Conspicuous relationships between powerful people and employees of the Convention Center Authority are just snow on the sharp point of the tip of the iceberg of RI’s patronage network.
Guest: John Marion, Executive Director, Common Cause RI, www.commoncauseri.org
Host: Richard August Time: 30 minutes
Mr. Marion is the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island a non-partisan organization promoting clean, open and accountable government. He discusses the importance of the upcoming census and its impact on redrawing the state’s House and Senate districts. This has given rise to a movement called RedrawRI a campaign to reform how RI legislative districts are drawn. It calls for an impartial citizens’ commission to redistrict the state.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for February 3, included talk about:
- Raimondo’s anti-Trump special-interest PAC.
- Will the new Providence superintendent earn his pay?
- Everybody could be right, but is wrong, on the Convention Center.
- RI gambling giants’ form a super-crony organization.
If you’ve been around government and politics in Rhode Island for a while, you probably know people who’ve been audited at conspicuous times… like after having spoken up publicly about some issue. This may be part of the reason ripples of excitement have followed indications that Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston might be caught red-handed flipping the switch on the familiar weapon.
Particularly intriguing is the way those ripples have caused turmoil among people and entities that tend to unite around good-government issues. Thus, as Mattiello claims to be targeting the Convention Center Authority with an audit to fix what former Republican House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan calls “a poorly run, incompetently managed building [that] works as a favor factory,” we get current House Minority Leader Blake Filippi filing a lawsuit claiming that Mattiello abused his influence over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) to order the audit, followed by the Providence Journal editorial board, led by Ed Achorn, belittling the Republican’s suit as “partisan animosity.”
If the good guys are tripping over each other, the bad guys have wind at their backs. The Convention Center has rejected the audit and called for an investigation of Mattiello by the State Police, which has lost some of its objective luster in recent years for seeming to align too eagerly with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, who has (1) given indications that she sees Mattiello as an obstacle and (2) proven her intent to use political means to advance her agenda through the legislature (including, for example, raising campaign funds to go after legislators at the ballot box).
Interested observers face that old puzzle about whether the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Do good government forces benefit by helping a progressive governor knock out the more-conservative speaker, or by turning a blind eye to what might be raw corruption on his part?
Why everybody can’t be right? Yes, the Convention Center should be audited. Yes, the whole JCLS should meet and take action in a transparent fashion. Yes, it’s worth having some agency look into whether use of the legislature’s auditing power is being abused. Yes, we should be suspicious that a politicized State Police might serve the governor’s political interest.
This is how divided government is supposed to work, making it in everybody’s interest to seek leverage against the others. The problem is that state government in RI is so one-sided that it’s always “heads they win, tails you lose.”
In intellectual discussion at the intersection of religion and science, participants sometimes propose to define miracles as extremely improbable events that happen at a significant time, such that the significance itself appears to have influenced the outcome. If, for example, there is some infinitesimal chance that an incurable disease will just go away and does after the patient prays at some holy shrine, then that might meet the definition of “miracle.”
In a somewhat crass way, this definition came to mind while reading about the state legislature’s audit of the RI Convention Center following the center’s investigation of the speaker’s friend:
“The JCLS has an obligation to meet and determine exactly why an audit was ordered of the Convention Center after Mr. Demers got in trouble at his job,” [RIGOP Chairwoman Susan] Cienki said. “The public deserves to know if government resources are being used by Speaker Mattiello to satisfy a petty personal grudge. If the JCLS won’t meet and explain what is going on, then perhaps the attorney general should investigate.”
Mattiello’s spokesperson, Larry Berman, pushed back at Cienki by pointing out that House Republicans, notably former Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, have been calling for better oversight of the Convention Center’s finances for years. He sent Target 12 multiple press releases and news reports in which Morgan laid out her criticisms.
One gets the sense that this has become the way that Republican, conservative, or just good-government policies find their way miraculously into state law and activity. It is improbable that a Republican’s call to audit a government agency will be heeded in Rhode Island… except at that significant moment when it serves the interest of some powerful interest for ulterior reasons.
Makes one wonder if there’s a list of policy proposals out there awaiting some direct pay-off before they are implemented, with the fact that somebody (or some party) suggested them used as cover.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for January 20, included talk about:
- The governor’s budget (and popularity)
- The speaker’s interest in the Convention Center
- The women’s march
- Big money state jobs, especially corrections
With the old establishment players back in power in Tiverton, we’ve seen a quick return to the practices that have done so much damage to local government over the decades. Decisions are being made by a few, unidentified people in back rooms and private communications. New hoops are being erected for community groups to jump through. The law is being rewritten by the minute depending on what the Town Council leadership needs it to be. The council’s votes are becoming mere recommendations unless approved by the president.
Members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) talk about that and more on Episode 9 of the Tiverton on Track podcast.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for January 13, included talk about:
- A union president accuses race heretics
- OPEB swamping Providence and Warwick
- Fear about “red flag” laws
- The legislative session starts
- RI losing claim to a Congressional seat,
- The rolling fundraising party of the State House
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for December 30, included talk about:
- Elorza’s interest in being governor
- Causes and effects of Providence Mall brawls
- Disappointment in Raimondo’s failure to succeed
- Stephen Skoly’s warning about opioid nannyism
State of the State co-host Richard August invited me on for a full hour of the show to cover a broad range of topics, from Tiverton’s recall election to broad political philosophy.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for November 25, included talk about:
- Insider Alves and the radical caucus
- The union view of employer responsibility
- Gaspee versus campaign finance laws
- Paint on the statute becoming blood on government’s hands
- Blood on the police officer’s hand gets a slap on the wrist
If you were to envision the perfect government agency, what would it look like? Rhode Island has come up with one that few would find perfect in an objective sense, but it is perfectly emblematic: the Central Collections Unit.
As Patrick Anderson explains in the Providence Journal, this unit was put into place with the promise that just a little bit of effort from the state government could increase its collection of money owed to the state by millions of collars, well beyond the cost of the program. The reality hasn’t, let’s say, matched expectations:
The Central Collections Unit, created last year to capture some of the millions of dollars owed to state agencies, had collected $196,000 through the end of October, a fraction of what was expected, according to the Department of Revenue.
The Projo editorial board contrasts that revenue with the cost of the unit:
What are the taxpayers spending for that $196,000? According to Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi, the annual budget for the unit is $899,649.
What is a bureaucracy to do? Redefine the goals (emphasis added):
“We’re building something new with the Central Collections Unit, trying an innovative way to improving the state’s financial operations. It’s too early to rate the ultimate effectiveness of the effort this unit is making to hold people accountable,” Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi said in an email. “The figures submitted to the Revenue Estimating Conference cannot tell the complete story. Some of the money we’ve collected goes directly to workers who were shortchanged by their bosses. Other people who owed the largest amounts to the state have been drawn into monthly payment plans by the CCU.”
Ah. So now the Collections Unit is not a profit center, but an expense to assist employees in collecting their own back pay. No articles have yet flushed out a number for how much those workers received, but it would be reasonable to wager that taxpayers would have saved money by simply giving them the cash.
These sorts of debacles-in-the-making can leave Rhode Islanders feeling as if there’s something missing in the story. Who proposed this unit? Who advocated for it? Does it amount to more union membership, or were its employees earmarked before it was even created?
We’ll never know, because nobody has the incentive to dig into it (at the expense of other priorities), which ensures that there will be more plaque-like units building up in the arteries of state government on into the future, with the more-visible officials professing that they can’t get by without growing budgets year after year.
Once again, the RI Ethics Commission proves there’s a big loophole in the Code of Ethics for elected officials who earn their livings working for government agencies.
What is a progressive mayor to do when his city’s policies produce the inevitable problems, including homelessness? Well, in an area of the country where the average temperature ranges from 60 to 80 degrees, the government can let tent cities emerge for a while. In a place like Bill de Blasio’s New York City, where January’s average is 40 degrees (which any winter visitor knows can feel like it’s in Kelvin, not Fahrenheit, when the wind cascades between the buildings), that isn’t an option.
So, the city has come up with a novel solution:
From the tropical shores of Honolulu and Puerto Rico, to the badlands of Utah and backwaters of Louisiana, the Big Apple has sent local homeless families to 373 cities across the country with a full year of rent in their pockets as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Special One-Time Assistance Program.” Usually, the receiving city knows nothing about it.
City taxpayers have spent $89 million on rent alone since the program’s August 2017 inception to export 5,074 homeless families — 12,482 individuals — to places as close as Newark and as far as the South Pacific, according to Department of Homeless Services data obtained by The Post. Families who once lived in city shelters decamped to 32 states and Puerto Rico.
As Shaun Towne reports, using the interactive map provided in Sara Dorn New York Post article on the program, a handful of beneficiary families found their way to Rhode Island — one each in North Kingstown, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket and three in Providence. The mayors of the northern three of those communities are reportedly not happy about the situation:
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt released a joint statement Thursday calling the program “an outrageous example of bad public policy.” They said it’s “irresponsible” for New York to spring needy families on other communities without warning, especially those already “working with limited resources to improve [their] residents’ quality of life.”
A cynic might quip that these mayors are only upset that they were not notified so as to ensure that their new constituents are registered to vote. This thought leads to a more intellectually interesting problem. The Big Apple’s program suggests a system that creates pressure for the exportation of bad ideas, including both the policies that created the unpleasant situation and the paternalism of using taxpayer dollars to compensate their victims.
Would it be possible to design a system that sends people from localities where good ideas dominate to such benighted states as New York and Rhode Island?
A brief summary of the essential elements leading to no indictments related to the August 14th incident where a Wyatt Detention Center guard drove his truck into immigration-enforcement protesters blocking the entrance to the facility parking lot is as follows…
Protesters at Wyatt wanted some lawlessness, when it gave them an advantage in imposing their will on others.
At the point where the lawless enviornment no longer provided the protestors with the advantage they sought, they wanted the state to step in and take their side.
The system seems to have reached the conclusion that the protestors’ ask was unfair, and has rejected it.
The continuation of events following the decision not to indict is also worth noting…
As recorded in the Woonsocket Call, on the day it was announced, the grand jury decision not to indict was protested at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office in downtown Providence.
However, despite the parking lot for the Attorney General’s office being nearby, the protestors chose not to block traffic or attempt to deny anyone access to a public space during the Providence protest.
Worth discussing, especially with people with divergent views on how the police, prosecutors and the court system are dealing with these types of events; is why the protesters chose blocking access to a public space as their tactic in one place but not the other. There are variety of possibilities and working through them may be revealing.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for October 21, included talk about a political operative’s indictment, other political operatives’ hemp biz, Block’s complaint against government operatives, Wyatt protesters, and an unpopular governor.
The 2019 legislative session of the General Assembly had the feel of our freedoms’ letting go, and Rhode Islanders must find hope in the inability of insiders to keep the game going and the ability of non-insiders to organize.
Rhode Island’s ban on flavored vaping shows a mentality that Rhode Islanders increasingly want to escape.
I’m constantly confused by politicians who think that their election also comes with honorary degrees in medicine, education, commerce, and the like… that upon their election, they have a right to appoint themselves as doctor, teacher, etc., to their constituents. Most of our elected officials are purely bought and sold tools of one lobby or another. They know no more than you or me.
Informed adults don’t need this kind of micro-supervision. Vaping has allowed me to get away from cigarettes, and I imagine the hundreds of thousands or millions of vapers in New England resent having their legal sources of vaping suddenly cut off with no compelling research into the public health effects of the habit.
This ban is a terrible trend by our governor. What she isn’t considering are the local small businesses she is destroying. There are plenty of online sources (for now) which will take more money out of RI. And, even more crucially, those who use vaping as a safer alternative to smoking will be forced to return to tobacco products. Maybe Governor Raimondo has missed the tax dollars from each pack of cigarettes purchased in RI.
The messages she is sending, of government overreach and a total lack of consideration of the ramifications of her edict, are yet another nail in this beautiful state’s casket. The R and I are, increasingly, standing for Really Idiotic.
Once our son is done with high school and Boy Scouts, we are fleeing. In search of freedom and some self-respect.
Are the decisions by the governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts to halt the sale of vaping products (which will destroy jobs and small businesses) fueled by solid research or inspired by politically-correct activism?
While we recognize that this may be a sensitive topic to some people, there are many pro-liberty arguments that can be made on why these vape bans are wrong. It is deeply concerning that Governor Raimondo used her office to unilaterally ban a class of products.
The appropriate response to Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s executive order banning certain forms of vaping in the state is to challenge her authority to do so. If we accept the principle that the governor can simply ban products she doesn’t like, we’ll soon find our governors believing they can simply ban anything.
What makes the governor’s action doubly objectionable, however, is its complete reliance on fact-free emotion:
In response to the growing public health crisis of e-cigarette use among young people in Rhode Island, Governor Gina M. Raimondo today signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Health to establish emergency regulations prohibiting the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. The Executive Order also puts in place a number of other measures designed to the curb the initiation of e-cigarette use by young people.
As far as I can tell (and the press release doesn’t provide anything additional), the only “crisis” is that people are doing the thing that the governor wants to ban. Indeed, the governor is banning “flavored e-cigarettes,” while the only actual “crisis” has been illness nationwide, mostly having to do with people vaping THC (the marijuana chemical).
For vaping generally, it isn’t even clear that it has had a net negative effect. The governor’s press release may insist that decreases in teen smoking are “thanks to decades of public health education and advocacy,” but the numbers for smoking and vaping suggest that there’s more to the question. This is from a post in this space in January 2018:
… According to the federal Department of Health & Human Services, “from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of 12th-grade students who had ever used an e-cigarette increased from 4.7 to 16 percent.” But over that same period of time, the percentage of seniors who said the same about actual cigarettes decreased from 10.3% to 5.5%. Smokeless tobacco (like snuff and chewing tobacco) is down from 8.3% to 6.1%. (These groups aren’t exclusive, meaning that there’s some overlap between them.)
As of 2014, more students had used an e-cigarette than an actual cigarette. The question that the advocates and (in turn) the journalists miss is this: If the alternative to e-cigarettes is not nothing, but smoking or chewing tobacco, isn’t this outcome positive?
If, as looks plausible, the availability of vaping has reduced smoking, one foreseeable consequence of banning vaping will be an increase in teen smoking. The fact that this possibility doesn’t come up in government statements or coverage thereof suggests that the whole thing is just a moral panic stoked for political reasons.
This article from a few weeks ago shouldn’t pass into memory without comment:
Rhode Island finished the past fiscal year with a $29-million surplus, $25.5 million of which the state is already counting on in its budget for the current year, according to a preliminary accounting of the year that ended June 30.
State spending for the year that ended June 30 came in $12 million lower than the final, revised spending plan lawmakers approved earlier that month; state revenues were $2.1 million higher than expected.
Review the budget documents from the House Fiscal office for the real story. With less than two weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the state increased its final budget for that year by $174 million. This new “surplus” is just the extra wiggle room they gave themselves, and the fact that they are counting on almost all of it for the next year raises the question of how aware they were of the likelihood.
Of course, one could reasonably argue that the state ought to budget with the expectation of a small surplus. In that case, however, the story isn’t really about a surplus, but about the absence of an unforeseen deficit.
To say that the government ended the year with a surplus is like saying your child has money left over when he or she gives you back a quarter from a hundred dollar bill that you gave him or her to buy something for $98. That $1.75 went to buy some unapproved candy, but your kid wants credit for giving you any change at all.
During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:
“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools
Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.
On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:
- Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
- Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
- Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
- Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
- Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.
Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials. We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.
Rhode Islanders don’t have to look too closely to see the threads that run through various stories about local corruption and to (hopefully) learn a lesson.
In response to the events at the Wyatt Detention Center from two weeks ago, Our society could choose to accept anarchy, to accept that whoever has the bigger, tougher, better organized gang wins for themselves the use of public spaces; literally implementing might makes right as a governing principle. This does not seem to be a pathway that governing authorities in Rhode Island will consciously choose, as state government quickly remembered the importance of deterring violence from escalating, once the focus of events became people not involved in the intentional blocking of traffic.
A second possibility would be to cut the problem off at its root: enforcing laws and norms against blocking traffic and against denying people the right to travel in public spaces, and uniting around a shared norm that has served our society well. (I concede that that last phrase is a bit normative).
Of course, this depends on the right to travel being a norm that is widely shared. Is this still the case? The affinity repeatedly shown by protestors for blocking traffic, combined with the so-far one-sided response by Rhode Island authorities, suggests that it may not be; this, in turn, points in the direction of the third possible evolution of the system: convincing people that it is acceptable for government to protect fundamental rights within the context of a caste system, where some people have fewer rights than others. For various reasons, this is an unlikely candidate for smooth implementation.
That is your universe of choices. In the end, any way forward that abandons the impartial defense of the right to travel will lead to more and more cycles of violent conflict that will only be eliminated once the norm acting against those who try to block innocent people from traveling in public spaces is rediscovered.
An Associated Press story on WPRI’s Web site raises two questions:
A Florida teenager faces a felony charge after getting so fed up with her little sister’s noisy phone that she threatened to shoot up a school. …
The teen told investigators she was so annoyed by the sounds from a sixth-grade group chat that she took her sister’s phone and wrote: “Next person to say something is the first person I will shoot on the school shooting that will take place this Friday.”
The police have officially determined that the 16-year-old does not actually have any plans for a school shooting. While we can all be grateful for that, one must wonder: Isn’t felony sarcasm a bit of an extreme charge in response to teenagers’ famously poor judgment?
A second question follows on that one: Should we really want children to internalize the idea that just mentioning a school shooting is a major crime? It seems to me that we’d want the threats to be made so that they could be quickly investigated, not only to determine whether there’s an actual threat, but also to discover whether the teenager needs help.
Senator Whitehouse’s attack on the Supreme Court shows his cynicism and malleable legal principles.
A new form of government appears to be taking shape in Rhode Island before our very eyes.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for July 22, Mayor Jorge Elorza’s self-positioning on the schools problem, Gina Raimondo’s national adventures, and David Cicilline’s impeachment vote.
When I’ve objected to the ever-growing regulations imposed on anybody who tries to participate in state or local government, I’ve had in mind mainly the disincentive for people to get involved and the potential for political “Gotcha!” games. Recent news out of the Board of Elections is a reminder that government isn’t just this neutral, flawless storing house for all of our rules and information:
The Rhode Island Board of Elections acknowledged Monday that its inadvertent disclosure of banking information might have opened the door to “fraudulent activity” involving the campaign finances of two 2018 political candidates, Cranston Mayor and candidate for governor Allan Fung and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea — including the theft of money from Fung’s campaign account.
The board has learned that it mistakenly disclosed the routing numbers and account numbers of checks written by campaigns participating in the state’s Matching Public Funds program, according to a news release issued by Diane C. Mederos.
The Matching Public Funds program isn’t so substantial that every candidate or potential candidate in the state will even think about using it, but this is a warning. The state now requires all candidates to have separate bank accounts and to provide statements to the Board of Elections. These burdens have a way of expanding and becoming more detailed as they (inevitably) fail to stop the behavior they’re targeted toward stopping.
At the same time, being small and used only for the periodic purpose of elections, these accounts are easy for busy people to lose track of.
As long as I’ve been paying attention to politics, I’ve been hearing people say that we need to get the money out of it. I’m not sure making it an easy target for theft is the right way to go about that.
Not surprisingly, the state’s analysis of the affordability of its debt finds that Rhode Island is doing OK. Residents should take a broader, less sunny, view.