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Where the Unexpected Windfalls Go

In preparation for my weekly spot with John DePetro, this afternoon, I revisited Katherine Gregg’s Providence Journal article about the 7.5% in raises (actually 7.7%, compounded) state employees under Council 94 are expected to receive as part of a deal with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo.  Raimondo, you may have heard, is facing a tough election this year.

These paragraphs jump out:

… the events at Council 94 union headquarters coincided with the announcement by the Raimondo administration that year-to-date revenue collections are running $46.5 million ahead of the estimates adopted at the state’s official Revenue Estimating Conference last November, on which Governor Raimondo’s $9.3 billion budget proposal was based.

A statement issued by the Department of Revenue said: “The major contributors to this surplus are personal income tax revenues, $43.6 million more than expected; estate and transfer tax revenues, $5.3 million above expectations; departmental receipts revenues, $4.5 million more than expected; and public utilities gross earnings tax revenues, $5.4 million ahead of estimates.” A few smaller sources of revenue fell short of projections, yielding the net surplus of $46.5 million.

Gregg notes that the new raises will be competing with the pleas of other special interest groups in their annual “more money” dance (which, admittedly, sometimes means more than a budgeted reduction).

But have you noticed that an unexpected increase in revenue is never cited as an opportunity to lower tax rates?  To the extent that it comes up, reduced taxes are typically handled in such a way as to make a special interest out of taxpayers, as with the specific elimination of the car tax.

In any event, time will tell whether Raimondo’s bid for the labor vote creates enough of a boost to save her job.  Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward is skeptical of her chances, generally:

My take on it: There is no amount of money that will save her candidacy. The unfixable UHIP that continues to cost taxpayers more millions, the now-late and already unpopular tolls that create a new budget shortage, the “scooping” of energy conservation monies – and now, grabbing 911 emergency funds for God knows what. She owns all of it! She will lose a two-way race soundly, and needs to keep independents like Joe Trillo in the race to save her.

We’ll see.  The thing with full ballots is that a candidate can win with a small plurality, as Rhode Islanders keep learning… to our detriment.

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Missing the Real Story of UHIP

As a UHIP skeptic from the very first time it was mentioned as a possibility, I continue to think that everybody is following the wrong storyline.  However, increased scrutiny is starting to bring people around to the right questions… the correct angle.  Consider:

As to why so many things went wrong, [Deloitte manager Deborah] Sills said: “Simply put, the system is very complex … the only eligibility system in the country that integrates more than 10 state and federal health and human services programs and a state based health insurance exchange … As the state’s comprehensive analysis last year made clear, Deloitte and the state needed ‘more time, more people and more training.'”

GoLocalProv has posted the entire 40-page, paper-and-pen application that goes along with the half-billion-dollar computer system, and what’s becoming clearer is that the state simply expected too much from software, hoping to avoid the hard work of reconceptualizing how benefits programs are done.  In this light, the fundamental error of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo was her failure to understand the nature of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).  It was never really intended to be a cost-savings and efficiency tool, but rather a dependency portal, drawing people into government programs and maximizing the amount of “services” that the state could hire people to provide.

Look at the application.  The complexity comes in because each program requires different information.  That’s not a terrible problem if the applicant knows which one he or she wants, but the entire point of UHIP is to give people things they aren’t applying for, so the application asks for all of the possible information.  Streamlining that would require regulatory and legislative changes, some of it at the federal level.

In order to effectuate those changes, advocates would have to make clearer the underlying objective, and that would run contrary to the plan.  The dependency portal is meant to insinuate itself into reality under the banner of efficiency, which the public would actually support.  Less popular would be a banner proclaiming, “We want to ensure that everybody gets every penny of taxpayer money possible, even without looking for it.”  Even less popular would be, “We want to track everybody’s personal and financial information so that we can adjust their benefits automatically.”

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Objection to UHIP on the Surface and Conceptually

The court-appointed “special master” tasked with getting Rhode Island’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) working, Deming Sherman, tells Kate Nagle of GoLocalProv that the system is flawed:

“It (UHIP) was not a bad idea, but bad execution,” said Sherman about UHIP. The good idea of UHIP was to tie five distinct programs together, but the flaws have been that the vendor, Deloitte and the workforce did not work and were not trained, respectively. Just as the UHIP program was being implemented the state laid off key workers. Since then DHS has had a difficult time training and retain workers for the program.

Sherman said the UHIP system has two problems technology and the workforce that operates it.

The surface reaction one has to this is to be incensed that the state government has already spent roughly a half-billion dollars on the system.  Nobody forced state government to undertake a project that it was not competent to oversee.  In fact, the state barely conducted public discussion before jumping in.  Bureaucrats under former Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee simply went forward as if it was the obvious thing to do.

Similarly, nobody forced Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo to manage her personnel under the assumption that flipping the switch on UHIP would instantly bring a new day.  She took a big, big gamble, attempting to make budgetary room for other things, like her crony capitalist approach to economic development, and the state’s vulnerable populations have suffered for it.

More deeply, though, we should challenge Sherman’s statement that the concept was sound.  The goal of UHIP, which was pushed down from activists at the national level (with the encouragement of Democrat Congressman David Cicilline), is to draw people into dependency on government.  The system has the 40-page application about which Sherman complains in part because the designers want it to collect scads of information about people, which would be constantly updated on the pretense of regularly checking eligibility.

If it weren’t for the human suffering and loss of opportunity that it’s causing, we should actually be happy that UHIP isn’t working, which is a sad statement on the condition of our democracy.  Being saved from insidious ideas by managerial incompetence is not a silver lining that ought to inspire confidence or hope.

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A State-Run Bank in RI: The Ocean State Shavings and Cronies

Progressives in Rhode Island, with potential gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown the latest among them, have been floating the idea of a state-run bank for a few years.  Cato Institute Fellow Walter Olson expressed some thoughts on the question in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The concerns are manifold.  For one thing, government-run banks “succeed, if they do, because of unfair advantages.”  (And if they fail, look for them to receive more advantages at others’ expense.)  Because they’re fundamentally political in nature, they also tend to allocate their resources with less concern for sound investments than private banks must.

Referring specifically to his state of concern, Olson writes:

A State Bank of New Jersey would be unlikely to content itself with the predictable and repetitive lending that goes on in an agriculture-and-extraction economy like North Dakota’s. It would inevitably turn into a Favor Bank for politicos hoping to lure subsidized jobs from the more vibrant cities of New York and Philadelphia. Once the initial buzz of idealism passed, it would become a tempting honey pot for the corrupt politicians for which New Jersey is famous.

Rhode Island has a similar fame, along with a newly minted reputation for institutional incompetence — along with a not-so-newly-minted history involving organized crime and a banking crisis.  Frankly, Rhode Islanders should find it unsettling that anybody of influence could look at the socio-political landscape of the Ocean State — with Crimetown, 38 Studios, the UHIP debacle, Deepwater Wind, unfunded pensions, one-party rule, regular investigative reports showing public-sector malfeasance, and all the rest — and conclude that what we really need is another way to shuffle money around.

With the prospect of a state-run savings and loan operation, one suspects insiders are waiting in the wings to do business at the Ocean State Shavings and Cronies, but if the rest of us fall for it, the smart investment would be in local U-Haul operations.

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The Incentives of School Bonds

Regular readers know I put a lot of emphasis on incentives as a way to understand events and a key consideration when crafting policies.  The $250 million school bond proposed for the November ballot is a good example.

On the front end, the incentive is very strong for school districts and municipalities to let facilities deteriorate.  First, the law is structured to give advantages to labor unions organized at the state and even federal level, creating incentive for them to manipulate the political structure.  Then, elected officials have incentive to tilt budgets toward organized labor, drawing money to compensation.  Next, having learned from that experience over time, taxpayers have incentive to squeeze money out of budgets so that even higher taxes aren’t paying again for things like maintenance that they thought were already included and that might be diverted again if available.

On top of it all, the near certitude of passing bonds for dire repairs creates disincentive for regular maintenance from the start.  This mechanism creates incentives for financial interests and investors, and the bias toward big projects brings in the incentive that got me thinking of these things.  As Dan McGowan reports for WPRI:

Fix Our Schools R.I., a 501(c)4 nonprofit formed last week, will spend the coming months “educating communities across the state about what this plan is and how it would affect them,” Haslehurst told Eyewitness News. …

The organization lists its address as 410 South Main St., the same building as the Laborer’s International Union of North America. Haslehurst said it will share space with the Occupational and Environmental Health Center of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that has an office inside the building.

A quick look at the health center’s IRS filing shows that it’s a labor union organization, with AFL-CIO poobah George Nee as the treasurer.

‘Round and ’round the incentives go, to the point that running things efficiently — in the way people run their households, planning ahead and all that — seems almost to be an impossible task.  Be skeptical of anybody who tells you that this is a “once in a generation” investment that fixes a problem.  After all, when the debt payments subside, the incentive will be to find more projects in need of debt or to build the payment amount into regular budgets.

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After the Green Charmer Moves On

Remember when Rhode Island helped get Deepwater Wind off the ground by forcing Rhode Island energy users to pay an artificially high price for its product, in the name of making the Ocean State “the Saudi Arabia of wind”?  We were supposedly taking the lead in an industry of the future and securing the “well-paying jobs” that Rhode Islanders deserved.

Well, at least we can say we kicked off a job bump in the larger region:

Deepwater Wind will assemble the wind turbine foundations for its Revolution Wind in Massachusetts, and it has identified three South Coast cities – New Bedford, Fall River and Somerset – as possible locations for this major fabrication activity, the company is announcing today. …

These commitments are in addition to Deepwater Wind’s previously announced plans to use the New BEdford Marine Commerce Terminal for significant construction and staging operations, and to pay $500,000 per year to the New Bedford Port Authority to use the facility.”

Businesses will go where it is in their immediate interest to go.  That’s just what the incentives dictate.  Rhode Island continues to attempt to use crony capitalism in order to avoid making the changes necessary to be a place that businesses find attractive without special incentives.  That will ultimately fail, because it drives away all businesses that do not receive the special deals, and it keeps those that do only as long as the subsidies keep coming… and aren’t exceeded by somebody else’s deal.

But improving Rhode Island’s business environment inherently requires reform of and risk to the insider system that has corrupted the state, so it’s not a realistic option.

(Via Ted Nesi.)

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The Great Flurry’ster of 2018 and Changed Rhode Islanders

So what happened with the disruptive snow and wind we were supposed to get yesterday?  That’s the question of the morning.  Something seems to have changed in the Rhode Island psyche after the “December Debacle” in 2007.  That year, the timing and handling of a snow storm, particularly in Providence, under Democrat then-mayor-now-congressman David Cicilline caused a nightmare for commuters and children.  Suddenly, hesitation to disrupt our entire community gave way to being “better safe than sorry.”

Once that old New England toughness lost its dominion, the ordinary incentives of government and politics took over.  If the governor or mayor closes down government and implements parking bans, not only do they give some key constituencies a day off, but they mitigate the risk of something going wrong.  Relatively few Rhode Islanders will even think to wonder about considerations like this, as expressed in a GoLocalProv article appearing this morning:

“Let’s go macro,” said [Providence restaurant owner Bob] Burke. “On any given day the state has $150 million in economic activity. What did we produce [on Wednesday] — $10 million?  Are we a state that can afford to give up $100 to $125 million in economic activity without a really tough fight? On Wednesday, they went down in the first round!”

Similar views were expressed by Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity. “The lack of concern for small businesses by bureaucrats and elected officials looking to make themselves look good – when they prematurely issue parking bans, large truck bans, or shutting down government operations – directly leads to a loss of business and productivity in the private sector,” said Stenhouse.

Whatever it is that’s changed in the Rhode Island psyche has freed government officials from the need to actually make decisions.  Either business people have given up trying to assert their influence in an often-hostile government or those who take the needs of businesses lightly have increased.

Perhaps the change has to do with the “government plantation” that effectively replaces Rhode Islanders who are driven to turn their time into money with others who are more likely to seek government services. Those who work for government get paid no matter what, and those who are the recipients of its beneficence are a step removed from caring about where the money comes from.

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Transparency at the Speed of Government

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Rhode Island Wants in on All Immoral Profits

Given the national attention, Rhode Islanders can probably expect their legislators to shy away from implementing Providence/North Providence Democrat Senator Frank Ciccone’s proposal to impose a government fee for viewing online pornography.  Let’s take the lesson, though.

Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown puts her finger a growing attitude that I’ve been pointing out in Rhode Island government, lately (emphasis added):

What makes all of this especially ridiculous is that under Ciccone and Gallo’s proposal, anyone over 18-years-old could have the filter removed by making a request in writing and paying a $20 fee. The money would go to the state’s general treasury “to help fund the operations of the council on human trafficking.” (But… if people are paying the state $20 to access prostitution sites, doesn’t that make the state a trafficker?)

With its fingers in alcohol, gambling, and marijuana, Rhode Island government continues on its path toward replacing organized crime.  Government officials will want a cut of anything that has the feel of a vice.  Whereas mobsters built an infrastructure to provide what the law had blocked, government has that infrastructure already in place and capitalizes on it either by making things that are currently legal slightly less so or by letting things that are currently illegal filter through its coffers.

Meanwhile, Ciccone would have the state collect a record of every Rhode Islander who requests access to pornography.  Nobody should be comfortable with gangster government’s having access to a list like that.

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Standing Against The Progressive-Left

At our Center, we know that the extreme levels of taxation and over-regulation forced on Rhode Islanders by an ever-growing government is the primary culprit in causing our state’s sad performance. Look at it this way— heavy handed action by a state government that mainly seeks to perpetuate itself, actually works against the best-interests of the very individuals it is supposed to be serving.

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When the Constitution Doesn’t Apply to the Code of Ethics

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Bringing Logic to the Net Neutrality Debate

The Sunday Providence Journal carried my op-ed on net neutrality:

Really, with what other service do people insist that customers’ only options must be everything or nothing? Should we all have to have the same gym memberships? Should every car have to have the same engine and the same sound system?

A preference for an all-or-nothing industry, as with health care, tends to mean that the advocates want to be able to control the “all” so they can control our lives. Auton and Holden probably have no such intent, but following their suggestion would clear a path for those who do.

One comment, from Mike Berry illustrates the challenge of political discourse these days:

Hard to follow the logic here.
Mandatory free and open access cannot possibly restrict what ISPs sell us. It does the opposite.
Internet access is not like gym memberships or auto service. It should be a utility in which, yes, we ALL get the same thing!!

Notice the immediate logical inconsistency in Berry’s response.  On the one hand, he says net neutrality “cannot possibly restrict what ISPs sell us”; on the other hand, he insists that ISPs should sell everybody the exact same thing.

Objectively, it appears that Berry is tangled up in the talking points.  Proponents of net neutrality use phrases like “mandatory free and open access” because that implies more access not less, but using a talking point doesn’t mean it’s accurate.  Maybe if Internet access were some boundless resource that could simply be plucked for free and distributed without limit, but that isn’t the case.

The mention of utilities is also instructive.  Think about your electric bill.  Regulators and activists are working to ensure that you cannot get electricity from coal while they force you to pay extra for politically favored energy like wind.

In that case, we’re only talking about how the product is generated.  With the Internet, the control of the “utility” would implicitly cover what we receive.  We’ll quickly find that disfavored content — the coal of the Internet — is blocked while we wind up with government fees on our bills to fund content or services to which we object.

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