forced to accept and financially participate radical changes almost from the beginning of their possibility.

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Going from Crime to Illness Means Big Growth for the Government Plantation

Marc Munroe Dion picks up on what I’ve been calling “the government plantation” in his latest “Livin’ and Dion” column about the budget consequence of recasting drug use from a crime to an illness.  Noting that a person who comes across a homeless beggar could feed him or her with a $10 sandwich, but:

If you ran a non-profit agency, you’d need an outreach worker to find the homeless guy, an intake worker to make sure the homeless guy was really hungry, a case manager to find out what kind of sandwich he likes, a nutritional expert to make to make sure he got a healthy sandwich, a coordinator to introduce the outreach worker to the case manager, a facilitator to go into the store and buy the sandwich, and a five-member board of directors to approve the $10 sandwich, which would be referred to in all documents as a “nutritional expenditure for indigent substance abuse-affected client.”

At all times, the homeless guy eating the sandwich would be referred to as a “client.” Total cost of the sandwich? $65,000, not including benefits, and pensions.

Rhode Island’s state government is deliberately working to transform our economy into one built on this very model.  Declare some benefit to be a right, find a way to collect money from the rest of the economy and other states (via the federal government), and fill out a massive bureaucracy with government-satellite non-profit agencies with plenty of well-paying jobs whose holders will tend to support the system politically and to fund the necessary political action through their labor union dues.

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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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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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Montanaro Pay-Back Shouldn’t Close the Books

Ted Nesi and Tim White report that General Assembly employee Frank Montanaro, Jr., has decided to reimburse the state for the value of the tuition that his children received through a questionable benefit based on his prior employment with Rhode Island College:

“After consultation with my family and Speaker Mattiello, I believe the best thing to do is return the monetary equivalent of the tuition benefit my children received after I transitioned to my new role at the General Assembly,” Montanaro said. “I will be contacting Rhode Island College tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements.”

The first reaction of workaday Rhode Islanders may be to observe that the state seems to give insider benefits to people who don’t really need them.  If, as Montanaro says a consulting labor attorney told him, everything was on the up-and-up with this benefit, that’s an awful lot of money to give up to end a media “distraction.”  Either he’s even richer than his high salary might suggest or there’s even greater incentive we don’t know about for him to make the issue go away.

In that regard, enough information is already public to suggest that the state should investigate this matter.  Montanaro repeatedly checked a box providing incorrect information to the University of Rhode Island, and the surrounding circumstances make it seem unlikely he did so by accident.  That’s not something that people outside of the political elite in Rhode Island would get away with.

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Not Just Spending, but That Upon Which It Is Spent

Reading about Illinois’s budget problems a little earlier today, an association nagged at the corner of my mind, and I remembered something from Table 5 of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) report comparing the states.  Specifically, in fiscal year 2015, Illinois was near the top of the list when it came to the percentage of its budget spent on “other” expenditures — that is, things other than elementary & secondary education, higher education, public assistance, Medicaid, corrections, and transportation.

The states higher than Illinois seem generally to have unique circumstances (Wyoming, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii), and with 43.7% of the budget going to “other” expenditures, Illinois is way up there.  What’s apt to catch a Rhode Islander’s attention is that our state is only two ranks behind Illinois (after Nevada), with 42.1%.

That, if you’re wondering, is the highest in New England.  The percentages across New England are interesting, particularly in the degree to which they scuttle some clichés.

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Two conspicuous myth busters are Massachusetts’s relatively low spending on education and Rhode Island’s relatively high spending on higher education.  Also conspicuous is Rhode Island’s low spending on transportation.

Overall, though, notice that, with the exception of higher education, Rhode Island is typically in the bottom tier for all categories, to the benefit of “other.”

What is this “other”?  And why do we need so much of it?

Of course, we need to keep in mind that these percentages might be a little misleading, inasmuch as the amount of total spending will make a big difference.  Nonetheless, the results are interesting.

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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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Charity, Corruption, and Government

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking, recently, about the moral calculations around government’s involvement in charity, whether through welfare programs or grants to private charitable organizations.

My view is that charity isn’t government’s business.  When a person gives of his or her own wealth for charitable reasons, he or she has made a moral decision, and the recipient has some degree of accountability to the giver and an imperative to try to become a giver rather than a recipient.  When government agents give, it is of other people’s wealth, meaning that it is a confiscation, which creates moral complications for those directing the funds, and it creates a sense of entitlement and dependency in the recipient.

That said, I think other arguments can be made for some government expenditures other than the charitable, and moreover, I wouldn’t find it specious for somebody to make an argument for a “good society’s” use of government for charity.  I don’t think I’d find such an argument persuasive, but it can be made sincerely.

In response, I might offer something like Pope Francis’s thoughts on corruption:

Corruption, Francis wrote, in its Italian etymological root, means “a tear, break, decomposition, and disintegration.”

The life of a human being can be understood in the context of his many relationships: with God, with his neighbor, with creation, the Pope said.

“This threefold relationship – in which man’s self-reflection also falls – gives context and sense to his actions and, in general, to his life,” but these are destroyed by corruption.

Nobody can doubt that empowering people to take money from one group to give it to another creates the potential for corruption, not the least in that it interferes with appropriate relationships to each other and God.  In this context, when the pope writes that “we must all work together, Christians, non-Christians, people of all faiths and non-believers, to combat this form of blasphemy, this cancer that weighs our lives,” one could see it in part as an exhortation toward personal charity.  The more need we can relieve through voluntary action, the less pressure there will be for the corruption of charity through government.

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In Large Part, the Deep State Self Dug

Glenn Reynolds’s weekly USA Today column for this week is worth some consideration:

[Columbia Law Professor Philip] Hamburger explains that the prerogative powers once exercised by English kings, until they were circumscribed after a resulting civil war, have now been reinvented and lodged in administrative agencies, even though the United States Constitution was drafted specifically to prevent just such abuses. But today, the laws that actually affect people and businesses are seldom written by Congress; instead they are created by administrative agencies through a process of “informal rulemaking,” a process whose chief virtue is that it’s easy for the rulers to engage in, and hard for the ruled to observe or influence. Non-judicial administrative courts decide cases, and impose penalties, without a jury or an actual judge. And the protections in the Constitution and Bill of Rights (like the requirement for a judge-issued search warrant before a search) are often inapplicable.

At some point, “consent of the governed” becomes more like a veneer that gives the governing class license to do whatever they want. L’état c’est nous.

Combine this Deep State with the budding feudalism in California, as described by Joel Kotkin:

Unlike its failed predecessor, this new, greener socialism seeks not to weaken, but rather to preserve, the emerging class structure. Brown and his acolytes have slowed upward mobility by environment restrictions that have cramped home production of all kinds, particularly the building of moderate-cost single-family homes on the periphery. All of this, at a time when millennials nationwide, contrary to the assertion of Brown’s “smart growth” allies, are beginning to buy cars, homes and move to the suburbs.

People whose policy preferences conveniently protect their own wealth seek to use government set basic policy preferences that are conveniently in line with bureaucrats who seek to protect their power.  One way or another, this alliance will be broken; the question is whether it happens through reform or revolution.

Think carefully, progressives — and even more-reasonable liberals.  As much as you hate him (perhaps because of how much you hate him), President Trump may be your last chance to allow the reform path.

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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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As for Farms, So For Everything

Rhode Island Senator Susan Sosnowski (D, New Shoreham, South Kingstown) is trying to take the edge off of federal regulation of the farming industry, but she (and all of us) should take it as another lesson:

Two problematic regulations, explained by Sosnowski:

  • If an animal walks through a field, or defecates on the land, farmers must document the instance and keep a record of the area for up to two years — to ensure there is no contamination.
  • If someone with a cold, or any illness, comes to pick fruit or vegetables, the farmer is to turn them away, for risk of contamination.

If farms do not comply with the new standards they face hefty fines from $2,500 to $18,500 depending on the violation.

Take these examples and imagine similarly intrusive regulations on every industry in our economy.  As I often ask, why do we accept the assertion of government power to this level of involvement in our lives?

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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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Why Maybe We Needed a Somewhat Crazy President

I’ve been meaning to note a Kimberley Strassel column from two weeks ago because I think it illustrates well why America may have been fortuitous in electing a president whom many think to be unfit for reasons of (not to put too fine a point on it) a sort of insanity:

Meet the deep state. That’s what conservatives call it now, though it goes by other names. The administrative state. The entrenched governing elite. Lois Lerner. The federal bureaucracy. Whatever the description, what’s pertinent to today’s Washington is that this cadre of federal employees, accountable to no one, is actively working from within to thwart Donald Trump’s agenda.

There are few better examples than the EPA post of Scientific Integrity Official. (Yes, that is an actual job title.) The position is a legacy of Barack Obama, who at his 2009 inaugural promised to “restore science to its rightful place”—his way of warning Republicans that there’d be no more debate on climate change or other liberal environmental priorities.

The federal government has become the embodiment of a sort of surreality that could best captured by a writer of the 1800s born east of Germany.  What sort of standard, sane president would have offered the necessary corrective?

Sometimes you have to fight a cancer with radiation.  Sometimes dynamite is the appropriate tool in construction.  And sometimes you have to vote Trump for president, maybe even twice.

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Don’t Forget Benefits When Considering the Cost of New Employees

Catching up on my podcast file on the way home from dropping children off at school, I listened to RI House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan talking to Tara Granahan on WPRO last Wednesday.  Among various topics, they discussed my estimate of net new hires under the Raimondo Administration, emphasizing the $30 million cost in salaries.

Combining that with Monique’s post earlier about the the possibility of 100 new hires in the Raimondo budget for next year makes clear the importance of a reminder:  Employees don’t just get salaries; they get benefits, too.

For an ongoing project, I’ve estimated that state workers’ benefits are, on average, 72% of their salaries.  So, if we want to know the cost to the state of new hires in Governor Raimondo’s first two budget years, we would have to add to the $30,639,475 in new salaries another $21,953,184 in benefits.

If you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s a total of $52,592,659.

For some perspective, according to WPRI’s Ted Nesi, the final cost to taxpayers of the 38 Studios debacle was a one-time tab of $38.64 million.  That’s much less than the $52.59 million in annual employee costs from the state government’s expansion of its workforce over the past two years alone.

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A Market Rhode Island Government Has Left as a Last Resort

I’ve tried to get some follow-up information from Felicia Delgado, of the Parent Support Network of Rhode Island, regarding her testimony before the Rhode Island House Oversight Committee about the harm that a non-functional Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), otherwise known as RI Bridges, has done to Rhode Islanders’ lives:

Others have lost their jobs because of these lost benefits and UHIP-delayed payments from the state to long-term health-care facilities.

At least 20 people — she emphasized they didn’t prostitute previously and don’t have substance-abuse problems — have turned to prostitution to pay for rent, childcare and food and fend off homelessness. Delgado declined to identify the people.

Mostly, I’m interested to know if she’s seen any progress, but I also wanted to ask if she had information about how this happens as a functional matter.  Did the people just know what street corners to hang out on?  Did they use Craig’s List?  Did they slip into an existing network, involving pimps?  Or do they start with people whom they already know?

What’s striking is that prostitution would be a fall-back occupation for people who hadn’t done it before.  Granted, it probably pays better than most other transactions for which people will pay unskilled entrants, but it comes with a high degree of risk and an appropriate social squeamishness.

UHIP is a problem and a blight all on its own, but a thriving economy without such a pervasive regime of regulations and licensing requirements would not only keep people from needing the services in the first place, but also give them other options when government messes up.  Instead, Rhode Islanders suffer through this process of government micromanagement of our economy’s creating a lack of opportunity, which government attempts to fix with welfare programs.  And when that doesn’t work… prostitution.

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