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Felonious Dark Humor from Teenagers

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.

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Theft Is One Way to Get the Money Out of Politics

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.

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Rhode Island Bridges: The Civic Metaphor

When a state reaches a certain level of decay, it begins to produce metaphors for itself.  Here’s the latest from Rhode Island:

Two-inch-thick slabs of concrete fell from the Broadway bridge over Route 95 just as rush hour began around 3 p.m., R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti said Tuesday afternoon. No one was injured and no vehicles were damaged, he said, because pipes that carry utilities under the bridge caught the pieces.

A crumbling government-owned bridge creates a massive traffic jamb, which is actually and metaphorically an expensive drain on people’s productivity.  Instead of getting where they were going, people were stuck doing nothing because they could not move.

And the metaphor continues:  The state has accelerated its speed reviewing and investigating the problem and will decide whether it has to restrict what people can do while it gets around to fixing things.  Meanwhile, even if the Department of Transportation decides to fix this bridge sooner, whatever road used to be considered a higher priority than this one will continue deteriorating.

As ever, the solution will include a plea for more money, because we’re too busy watching for falling concrete ever to look around on the ground for things that maybe shouldn’t be absorbing our resources.

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Public-Sector Labor Legislation and the Law of Unintended Consequences

While we must be wary of giving credit-rating agencies the power to dictate the legislation of our elected representatives, Rhode Islanders should contemplate the significance of this development, which Katherine Gregg reports in the Providence Journal:

A warning from one of the nation’s largest credit-rating agencies, Moody’s Investors Service, has revived the debate over the union-backed continuing-contract legislation that Gov. Gina Raimondo signed last month over the objections of city and town leaders.

The new continuing-contract law indefinitely locks in wages and benefits in expired public-employee contracts. The teacher union lobbyists who took the lead in pushing the bill said it was aimed at preventing cities and towns from unilaterally slashing pay or making employees pay more for their health insurance during deadlocked negotiations.

“The law has the potential to provide collective bargaining units with advantages in negotiations,’’ Moody’s public-finance division wrote in a special report out Thursday that echoed one of the biggest concerns raised by Rhode Island mayors and town administrators.

Moody’s worries that the law may be “a significant impediment to local governments’ ability to negotiate labor contracts,” and as a local elected official participating in negotiations, I can confirm that to be the case.  It isn’t just a matter of unions’ refusing to make concessions that help government agencies balance their budgets.

The legislation — and even just the fact of its passage, along with the firefighter overtime bill — is already shutting off areas of discussion.  A municipality and union trying to balance current expenses with employees’ long-term interests can’t trust that the state won’t change the rules out from under them.  Even in a situation when the current members of a particular union have long demonstrated a desire to work cooperatively with management, decision-makers can’t consider only that relationship, but must worry about the unknowns of what future union members might do and how union-friendly legislators might change the rules on their behalf.

As with so much in Rhode Island government, the legislature and governor have demonstrated that they don’t take the broad, long-term effects of their actions into consideration.  One imagines that if they were ever to acknowledge the law of unintended consequences, they’d move swiftly to pass legislation repealing it.

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Unfairness in RI Government’s Priorities

Mike Stenhouse’s recent op-ed in the Providence Journal puts the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Public Union Excesses report in a broader context:

Beyond these extreme financial costs, an even more corrosive impact from this political cronyism is at play. People have lost trust in their government and are fed up with betrayals from lawmakers who have forgotten them, who cater only to special-interest concerns. Lawmakers make it ever-harder for people to take care of their families and reside in Rhode Island.

For these reasons, Rhode Island is not keeping pace with the rest of the nation when it comes to jobs and population growth. After 10 years of perhaps the slowest economic recovery among all states, Rhode Island’s political leaders are failing on their promises to help the average family.

Instead, by heaping more privileges upon those who help get them elected, politicians continue to lose the trust of the people, who are also losing hope for their state. These tragic circumstances have conspired to make it a virtual certainty that the Ocean State will lose a prized U.S. congressional seat after the 2020 national census because of its stagnant population growth.

Rhode Island strangles its families and businesses with taxes and regulations, but often, the sheer unfairness of the system can be the real poison.  As a member of the Tiverton Town Council, yesterday I participated in a “business walk” hosted by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, which involved stopping in to talk with some business owners around town.

Of course, we heard about the problem of taxes, but the subjects that really animated business owners would better be classified as injustice.  The cost of government labor was seen not only as a cause of high taxes, but also as a budget imbalance preventing infrastructure improvement.  Similarly, the capriciousness of enforcement, with the rules not seeming to apply fairly to every business and changing depending on which government inspector paid a visit, is irksome beyond the cost.

Even after figuring out how to overcome all the regulatory obstacles that the state throws in their way and even after building high taxes, regulation-driven energy costs, and government bungled healthcare expenses into their business models, they still never know when an inspector will find some new rule to enforce or the legislature will come up with some new fee or obstacle to impose.

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Curiosity About the Sale of Assets

This news isn’t sufficiently filled out, yet, to offer a firm reaction:

The University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus would move out of the historic Shepard Building to an unknown location under state plans to sell government real estate released on Friday evening.

The state Board of Elections would be moved out of its current Providence headquarters on Branch Avenue, and the state Medical Examiner’s Office would move from its laboratory on Orms Street in the next two years, according to the proposals from an ad hoc committee charged with finding state savings. The recommendations do not say where either of those agencies would go.

The real estate sales are part of a wider effort by a group of state officials and groups with business before the state, known as the Efficiency Commission, to come up with at least $10 million in money-saving ideas for the budget year that starts July 1.

Efficiency is a good thing, and if it doesn’t make sense for government to continue owning particular properties, then it shouldn’t, but if the efficiencies and the sale of assets result from the government’s inability to continue paying its bills, that’s a whole nother thing.  Once the state government collects the estimated $16–25 million in sales revenue, the assets are gone, but the spending is still there.

The article states that moving out of the buildings will save $2.5 million per year in “operating costs,” but note, in particular, that “those figures do not include the cost of finding new homes for the current occupants.”  If rent and other costs to house these government agencies elsewhere are roughly a wash, then we’re back to selling assets for its own sake.  And that can be an ominous sign if the government isn’t giving a clearer rationale for why it would do so other than “efficiency.”

One can’t help but wonder, too, what sort of tax increase the City of Providence will see if the state government hands off property to a private owner.

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Generational Apologies All Around

Steven Papamarcos offers, in the New York Daily News,  the apology that GenXers like me have been wanting to hear ever since we came of age and came to understand the world into which we’d grown:

The previous generation, the Greatest Generation, saved the world by sending Orwell’s rough men into the crucible of war in the interest of peace. My generation, the Baby Boomers, was to live the life purchased for us by the boys of Normandy, the Ardennes, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other killing fields. White marble crosses and Stars of David in these places testify to the enormous price of that purchase. And live we did. What a party we threw ourselves. So, as I reflect on the goodness of the job my generation has done, I apologize. I apologize for it all.

On his list of the Boomers’ good works:

  • Bankrupting the United States
  • A political system in which neither party will “staunch the fiscal bleeding”
  • Raising the current generations of civically ignorant nationalists and socialists around the world who are renewing “the tired, hateful rhetoric of the past”
  • Turning higher education into a politically correct land of ego stroking
  • Undermining American education, generally
  • The prolongation of racial division by trying to compensate for racism of the past, rather than simply moving past it

It’s nice to hear an apology, for all the good it does, but a nagging sense of pre-guilt keeps me from gloating.  I have a feeling some GenXer will pen a responsive apology some day, as the younger Boomers shuffle off to the grave, for what reality led us to do to them once we’d overcome their programming of the Millennials and managed to explain it all.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Fees, Fraud, Fetuses, and Finding a Field of Candidates

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, this week, was about the many new fees and taxes in the governor’s budget, a progressive’s alleged embezzlement, the significance of an abortion poll, and the multiple candidates for RIGOP chair.

Open post for full audio.

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RI Government Is Always a Growth Industry

For the “Who is serving whom?” file, the Associated Press reports:

The number of Rhode Island state workers who made $100,000 or more increased 21 percent from 2016 to 2018.

WPRI-TV, citing state payroll records, reports that 2,336 state workers had six-figure salaries in 2018, compared to 1,936 in 2016.

The employees accounted for a 23 percent increase in state spending to nearly $304 million.

Apparently the biggest increase is in correctional officers, attributable to a freeze in hiring that will likely improve in the near future.  Rhode Islanders should be skeptical.  The Corrections department has had a long prominence on the list of high-earning state employees, with 21 out of 33 employees earning over $100,000 in overtime alone back in 2011.

When The Current looked in 2017, Rhode Island had the fifth-highest cost per prisoner among states, which was sixth-highest per capita, which was an improvement from second-highest per prisoner in 2001.

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RI’s Leadership Role in the Climate Shakedown

Ocean State Current alumnus Kevin Mooney has an American Spectator article highlighting Rhode Island’s role in the vanguard of the inside-government attack on the fossil fuel industry:

In 2018, Rhode Island became the first state to file climate change litigation against 21 fossil fuel producers, a move that directly assaults the free speech rights of those who dared to voice a dissenting opinion on climate policy.

Sheldon Whitehouse, the state’s Democratic U.S. senator, joined with Governor Gina Raimondo and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to announce the suit at a press conference last July. Rhode Island’s litigation closely mirrors lawsuits that have been filed by 14 municipalities across the U.S.

Although climate change litigants have repeatedly failed to successfully make their case in court, state attorneys general persist in reloading the same arguments.

That’s just the beginning of the sordid tale of political showmanship and lawyers’ fees that makes up this abuse of power.

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The Best of Times for RI Insiders

There’s an “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” feel to the picture of a long tent leading up to the State House for the momentary comfort of elite party goers.  The event was an inaugural ball to celebrate the victory of Gina Raimondo in ensuring that nothing much will change in Rhode Island for the next four years, at least not if it will reduce the status of inside players.

Katherine Gregg lists some of the gratuitous donations:

The largest contribution, $20,000, came from the Laborers International Union of North America.

International Game Technology (IGT) and the corporate owners of the Twin River casinos each gave $15,000 for Saturday’s inaugural events, including the invite-only gala at the Rhode Island State House and a “pre-gala reception” for all the inaugural sponsors and their guests at at Café Nuovo.

The $10,000 donors included Amica, Bank of America, Citizens, CVS, Deepwater Wind, General Dynamics, Electric Boat and Pfizer, according to the governor’s office.

Others giving up to $5,000 each included AAA Northeast, Amgen, AT&T, Centene Corp., Dimeo Construction Co., FedEx, First Bristol Corp., JPMorgan Chase, Locke Lord, Microsoft and Washington Trust.

Gee, what would give corporations and other organizations incentive to give this much money to a politician for a party?

True to the formula for these stories, Gregg interviews John Marion of Common Cause RI, who suggests that the government should impose even more (arguably unconstitutional) restrictions on political donations.  But the inaugural donations only illustrate that money will find a way into politics like a rising tide into a structure that’s below sea level.  Even public financing won’t stop it.

The only way to end this flow of money is to reduce what’s available to buy.

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Weird Shutdown Politics

As a local barber cut my hair, this afternoon, one of the customers awaiting his turn mentioned that he is in the Coast Guard and hasn’t been receiving his pay.  They’ll typically get their back pay, but anybody living paycheck to paycheck is going to have a challenging time.  With 12 years of experience, he’s gone through this before, but he said this time is different and might last longer.

He sure is right that this time is different.  The typical analysis of shutdown politics has been that the side that looks like it is the one holding up agreement is the loser.  Of course, that common wisdom is tainted by the fact that the news media always presents the Republicans as the holder-uppers, whether the GOP is trying to get something new or to maintain the status quo on the controversial policy question at the heart of the dispute.

That makes this bit of news, pointed out by Alexandra DeSanctis, a little bit of a head scratcher:

Despite the fact that the funding process has already been held up over political disagreements, in part having to do with contention over building and reinforcing a wall at the southern border, the Democratic representatives now controlling the House added further controversy to the process by slipping a pro-abortion provision into their draft spending bill.

This might make sense as a negotiation tactic (“You remove your controversial proposal, and I’ll review mine.”), but it gives both sides blame as things drag on.  It could be that the farther-left Congressional Democrats are more convinced than even conservative commentators have thought that there is secret national popularity for radical progressive policies.  It could also be that they know their media allies, amped up on Trump hatred, will apply their good-guy/bad-guy brush even more liberally.

In crass political terms, they may be assessing that President Trump isn’t going to back down on the wall and the Democrats aren’t going to back down on not funding it, so they might as well gain some points with their abortion-supporting core.  But again, conceding that they’re not going to back down, to the extent that they’re moving in the opposite direction of compromise, makes it difficult to maintain the narrative that they’re the ones truly concerned with keeping the government operating at full expense.

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Merry Christmas From The Center!

Merry Christmas! Imagine Rhode Island as a more attractive home and destination of choice for families. We could be a state that offers financial security now and opportunity for prosperity in the future. We could have a policy culture where individuals and business are successful in increasing the overall wealth of our state’s economy, and enhancing the quality of life for every Rhode Islander.

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Hasbro and the Definition of Cronyism

Following Rhode Island’s mainstream news media gives one the impression that everybody’s falling all over each other to express concern about the possibility that toy company Hasbro might move its headquarters out of the state.  The three most-powerful politicians in the state pledge to work toward a solution.  The mayors of Pawtucket and Central Falls are on the case.  The Providence Journal editorial page is stressing the importance of retention.

I say we’re looking at this all the wrong way.

If Hasbro’s changing business model just doesn’t work in Rhode Island, then the company should move.  To avoid that outcome, the state should eliminate the insider system of its governance and ease the burden of regulations and taxes so that the company’s business model works here — not because state leaders are cutting special deals to help one company overcome the burden, but because the state is more friendly to all economic activity.

Instead, Hasbro may actually affirm the state’s unhealthy political system if it stays.  A quick look at Rhode Island’s campaign finance database shows that Hasbro’s CEO, Brian Goldner and (presumably) his wife have each given Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo the maximum contribution of $1,000 every year since she took office.  This year, another Goldner at the same address threw in an additional thousand, and Brian added $11,000 in donations to the Democratic State Committee.  Additionally, 18 Hasbro employees contributed the maximum to Raimondo over the past year.

This unusual wave of money clouds the direction of the influence, but it is suggestive of the insider nature of the transaction.  Hasbro employees are especially supportive of a particular politician, and that politician is going to strive to keep their company in the state.  At the end of the day, it isn’t clear whether anybody with power has an interest in improving the state if it means reducing the power of a mutually supportive elite.

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A New Jersey Lesson in Minor League Baseball

Time will tell, but Rhode Islanders should keep a healthy eye, over the next couple of decades, on whether we dodged a bullet when we declined to bear financial risk for the construction of a new minor league baseball stadium.  Eric Boehm’s report from New Jersey gives reason to expect that it will prove to be so:

Taxpayers spent more than $18 million to build the stadium that would eventually be named Campbell’s Field, as part of a minor league ballpark-building frenzy across New Jersey that saw similar stadiums erected in Newark, Atlantic City, and Somerset—all part of redevelopment schemes that attracted independent minor league teams (that is, minor league teams not affiliated with the Major League Baseball farm system).

Less than two decades later, taxpayers in New Jersey will pay another $1 million to tear down Campbell’s Field. …

Camden’s not the only city to dump a ton of money into a minor (or major) league ballpark under the guise of economic development, only to see the project become a fiscal black hole. The minor league teams that moved into Newark and Atlantic City around the same time as the Riversharks started playing in Camden have met similar fates. The Atlantic City Surf survived for 11 years before going bankrupt and the Newark Bears folded in 2014. Their riverfront stadium in downtown Newark is also set to be demolished less than 20 years after it was built.

Yes, maybe it looks bad that Rhode Island is losing its icons and blocking new development, but that negative appearance doesn’t justify making risky deals.

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Confirming a Conservative Response to Poverty

Writing about public policy day in and day out, one can forget that not everybody follows every argument with close attention.  Broad philosophical points of view and underlying intentions can therefore be lost.

Just so, I almost didn’t bother reading a brief essay in which Michael Tanner promotes and summarizes his forthcoming book offering a broad explanation of a conservative policy response to poverty.  It’s worth reading, though, because he summarizes some conservative policies specifically in terms of their human objectives:

  • Keeping people out of jail can promote work and stable families.
  • Breaking up “the government education monopoly and limit[ing] the power of teachers’ unions” is rightly seen as an “anti-poverty program.”
  • Preventing government from driving up the cost of living, especially housing, will give poorer families a chance to get their feet on the ground.
  • Policies that discourage savings also discourage healthy financial habits.
  • A heavy hand in regulating the economy tends to target economic growth toward the rich and powerful.

As he concludes:

An anti-poverty agenda built on empowering poor people and allowing them to take greater control of their own lives offers the chance for a new bipartisan consensus that rejects the current paternalism of both Left and Right. More important, it is an agenda that will do far more than our current failed welfare state to actually lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

My only objection is that I’m not sure that the “paternalism of the Right” is a view that conservatives actually hold rather than a caricature that the Left spreads about us.  Of course, the fault is arguably ours, if we don’t often enough express our real intentions.

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Center Recommends Constitutional Amendment to Codify Legislative Process Reforms

The legislative sausage-making process in Rhode Island is in dire need of reform. Those reforms that should be codified through a constitutional amendment, so that Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership. Now is the time to demand better government.

Our state needs less control by leadership over what legislation will advance, with more power provided to legislative committees.

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The Noises of an Expected Problem

This sure looks like an action done with the awareness of Rhode Island’s chief executive, with full knowledge that overspending was part of a long-term budget-management scheme:

House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney publicly vented his “disappointment″ that the directors of Rhode Island’s overspending state agencies did not come to the hearing to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The House’s chief fiscal adviser, Sharon Reynolds Ferland, shared her own frustration at what she described as the lax response of state agencies to direct instructions from the state budget office to lay out specific options for averting a potential $47.2-million deficit this year, and scaling back their budget requests for next year.

She attributed the potential current year deficit “primarily … [to] unmet expenditure savings and unbudgeted policy choices.”

They don’t have plans because they don’t feel like they need them. Everybody in state government is on basically the same page about the primacy of government spending. This will continue until (1) politicians start paying a price for going along with it or (2) bankruptcy.

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The Constitutional Importance of Our Legislators’ Authority

Rhode Island has had lengthy debates about who, outside of the legislature, should have authority to judge what our state representatives and senators do in their official capacity, and few questioned whether that sort of protection belonged in the state constitution. Yet, nobody has yet suggested that legislators deserve the same level of protection from the abuses of other legislators, specifically when it comes to the House and Senate rules.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is signing on to calls for rules that reduce the power of legislative leaders and give it back to legislators, but with the caveat that it ought to happen where new factions can’t change the rules back if they take control:

In calling for a dual-legislative track, the Center’s primary objective is to ensure that elected Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership.

The first piece of legislation would immediately implement certain reforms for the 2019 General Assembly session, while the second piece would call for a ballot-referendum in 2020, whereby voters could approve codification of those reforms into the Rhode Island constitution.

The political Left, in particular, has exhibited a tendency to back individual rights until such time as Leftists are able to impose their preferred regime, at which point individual dissent suddenly becomes illegitimate. With legislative rules, as with our rights, we should move them as far out of reach as possible while we still have some semblance of representative democracy.

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A Great Year for Worker Freedom – Help Spread the Word

This year was a GREAT year for worker freedom across the country, and here in the Ocean State. Early in the summer, the SCOTUS decision in the historic Janus case determined that state and local governments are forbidden from forcing their employees to join unions as a condition of employment. The ruling means union leaders can no longer automatically plunder the pocketbooks of public employees to fund the unions’ political agendas.

In August, we launched our MyPayMySayRI.com campaign to educate public servants about their restored First Amendment rights.

But the insiders want to keep workers in the dark, and in the unions… at any cost.

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