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The Board of Elections’s Voice for Clerical Aristocracy

A recent tweet from retired judge, current Rhode Island Board of Elections member, and Ken Block agitator Steve Erickson inadvertently raised a critical point of difference between government insiders and (some of) the rest of us.  He insisted that a driver’s license or Social Security Number is still mandatory for voter registration in Rhode Island.  And then:

This statement so well captures progressive thinking — as if the law should be this mysterious thing that only a clerical class of lawyers can interpret, as proclaimed by an oracular order of prophetic judges.  Let’s review basic civics.

We elect representatives to pass laws with the expectation that we can hold them accountable when they do not behave in our interests.  We elect an executive under similar principles who then goes about applying the legislation in the operation of the government.  In this case, that’s the Board of Elections, as appointed by the governor.

When there is disagreement about how the law should apply to a specific circumstance, the judiciary is authorized to be the final voice on which interpretation is correct.  At that point, if the electorate doesn’t agree, they push the legislature to change the language of the law to conform with the intent of the people.

In this case, as I described in the article at the top of Erickson’s thread, the U.S. Congress required license or Social Security ID from any and all voter applicants who had been “issued” one.  After some ebb and flow, the Board of Elections decided that anybody registering for the first time in person didn’t actually need ID.

It’s that plain.

If judges have somehow interpreted the language of federal law to mean something other than what it plainly says, then they are in the wrong.  Insisting that it is somehow inappropriate for the general public to point out that the practice of the law doesn’t match the language of the law is to demand a level of trust to which no free people should consent.  Frankly, it’s disconcerting that somebody who served as a judge and now has direct authority over our democracy would be so dogmatic in his support of clerical aristocracy.


Janus vs AFSME: One Of The Most Important Constitutional Cases Of Our Lifetime

Mark Janus is a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. He advocates for children’s rights when their parents are no longer together. When he was hired, he didn’t know that he was going to be forced to pay union dues until he saw the fees deducted from his first paycheck.


Board of Elections to Discuss Ken Block Complaint

According to an agenda published this morning at 9:44 a.m. for a meeting next Wednesday, the Rhode Island Board of Elections will be taking up the topic of its voter registration process:

The Board may discuss a letter complaint filed by Ken Block with the United States Department of Justice concerning the Help America Vote Act and the voter registration process.

The question at hand is whether the Board’s regulations for confirming the identity of people registering to vote are sufficiently in line with federal law.

Check this space midday on Monday for a more-detailed investigation of how regulations changed in a way that supports Block’s contention.


The State Makes Move on Rights in Multiple Dimensions, RI ACLU Applauds

The Rhode Island ACLU has a strange understanding of “civil liberties.”  The organization has apparently been successful in its push to have the state bureaucracy of the Department of Education take broad decisions about handling transgender students out of the hands of local districts:

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner announced his commitment Tuesday to require all school districts to adopt comprehensive policies affirming the civil rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

The announcement, made at a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, supports a petition that the ACLU of Rhode Island and nine other organizations filed last month seeking to provide this protection.

This isn’t just a case of state government muscling local government, however.  As has been explored in this space before, the guidance on which this new, mandatory regulation will be based is so extreme as to task teachers and other school personnel with seeking signs of gender identity issues in all children.  By high school, districts will actively conspire with children to set time lines for transition and to hide it all from their parents.

An “American Civil Liberties Union” that supports this policy carries an Orwellian name.


Should Rhode Islanders Be Confident In Our State’s Elections Integrity?

Following the release this week of city-by-city and district-by-district voter registration and 2016 election voting research by Ken Block, via his Simpatico Software Systems data analysis company, we call on the Governor and/or the Attorney General to initiate an independent investigation. This shocking data means our current registration practices may need to be amended, with individuals appropriately held accountable, if voters are to maintain confidence in our State’s elections integrity.


Truckers Provide a Good Illustration of Regulatory Complexity

Via Stephen Green comes Matthew Garnett’s explanation of the four clocks that regulations impose on truckers.  The complexity provides a direct and straightforward illustration of the hoops through which all businesses have to jump, whether they’re this noticeable or more subtle:

The biggest principle to keep in mind is that when any one of the “clocks” runs out, you can no longer drive legally. Once you start the clock by going on-duty, you have eight hours before you must stop driving and take a 30-minute break.

Also, once you start your clock, you have now started a nonstop 14-hour window in which you must get all the driving done you need to for that day. If you get stuck at a shipper for three hours, you now have only 10 hours to drive. Which brings us to your “11”: In any given 14-hour on-duty period, you are only allowed to drive legally for 11 hours within that 14-hour period. In addition, in any eight-day period, you are only allowed to be on-duty (not driving and driving) for a total of 70 hours. Hence, your “70.” (This week, I made it back home with only one hour on my 70… I was cutting it close.)

The freedom to be a truck driver can basically be rephrased as a complex contracting deal for the government.  If you can make money under the government’s restraints, then you’re permitted to do so.  Otherwise, you just can’t do it.

Put that way, it’s actually a bit like one of those marketing-and-pyramid-scheme arrangements.  With some combination of getting people to shop through “your” Web page, selling the core products of the organization, and dragging other people into the scheme, you can make some money.  If you can’t make money, well, it must not be for you, because it’s all supposed to be easy.


The Promotion of a Governor, Q.E.D.

How out of control is Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s use of government for self promotion?  So out of control that somebody appears to have leaked an internal email to the Providence Journal that puts the cherry on top of my observation, yesterday, that the whole state government has turned toward narrative-building and the promotion of the governor:

Raimondo’s communications director, Mike Raia, spelled out the plan to all of the public-relations folk in the executive branch in an email earlier this month, which has since been obtained by The Journal, with the subject line: “October 2: #1000DaysOfProgress — Comms Planning.”

Reading like a campaign flier for Democrat Raimondo, who is expected to seek reelection next year, Raia’s email read, in part: “October 2, 2017 marks Governor Raimondo’s 1,000th day in office. In those 1,000 days, Rhode Island has built some incredible momentum and our state has made a lot of progress….”

But wait, there’s more!

“In addition to the Governor’s events, we are asking every Cabinet member to plan at least one event highlighting a specific and tangible accomplishment from these 1,000 days. Please copy and complete the form below with two suggestions, including locations, for your agency and send it … no later than 4 p.m. on Friday, September 8. Our office will provide final guidance on events by Friday, September 15 to ensure that we have adequate coverage across the entire state.”

Apparently, it’s not enough simply to do the people’s business, in Rhode Island.  UHIP is still a disaster; the DCYF is still in disarray; the budgeting and revenue offices have to figure out how to address a massive deficit upcoming; and on and on.  One might wonder whether a state government that surprises people when it does something right has the spare capacity to be choreographing PR blitzes, but all those PR folks have to do something.


When Government Becomes a PR Machine

Gary Sasse asks an interesting question on Twitter regarding Kathy Gregg’s Providence Journal article about the expanding PR corps in state government:

Does the proliferation of PR folks reflect a lack of trust that civil servants can be trusted to deliver the Governor’s spin?

Although Sasse is on to something, his question is targeted a little below the critical development.  The entire nature of government information distribution has changed under Governor Gina Raimondo.  We can see this in minor controversies, like her use of unknown numbers of blue Rhode Works signs to promote her name… and efforts to hide the costs of doing so.  And as Gregg notes, we can see it in the fact that the state employees who are actually doing stuff, and are therefore better positioned to explain that stuff, are harder to reach, more often redirecting questions through the spin apparatus.

Maybe most notably, we can see the change in the behavior of department heads.  Stefan Pryor has turned the Commerce Corp. into an elaborate Raimondo promotion vehicle, and watching him talk in hearings or in interviews proves him indistinguishable from a PR flack.

Education Commissioner Ken Wagner wasn’t quite that bad on a recent Newsmakers but was notably more reliant on catch phrases and talking points, whereas his predecessors engaged much more in genuine-seeming conversation during such appearances.  Deborah Gist, for example, always gave the impression of “I know what you’re asking, and I’m going to answer your question to the best of my ability.”  Wagner’s impression is more like “I know what you’re asking, but I’m going to pretend that I don’t, or that these fancy phrases actually answer your question.”  (I’ll probably have more to say on this for my Last Impressions podcast, Friday.)

Basically, it used to be that the PR folks were the professionals tasked with conveying the thoughts and intentions of elected and appointed officials and doing a little bit to promote government initiatives, while the other professionals were there to do and explain their work.  The big change under Raimondo is that she’s attempting to steer the whole ship of state toward the task of marketing.


Rhode Island Government’s Reverse Robin Hood for General Dynamics

An interesting she-said-she-said slips by in Alex Nunes’s Providence Journal article on the Rhode Island government’s incentive give-aways to Electric Boat (a subsidiary of General Dynamics):

“[Electric Boat President Jeffrey Geiger] was essentially saying to me, ‘Look, we have these new contracts. We need to hire … thousands of people. We want to hire Rhode Islanders, but you need to do your part,’” [Democrat Governor Gina] Raimondo recalled in a recent interview in her office. …

“Nobody’s asking the local, state government, or the federal government to do this [employee training] work for us,” [Electric Boat Human Resources Vice President Maura] Dunn said in an interview at the company’s Groton offices.

That said, Dunn does call the training a “community project,” which implies other people doing at least some of the work.

The debate throws off a lot of numbers, as well as undefined phrases like “doing their part,” but here’s one set of numbers I found interesting:

According to General Dynamics’ annual report, 2016 was a record fiscal year for the company, with $31.4 billion in overall sales and revenues of $8.2 billion in the Marine Systems group, which includes submarine-building.

The company’s market capitalization, a measure of the value of a publicly traded business, also reached $52.6 billion by year’s end on a nearly 26-percent increase in its stock price.

According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Rhode Island’s GDP for 2016 was $57.4 billion.  In other words, the total market capitalization of General Dynamics is nearly as big as Rhode Island’s economy for all industries.  Does the company really need Rhode Island to take millions of dollars from other industries and individuals and focus it on one business’s narrow needs, profiting its investors at record-setting rates?


PawSox Eminent Domain Language Reminds Us What’s Going On

Some welcome focus on the eminent domain aspect of the proposed PawSox stadium deal should awaken Rhode Islanders to what is really happening, here.   The Associated Press reports:

One of the two bills being considered as part of the legislative package would remove the phrase “blighted and substandard” from the definition of a redevelopment agency. It also changes the wording of state law so that, rather than preventing redevelopment agencies from constructing buildings for residential, commercial, or industrial use, it authorizes them to do so.

To be sure “blighted and substandard” is a subjective guide.  One expects that if the government wants a piece of property, it will find a way to call it “substandard” regardless.  Changing the language, however, is a reminder of the expansion of this mechanism for seizing land or, in this case, giving the government the upper hand in negotiations with a property owner that a private organization wouldn’t have.

Most folks who spend time considering public policy can justify the use of eminent domain to advance public infrastructure.  If some road, track, canal, or whatever would be a huge boon to the area, a single property owner could hold his or her entire region hostage over a property value that would not exist if it were not for the public project.

That rationale begins to wear thin when the government is building something isolated, like a school building or public safety complex.  Still, even some strong conservatives can see their way to accepting that sort of use.  (My view is that it cedes too much to the notion that the government is the real owner of all property, and individuals can only own, at best, inheritable development rights.)

At the other end of the question, a great many people object to the notion that government can take property from one private entity and give it to another simply because it proclaims that the receiver has a better use for it.  This PawSox deal is just like that, only with a patina of justification by keeping ownership in government hands, leasing to a single-use tenant.


“Pay for Itself”? UHIP Is Designed to Increase Costs.

Ted Nesi and Susan Campbell report on the costly future of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP):

Two years after insisting Rhode Island’s new $445-million benefits system would pay for itself by next June, state officials now admit they have no idea if the problem-plagued computer system will ever save enough to cover its cost.

Folks still aren’t getting the bigger picture when it comes to costs.  UHIP is designed to maximize the use of government services.  Not only will it never cover its “costs,” but it will continue to increase public expenditures.

At some point in the future, some gubernatorial administration may announce that the system has stopped enough proverbial “waste, fraud, and abuse” to cover the expense of implementing the program, but we can be sure such a calculation will brush aside actual increases in spending on the programs.

Rather than simply update our operating systems for welfare programs, Rhode Island government officials chose to make the state an experiment in interweaving all programs for “one stop shopping.”  We’re already paying the price, and it’s a bill that will continue to grow.


School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.


Manufacturing Consent to Spend Our Money

The lede of an article by Kathy Gregg, to which the Providence Journal gave the headline, “Emails show rising public support for PawSox stadium subsidies,” ought to discourage all Rhode Islanders who aren’t making a living off of the government:

Roughly two-thirds of the 138 emails sent so far to the Rhode Island Senate expressed support for the proposed $38 million in city and state subsidies to build a new ballpark for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Is this where we are, now?  Eighty-six emails expressing “at least generally supportive” opinions (some from people who would directly benefit) shows “rising support” and gives a green light to making a million people liable for tens of millions of dollars in debt?  I don’t know that one could find a better illustration of the way political gamesmanship and the news media’s inevitably spotlighted focus generate narratives that lead to substantial public policy decisions at odds with the public interest.

For additional detail on how this process actually works, consider this Facebook post, which Lisa D’Agostino mentions in the Projo’s comment section:

News Update: PawSox Rally at the State House,Thursday September 14th from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. All Thursday night apprentices classes are to report at 5:00 p.m. and sign in with respected instructors. Local 51 T-shirts will be handed out to each member. Also, we our encouraging all journeyman and retirees to please attend the rally in support. Let’s work together.

Apprenticeships, incidentally, are required for people who wish to become plumbers, pipefitters, and HVAC technicians, which the UA Local 51 covers.  I haven’t seen a requirement in the law that apprentices be trained in pressuring government to commit taxpayers to debt, but it wouldn’t surprise me to come across one.


State House Report with John DePetro, No. 24 and 25: Voter Fraud, Pawsox, Dreamers, and DACA

I neglected to post my August 30th appearance on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, so this week, you get twice the audio.

On August 30, the topics were Elorza’s Dreamers, Pawsox, and District 13 follow up. On September 6, the topics were official silence on Ken Block’s voter fraud report, the start of the Senate’s PawSox road show, and local response to the DACA.

Open post for full audio of both episodes.


A Special Tier of Law for Insiders

Katherine Gregg has devoted another Providence Journal Political Scene to the worthy topic of the political connections of Rhode Island magistrates and judges.  Long before knowing the score, on this count, anybody who takes an interest in Rhode Island governance learns that justice is best sought in federal courts, because Rhode Island’s system is (let’s say) not to be trusted.

With this anecdote, Gregg gives a sense of why:

A former public defender, [now Superior Court Judge Patrick] Burke had been at the center of a controversial court case that evolved from his arrest by the Warwick police in 1993 after they observed his car weaving on Route 2 around 2:30 a.m. The police charged him with refusing to submit to a portion of the breath test. The traffic court suspended his license and scheduled a hearing. Burke’s lawyer — then Speaker Harwood — filed for dismissal in 1996, saying the multiple delays in scheduling the hearing deprived Burke of his right to a speedy trial. A judge dismissed the charge.

This anecdote was 20 years ago, and we certainly have no reason to believe that things have improved.  How can Rhode Islanders have confidence in a judiciary that operates like this?


So Much for That “No Evidence of Vote Fraud” Thing

Well, this sure is interesting:

Over 6,000 voters in New Hampshire had used same-day voter registration procedures to register and vote simultaneously for president. The current New Hampshire speaker of the House, Shawn Jasper, sought and obtained data about what happened to these 6,000 “new” New Hampshire voters who showed up on Election Day. It seems the overwhelming majority of them can no longer be found in New Hampshire.

That was enough to give Hillary Clinton the state.  She didn’t win, obviously, but the margin could have given the Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate the victory, as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach points out. (Imagine, too, if a similar report were to come out showing that fraud could have given President Trump Wisconsin.)

If you’ve been paying attention, J. Christian Adams’s PJ Media article quoted above fits perfectly with the early-2016 sting by video journalist James O’Keefe.  Note, in particular Chuck Ross’s description of O’Keefe’s video for the Daily Caller:

“Like, I think in many ways New Hampshire is incredibly proud of their first in the nation primary, and for that reason they make all of these really lax laws, surrounding voting, so people can, like, take advantage of it,” Waterman tells a PVA journalist.

“Why doesn’t just every volunteer, like, ever in the office, just…,” the journalist begins to ask.

“I think they all have honestly,” says Waterman. “And like, all of our paid canvassers have done it. It’s very, very easy.”

“It almost seems like…it’s better to have people from out of state. Because they can do that and it’s like more votes,” the journalist says.

The poll workers whom O’Keefe filmed talk about using other people’s addresses, even the office building in which they were talking.  That starts to sound like the alarm that Ken Block has been sounding in recent months, here in Rhode Island.

It’s scandalous that Rhode Island politicians, including the Secretary of State, get away with brushing these concerns aside.


Against Becoming “Rhode Island and the Amazon Plantations”

The buzz is all around:  Corporate giant Amazon is in the market for a second headquarters — HQ2 — and the governments of cities and states across America are widely expected to make a competitive play for the honor of housing it, even if those same governments have only proven capable of keeping their current populations under H2O.

Americans should find this whole development disturbing.  Consider the implications of this paragraph from Ted Nesi’s WPRI reporting:

Bids for the new headquarters are due Oct. 19 to Amazon’s Office of Economic Development in Seattle. The company will announce its choice next year.

Regional governments are bidding to the economic development office of a private company for the privilege of serving its headquarters.  What does it mean for elected officials to be chasing the Amazon cornucopia in that fashion?

For one thing, the process sounds a bit like state governments’ applying to the federal government for competitive grants, and that exercised has proven to be one of the key ways in which the federal government has nudged states to adopt policies that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Moreover, allowing our government to take the position of contractor to the company would make us all vulnerable to losing our state.  Even if Amazon only puts Rhode Island in the running, none of our petty concerns about our own lives will even rate.  Our entire system will be transformed to serve Amazon, and our government will become little more than a middleman between us and the company.  No, thank you.

Instead, we should be trying to make Rhode Island the sort of state that a company like Amazon would approach independently.  That would put the leverage in the right direction.  And even better:  Such a state would attract companies of all sizes and create the environment for the creation of the next Amazon.


Magellan and the Cost of Business in RI

Good news, Rhode Islanders!  We paid another company to locate in Rhode Island jobs that it already planned to create:

The Commerce Corporation board approved up to $2.1 million in tax credits that Magellan can receive over 10 years if it creates 75 new jobs. An additional 25 full-time jobs are also expected to be added by the company. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said an outside analysis showed the deal will be revenue-positive for the state.

In case you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s $28,000 per job.  This is madness.  Bureaucrats and political operatives are playing the big shots with our money with no real skin of their own in the game.

If we have to subsidize companies to the tune of $28,000 per job to locate in our state, we’re clearly making it $28,000 too expensive to create jobs in Rhode Island.


RI Government Is Good at Siphoning Money, RI Housing Edition

Naturally, a spokesperson for Rhode Island Housing is poo-pooing the size of the dollar amounts, but Rhode Island’s share of questionable expenditures in a federal housing program is shocking.  Dan McGowan and Walt Buteau report on WPRI:

Rhode Island Housing is one of 19 agencies throughout the country accused of misusing $3 million in federal funds earmarked for homeowner relief, according to an audit released last month by the office of the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).

The 93-page audit identified $1.2 million in unnecessary expenditures by Rhode Island Housing, including funds spent on a new customer center, severance payments for former employees and marketing costs.

That’s nineteen agencies, and little Rhode Island accounts for 40% of the questionable expenditures.  In other words, for every $2.50 that the audit is challenging across the country, RI Housing accounts for $1.00.  Whether the folks at RI Housing are correct that the auditors were misguided, one must wonder why it is that our little state was notably caught up in that difference of opinion.

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the Obama administration liked just about any government spending.  Indeed, spending money (which means having to collect it, somehow) was arguably its highest goal.  And Rhode Island government is particular adept at finding ways to spend money.  Winks and nods come cheaply in such interactions.

However these allegations may shake out, Rhode Islanders should take the opportunity to consider, once again, whether we’re well served by a government that seems always to be funneling money to itself and its employees.


Who Pays for Wasted Money?

A friend of mine has a favorite story about a coworker — both in a career for highly intelligent professionals — who seemed sincerely convinced that the government could help the economy by building jet airliners and flying them into the ocean.  Obviously, that’s an extreme iteration of a common economic ignorance that one would hope would cause most people to pause and think, “No, wait, that can’t be right.”

The anecdote came to mind while reading an AP story by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, about the big ObamaCare increases facing those who receive no subsidies for their individual plans:

“We’re caught in the middle-class loophole of no help,” said Thornton, a hairdresser from Newark, Delaware. She said she’s currently paying about $740 a month in premiums, and expects her monthly bill next year to be around $1,000, a 35 percent increase.

“It’s like buying two new iPads a month and throwing them in the trash,” said Thornton, whose policy carries a deductible of $6,000.

The point that needs to be stated is that it doesn’t make the waste any more palatable when other people are receiving those two trash-destined iPads per month courtesy of the U.S. government.  The number of people throwing out metaphorical iPads for which they’ve paid may be small, but adding all of the subsidies up amounts to a lot of airplanes at the bottom of the ocean.

Of course (to be fair), all that money isn’t just producing garbage but is buying insurance against risk, albeit at an exorbitant cost with unjustifiable increases.  Acknowledging that the money is buying somethinghowever, only directs our attention back to the underlying injustice:  The government is just forcing some Americans to buy something for other Americans… and undermining our rights and increasing our overall risk in order to do so.