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A.T. Cross Out the Incentive Programs

Not long after hitting up the Rhode Island taxpayer for incentives to move from one municipality to another within the state, pen company A.T. Cross has sold itself to a California private-equity company, according to WPRI’s Ted Nesi.  The silver lining:

A.T. Cross was awarded $1.9 million in state subsidies to help pay for the move to Providence, but R.I. Commerce Corporation spokesman Matt Sheaff said Thursday the company has not received any of that money at this point because the incentives are tied to job benchmarks it has not yet achieved.

Not to quibble, but Kate Bramson reported last year in the Providence Journal that the company had already received $200,000, which would presumably be in addition to the thousands of dollars it receives every year through various government programs and directly from the governor’s office.

More to the point, the company now confirms that it will be shedding jobs, rather than adding them, which raises the question of whether it really needed the promise of millions in order move.

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An Administration with No Credibility to Chastise

To be fair, this is the sort of thing one expects a governor to say when an institution, particularly a public utility, falls short of expectations at a time during which people are relying on it, as Shaun Towne reports for WPRI:

[Democrat Governor Gina] Raimondo’s office on Wednesday said the governor has directed the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC) Administrator Macky McCleary to assess National Grid’s storm preparedness and restoration efforts.

To ensure National Grid’s attention is focused on the ongoing restoration, Raimondo’s office said the review will begin once all homes and businesses are back online.

“Rhode Islanders should expect the lights to come on when the switch is flipped. National Grid owes Rhode Island families and businesses a swift response when power goes out and thoughtful planning to prevent outages when storms are forecasted,” Raimondo said in a statement Wednesday.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for a politician to position herself in opposition to inadequate services when this is also news, as reported by Susan Campbell, also on WPRI:

On the first day of open enrollment for health insurance, a glitch prevented hundreds of customers from reaching HealthSource RI.

About 300 calls were routed incorrectly, due to a change that was made to the agency’s phone menu Tuesday night, according to Brenna McCabe, a spokesperson for the agency.

Add the following to the list of reasons government should remain small enough that it’s actually possible for politicians to run it well:  It doesn’t help when the people’s elected representatives have less than zero credibility for complaining about the disappointing performance of other organizations.

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Two Candidates for Governor

Two tweets posted on Twitter today within one minute of each other are telling, as well as related to part of my conversation with John DePetro for my weekly call-in yesterday.  First:

Second:

I don’t juxtapose these to promote Patricia Morgan, or even to advocate against Gina Raimondo.  An impression of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has been building, and it could (and should) be a barrier to her reelection no matter how much money she’s able to dump into Rhode Island’s relatively small media market.

When it comes to actual crises and errors in the executive branch, Raimondo takes an incremental approach.  A new revelation puts UHIP in the news, so she comes up with something that appears to be a response and walks away again.  Meanwhile, her affection for photo ops and staged events is well established.

That isn’t leadership, and people know it isn’t leadership.  Whatever collage of pleasant feelings canned photo ops might generate can be washed away by manifest bad management.  To the extent that her ample professional staff (in and out of the campaign) believes that photo-ops are indispensable, every single one of them should be of a leader fixing problems.

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Political Monday with John DePetro, No. 31: Sick Outs and What It Means to Be a Democrat

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the Warwick sick outs, my ethics complaint, Josh Miller’s view of the Democrats, Raimondo’s remorse for hurting journalists’ feelings.

Open post for full audio.

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Prepare for Another Innovative Way to Take Your Money

Katherine Gregg’s Providence Journal interview with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo contains a number of interesting tidbits, but the most significant section may be the round of questions on school infrastructure funding:

“The question … is how much money is needed to do the school construction properly — over what period of time — and where are we going to get that money … to which I don’t have an answer for you today,″ Raimondo said. …

Raimondo does not favor a surcharge on the sales tax or any other major tax, but says she is considering other ways to create a dedicated revenue stream.

The article cites $628 million as the bare minimum funding we supposedly need, and she mentions (but does not “favor”) the Massachusetts approach of devoting a penny of the sales tax to the matter.  Noteworthy, in that context, is that Rhode Island’s sales tax was implemented in the first place in order to give teachers raises and resolve financial crises in the cities and towns.

Whatever the solution that the governor ultimately proposes, this being Rhode Island, we should expect to see some scheme to increase revenue, not redirect it from some other expenditures are of lower priority.  The incentives of government ensure that low priorities are always the first to be funded.

Note that Raimondo isn’t even floating a comprehensive fix (at least not yet) as she did with pensions or roads and bridges, just “a dedicated revenue stream.”  Rhode Islanders pay enough in taxes to have our school buildings maintained and well staffed.  The problem is that the money is being redirected in ways it shouldn’t be.

Nobody should believe any claim that this new tax, fee, or scheme will be the one that actually accomplishes what government promised decades ago.  The pressures of the unnecessary or extravagant expenditures are now becoming such that the state keeps looking for ways to add new sources of money to pay for the basics.  But the waste, fraud, and abuse will continue to grow and expand, making it inevitable that corrupt insiders will come for this cash, too.

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As RI Implements Government-First Economic Strategy, JOI Drops

The Providence Journal has published an op-ed that I wrote about Rhode Island’s slip on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI):

When numbers that indicate economic health for families is up, a state’s score goes up. When the balance shifts toward reliance on and payments for government, a state’s score goes down. Nothing in the score should disadvantage Rhode Island in particular. The center’s goal with the index is to objectively measure states according to the principle that economic health means independence both from want and from government.

From this perspective, the strategies that elected officials advertise as steps forward are shown to be deeply flawed. Gov. Gina Raimondo has focused on bribing companies to move to the state in order to generate photo ops and claim that her administration is creating jobs. Meanwhile, the General Assembly has passed so-called tax reforms that were designed to game national indexes of business friendliness — lowering tax rates, for example, while increasing the amount of tax collected.

We need economic policies that unleash Rhode Islanders’ own potential and attract others who want to build opportunity for themselves and their employees.  Pitching a new Amazon headquarters, subsidizing a minor league baseball stadium, and building hotels aren’t going to do it.

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A Side Benefit of Giving Away Retirement Bonuses

Katherine Gregg notes, in a Providence Journal article, an interesting side effect of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to pay off long-time state employees to retire.  Gregg notes that the administration is assuming that 426 state workers will retire under the program, receiving $8.94 million in “retirement-incentive payments” and another $4.57 million in pay for unused time off from their years of employment.

[The plan] will also, coincidentally, turn state government into a hiring factory in the six months leading up to the 2018 elections.

So, heading into a statewide election for legislators and the governor, 426 union members will be happily flush with cash and another estimated 252 will have received seats on the state payroll gravy train.  That’s a nice little bonus effect of retirement incentives.

Of course, we shouldn’t accept the governor’s estimates.  Pushing employees into an underfunded pension plan may result in some near-term savings, but in the long term, it’s a terrible idea.  Taxpayer dollars go toward these pensions, and with people living longer and longer and government employees’ pay on ratcheting scales, we’ll only end up paying multiple people at a time for each job.

These sorts of buyouts are a bad idea when the idea is just to save money, and the impulse exposes a much more problematic fact of government.  Think about it:  If these employees are so far from worth what they’re being paid that we’ll give them bonuses up to $40,000 to get rid of them, why are we paying them so much in the first place?  If that’s not an indication that we need huge, systematic reform, then nothing is.

That point highlights the only time that buyouts might be reasonable in principle, which is when doing so is part of a system-wide fix.  But nothing is being fixed, in this case.  The governor’s just looking for a short-term budget trick that comes with some political benefit.

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RhodeWorks Signs Bring More Censure from Feds

Rhode Islanders who follow the news can’t help but begin wondering how many times the federal government will have to send letters of complaint against our corrupt and inept state government.  The Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) is obviously the giant archetype of the problem, but even those blue RhodeWorks signs promoting Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo are an illustration.  Here’s Patrick Anderson in the Providence Journal:

The Federal Highway Administration has found the hundreds of signs scattered over roads and bridges are “not in compliance” with federal traffic regulations, Carlos Machado, Federal Highway’s administrator for Rhode Island, said Wednesday. …

Nancy Singer, a Federal Highway spokeswoman, provided The Journal with the federal regulation at issue in Rhode Island, which does not allow “promotional or other informational signs regarding such matters as identification of public officials, contractors, organizational affiliations, and related logos and symbols.”

Also of interest is that the signs cost an extra $100 each to make and install, bringing the total to $52,000, because the original estimate didn’t include labor costs.  Unionized state employees are both making and installing the signs.

Recall, in this context, that Raimondo’s Director of the Department of Transportation, Peter Alviti, was previously an employee of the Laborers’ International Union (LiUNA).  Shortly after his hiring, Alviti scuttled a hiring plan that called for the state to bring in more design and development employees, as recommended by an expensive outside analysis, and instead hired more laborers.  One effect of the change was that the new hires shifted from a different union to LiUNA.

Recall, also, that Alviti brought some tasks in-house, like road striping, claiming that having more union members on the payroll year round would be less expensive than hiring outside vendors for the part-year work.

Now we are reminded that the DOT has been finding work for its employees making overly political signs for the governor.  At what point does the federal government stop the cease and desist letters and send in the investigators?

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 26: Resurrected Legislation and the Ghost of Failures Past

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the likelihood of an evergreen veto override, whether the DCYF would haunt Gina, PawSox, DACA, and Rhode Works transparency.

Open post for full audio.

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The Governor’s Inappropriate Blurring of Roles with DACA Initiative

A larger percentage than I’d like of recent posts, in this space, have to do with the actions of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, but the hits just keep on coming, as they say.

We can offer wry quips, as John Loughlin deftly did, about Raimondo’s initiative to pay the $495 filing fees of applicants for federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.  Loughlin imagines the governor paying off the minimum corporate tax for small businesses in the state as an alternative.  Put aside, though, the specific policy (and questions about why the governor wants to create more incentives for illegal immigrants to locate in Rhode Island) and look at the process.

Data point 1: As Kim Kalunian reports on WPRI, the governor announced this program with at least the trappings of her official office, holding a PR event in the State Room of the State House, at a government podium.  Additionally, in a fundraising appeal (see below), Raimondo blends this initiative with various official programs of the State of Rhode Island as if they’re of the same nature.

Data point 2: The governor’s statement notes that “the Rhode Island Foundation is coordinating contributions and making grants to community agencies that have stepped up to do this work.”

Data point 3: A fundraising appeal for the initiative that the Providence Journal’s Kathy Gregg tweeted out was sent courtesy of the PAC, Friends of Gina Raimondo.

This blurring of public and private sector is absolutely inappropriate, but it’s a regular practice of Raimondo’s.  Recall, for example, the overlapping interests of Wexford Science and Technology (of I-195 Redevelopment fame), Raimondo, the RI Foundation, and the Brookings Institute.  Or consider her “hiring” of a chief innovation officer for her cabinet one step removed from government by being housed in the RI College Foundation.

It would be one thing if the governor were merely expressing support for some private-sector initiative, but instead, she’s acting through a shadow government serving unknowable interests and a far too obvious ideology.

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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.

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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.

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