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Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.

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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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“Raimondo” Certainly Not Synonymous with “Transparency”

Thanks to the indefatigable John Vitkevich, of Portsmouth, for pursuing information about Governor Gina Raimondo’s blue campaign signs, posted at taxpayer expense under the pretense of providing transparency as to the progress of RhodeWorks progress.  As Kathy Gregg reports in the Providence Journal, it has taken action by the attorney general’s office to make the governor be transparent about the signs:*

Of DOT’s unwillingness to identify the state account that paid for the signs, Special Assistant Attorney General Sean Lyness wrote: “We confess some unease. The DOT has consistently indicated that it maintains no documents responsive to this request… Nonetheless, there is some cost to the State of Rhode Island for these signs and it is axiomatic that this cost – assuming it is paid with State funds – must come from some budget line item(s).”

After finding DOT, in fact, had “an Excel spreadsheet of the costs″ for the signs, Lyness wrote: “Under the DOT’s interpretation, this running tally of signage costs could be withheld as a ‘draft’ indefinitely. This interpretation contravenes the definition of the term ‘draft,’ which contemplates an eventual completed document.”

The Raimondo administration’s arguments are audacious and insulting, with the insinuation that the state government could develop an entire program and pay for it without ever producing a document that the public has a right to see.  The hope, one presumes, is to make “citizen-critics” like Vitkevich just go away.  We need more people who just won’t.

 

*  Obviously, this assumes that the Raimondo administration doesn’t attempt to defy the AG’s ruling.

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Center Blasts Newest Truck Toll Tyranny; RIDOT’s Laughable Denial

It has come to light that, on August 11, RIDOT *corrected* requested a hearing, scheduled for today, to issue commercial truck route restrictions within the state. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity (for whom I am Communications Manager) has just issued a statement strongly condemning this. It says, in part,

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Trump Administration Gives Hope to Property Rights Advocates

Paul Mirengoff, of PowerLine, notes that Secretary Ben Carson’s Housing and Urban Development department (HUD) is moving in a direction that should please anybody who was concerned about the implications of RhodeMap RI:

Here’s a reminder of why [even Trump critics on the Right should be happy that he beat Hillary Clinton]. Yesterday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that his agency will “reinterpret” the ultra-instrusive Obama housing rule known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). The rule was designed by the Obama administration to seize federal control over local zoning for the purpose of creating neighborhoods that comply with the left’s race-based vision of where people should live. We discussed it here, among other places.

Secretary Carson didn’t say exactly how he plans to “reinterpret” AFFH. However, he told the Washington Examiner that he doesn’t believe in the “manipulation” associated with the rule or with the burdens it imposes on local communities. As a candidate for president, he called it “a doomed-to-fail attempt to “legislate racial equality.”

Mirengoff is right to subsequently warn that “reinterpreting” a rule is a softer protection than simply canceling it, but a step in the right direction is clearly better than a jump in the wrong one, which a different administration might have brought about.

That point, however, brings us back to an inexhaustible theme that conservatives must wake up reminding ourselves:  Our real work is cultural and in education.  As long as we continue to allow the Left to pervert the minds of younger generations as if they are invading aliens, the assaults on our liberty will return like a plague every decade or so, when the politic mood shifts.

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Penn Station and the CCRI Observatory: Where the Money Goes

Boy, taxes and the cost of government must have really fallen for this to be the case:

Penn Station is just one symptom of a larger illness. With an aging subway system subject to a recent state-of-emergency order by Cuomo, and a 67-year-old bus terminal called “appalling” and “functionally obsolete” by officials of the agency that runs it, the New York area’s transportation systems embody America’s inability, or unwillingness, to address its aging infrastructure.

Of course, far from shrinking, the cost of government has exploded over the lives of Penn Station and the bus station, so where is the money going?  In brief, our tax dollars are being redirected to pet projects, progressive redistribution, and (I would say) special deals that amount to outright theft.  A core tenet of blue-state spending is that the people will always accept more debt and higher costs if the last things they get to pay for are the things they find most critical.

We don’t have to go to the Big Apple or major infrastructure for the lesson.  Take a look at this somewhat-cryptic Providence Journal article by Alex Kuffner:

The Community College of Rhode Island organized an open house on Saturday at its Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory to celebrate the completion of a $45,000 renovation that included a new control desk, new seating and repairs to the roof-opening mechanism. …

But the event was clouded by a demonstration outside the observatory’s doors by faculty members and students who protested what they allege is mistreatment of the astronomy professor who has overseen operation of the observatory for the past decade. …

Britton was hired in 2007 to teach astronomy to students and to operate the observatory for his classes and on nights when it’s open to the public. Last month, when the administration changed the way he would be compensated for the public nights, resulting in less pay, he balked.

Kuffner never details the change, but the context suggests that the college may now be paying only a non-faculty rate for the public night.  That is, a special deal has gone away.

One needn’t look far at all to find other examples.

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Huge Generator: RIDOT Recommended The Engineering Firm That Missed Five Bridges

You may have seen the huge, yellow tarp-covered generator that has been parked on the side of Route 95 north just past Route 4. It’s been the cause of lots of rubber-necking. Then came the news a couple of days ago that it had been pulled over by RIDOT while traveling and ordered not to advance because it is very heavy – 560,000 pounds.

John Tassoni, speaking for the company that is moving the generator, was on the WPRO Morning News with Gene Valicenti this morning. And he shared some eye-opening information about how the generator came to be side-lined.

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Not Just Spending, but That Upon Which It Is Spent

Reading about Illinois’s budget problems a little earlier today, an association nagged at the corner of my mind, and I remembered something from Table 5 of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) report comparing the states.  Specifically, in fiscal year 2015, Illinois was near the top of the list when it came to the percentage of its budget spent on “other” expenditures — that is, things other than elementary & secondary education, higher education, public assistance, Medicaid, corrections, and transportation.

The states higher than Illinois seem generally to have unique circumstances (Wyoming, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii), and with 43.7% of the budget going to “other” expenditures, Illinois is way up there.  What’s apt to catch a Rhode Islander’s attention is that our state is only two ranks behind Illinois (after Nevada), with 42.1%.

That, if you’re wondering, is the highest in New England.  The percentages across New England are interesting, particularly in the degree to which they scuttle some clichés.

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Two conspicuous myth busters are Massachusetts’s relatively low spending on education and Rhode Island’s relatively high spending on higher education.  Also conspicuous is Rhode Island’s low spending on transportation.

Overall, though, notice that, with the exception of higher education, Rhode Island is typically in the bottom tier for all categories, to the benefit of “other.”

What is this “other”?  And why do we need so much of it?

Of course, we need to keep in mind that these percentages might be a little misleading, inasmuch as the amount of total spending will make a big difference.  Nonetheless, the results are interesting.

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One Hundred New State Jobs Would Only Perpetuate Failures & Failed Approach

Both the proven failure of a budget-centric approach and Governor Raimondo’s dismal public policy track record should give the General Assembly real pause when considering her reported request for one hundred new state hires – and other initiatives, past and prospective.

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General Assembly Must Step In – Tolls Have Taken A Dangerous Turn

Below is a statement that StopTollsRI.com (for which I am spokesperson) placed on its Facebook page last night. The R.I. Trucking Association and the American Trucking Association have announced that they would wait until all 30+ toll gantries were installed before they would challenge the legality of truck tolls in court. This alarming development first came to light Thursday night in testimony before House Finance. See Mike Collins’ testimony starting at approximately minute 1:52:40.

Tolls have taken a dangerous turn for Rhode Island residents and taxpayers. It is now imperative that state legislators and General Assembly leadership step in for the good of the state and end the truck toll program.

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Why Did RIDOT Replace the Bridge? Because It’s There.

So, we had no choice but to implement a new series of tolls on trucks under Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks program because the state doesn’t have any spare money and we don’t have time to spare before roads and bridges crumble dangerously.  Right?

If that’s the story, this is difficult to understand:

Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell is calling for the immediate formation of an independent oversight committee to review bridge inspection information related to project selection under the RhodeWorks truck-only tolling plan.  …

The bridge is located on Interstate 95 in the area of the Thurbers Avenue curve. It is a 50-foot overpass that will undergo superstructure replacement at a cost of $5.7 million dollars.

“The Oxford Street Bridge has a 72% sufficiency rating which means it’s in very good shape. We have very serious concerns as to why RIDOT selected this location to spend our industry’s toll money and our taxpayer’s limited funds to essentially replace a structure that is in good condition while other bridges in our state are crumbling,” said Maxwell.

Like Tara Granahan, I’m not sure I understand why the state would have to replace the bridge in order to put toll gantries on it, which is the scheme that Maxwell alleges.  Still, if there isn’t some ulterior motive, it ought to be a relatively simple matter for the Dept. of Transportation to clarify its reasoning, no?

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Eminent Domain as a Stadium Negotiating Tactic

Ethan Shorey presents, in a Valley Breeze article, another wrinkle in the PawSox stadium issue that gives the whole thing a “not at this point, thanks” kind of feel:

There is now increasing likelihood that the city would need to pursue buying the property through the eminent domain process, where officials would have to make a convincing argument that the property is needed for the public’s good. …

Officials are seeking to “reach a fair, negotiated purchase with the owner of the Apex property without the necessity of a taking through eminent domain, but all options will remain on the table in order to ensure that the people of Rhode Island are not denied this important public venue,” said Grebien.

So, the property owner has offered a price that represents the value of the sale to him, and the city government is using its power to simply seize property as a negotiating tactic.  The mayor’s amplifying the idea that placing a stadium on this specific property is an “important public” good should make warning flags go up.

People who own any property that might conceivably be attractive to politicians for their investment ventures are on notice that the government ultimately believes the property to be its own.  Recall that the RhodeMap RI plan included maps that made no distinction between public and private property — simply putting down the planners’ vision with the assumption that the government would end up owning anything they chose.

One misconception that the government is conveniently promoting is that the value of the property is its assessment… by the government.  The value of a property is the point at which the seller’s desire to give up the property meets the buyer’s desire to own it.  If a particular piece of land is critical to a government project, the fact that the owner is negotiating with “the people” does not change this dynamic.

To the extent that eminent domain is sparingly reasonable, it’s to prevent abuse around real necessities.  A person who owns the last acre of land to complete an important roadway, for example, would have unreasonable leverage.  A baseball stadium simply doesn’t reach that level.

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About the Other Stadium…

Tim White raises an important point that seems to have been avoiding discussion related to the PawSox deal:

If approved, there will be another cost associated with building a new stadium in downtown Pawtucket to host the PawSox: tearing down McCoy Stadium.

The city of Pawtucket owns the land that 75-year-old McCoy is on, and officials have indicated there are no plans to keep the ballpark if the PawSox leave, whether by moving across town to the proposed Apex site or out of state.

The options on table range from likely to certain to require more government money and debt.  Rebuilding the high school on the spot will mean a big bond and a state taxpayer fund match and still leave the city with a plot of land to repurpose or dispose of.  A private buyer would probably negotiate and receive subsidies for some part of the property redevelopment.  Or just leaving it alone will mean a tax-free chunk of land in the city.

Whatever the final ask for the new stadium is, don’t forget that the project isn’t done with taxpayers, yet.

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Live by Cronyism, Die by Cronyism

GoLocal is reporting that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island plans to move a good chunk of its Providence workforce to East Providence:

Despite making promises to the City of Providence in 2007 to centralize its work force in its gleaming $125 million tower, Blue Cross Blue Shield of RI confirmed late Tuesday that it will be moving more than 125 jobs out of Providence to East Providence.

The Blue Cross Tower is assessed at $46 million, but only pays a portion of its tax obligation because of a generous twenty-year tax stabilization.

Average residents tend to get caught up in rhetoric and lose sight of basic realities like incentives.  Although individual workers and executives do take morality and personal fulfillment into consideration, private businesses ultimately exist to make money (whether for profit or non-profit).  If they don’t do that, they don’t get to do what it is they do.  Likewise, politicians’ have to gather votes and political support, otherwise they lose both their livelihoods and ability to accomplish what they want.

So, when a particular arrangement is no longer optimal for a business, given other opportunities, it will walk away from deals.  And when a politician comes into office who didn’t make a particular deal and is building a different base of support, the dynamic changes from that direction.

Public policy should therefore build beneficial incentives and then let people work out their deals in a free market.  From cutting deals for office buildings to reshaping an entire population for the benefit of a sugar-daddy industries (through, for example, “free tuition”), it is utter folly to accept central planners’ promises that the people can make out in the long run.

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 5: Branding Raimondo & Free Tuition

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were my column on the “free tuition” plan, Raimondo’s free branding help from the Providence Journal, and more on the PawSox scheme.
Click full post link for audio.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, April 18, at 2:00 p.m.

(Note: Graphic parody of the Providence Journal‘s free promotional work for Governor Raimondo.)

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Talking Yourself into Too Much Debt for Baseball

Obviously, there are some differences between a city-funded facility for a double-A minor league baseball team and a state-funded stadium for a triple-A team, but Joseph De Avila’s Wall Street Journal article on the Hartford Yard Goats caught my attention yesterday because it illustrates some of the perils:

Hartford, a city of about 124,000 residents that is facing a fiscal crisis and a high poverty rate, is on the hook for $68.6 million in bonds issued to cover most of the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

Mayor Luke Bronin, a Democrat who opposed the stadium but is now reluctantly dealing with it, said the ballpark alone will never generate enough money to pay back the debt. The original idea was that surrounding development will generate funds to pay off the loans and bring in additional tax revenue for the city.

Given the incentives and structure of government, advocates for some big expenditure have a narrow objective to get a project approved.  They just need some authority — whether an elected official or an electorate passing a ballot initiative — to give the go ahead.  Then, decision-making enters a weird realm beyond the reach of the people actually paying the bill, but with a those in charge obligated to continue on the public behalf.

So, we start out with promises and grand visions and wind up scrambling just to make something work without loosing too much money.

Mr. Bronin plans to borrow $20 million in bonds in the coming weeks to cover a shortfall in the city’s budget, and next year the city is already projecting a $65 million deficit.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Bronin said: “There is no question it’s better for the city to have a baseball park than a vacant parking lot.”

Why is there “no question”?  Hartford is now borrowing money for operating expenses.  That’s insane.  Unfortunately, many people have a vision of government in which it is a means of doing things that really make no sense at all.

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Leader Patricia Morgan Files Bill to Repeal (Clearly Unnecessary) Tolls

On behalf of all Rhode Islanders, thanks to Minority Leader Patricia Morgan for filing a bill to repeal RhodeWorks’ truck (wink) tolls. (See her statement after the jump.)

Governor Gina Raimondo asserted the need for tolls as a financial necessity to repair state bridges which were/are some of the worst in the country but, by golly, we just don’t have the will to find the money in the state budget (even though it’s a MAJOR public safety issue, danger, danger, Will Robinson).

However, the governor has decisively rebutted her own assertions about the fiscal necessity of tolls, as StopTollsRI.com (disclosure: I act as their spokesperson) pointed out in a letter to the Providence Journal on Sunday, by proposing a brand new, $30M/year spending program.

“Free” college tuition is at best nice to have (and it certainly would not solve the state’s employee skills gap, as the governor claims). If there is money in the budget for an expensive nice-to-have item, then it is clear that there is money for a less expensive vital service such as bridge repairs.

Legislators can now vote to repeal tolls, secure in the knowledge that public safety did not necessitate the passage of this highly destructive new revenue stream and confident that the money can be found in the budget to repair the state’s unsafe bridges. The governor has helpfully done this hard work for them.

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Is Reduced Traffic Another Bad Indicator?

News, reported recently by the Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson, that Rhode Island’s highways are getting less usage seems like it could be another bad indicator:

The total miles driven in 2016 was the second lowest in the last six years, only behind the 7.677 billion miles traveled in 2014. Rhode Island driving, which includes trips by both commercial and passenger vehicles, topped 7.9 billion miles in 2011.

Two thoughts come to mind in a negative direction.  First, movement tends to indicate productive activity, which would seem to indicate that Rhode Island is losing ground, economically, and which is certainly in keeping with the stagnation of our employment situation.  Second, to the extent that the reduction in miles driven derives from commercial trucks, that could signal problems for the RhodeWorks scheme, increasing the likelihood of tolls on cars.

One thought that could potentially be positive is that I’d be interested to see how Rhode Island has fared, compared with other states, on the number of people telecommuting.  If, more than the national average, Rhode Islanders are working from home, that could account for some of the disparity in a way that doesn’t portend gloom and doom.

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Catching Up to My Traffic Observations, Government Still Shouldn’t Take Action

Back in 2013, I expressed frustration with Rhode Islanders’ willingness to merge early before a lane reduction and let “scum” take advantage of them by driving up the open lane to the very end and described the results when I decide to be a traffic vigilante:

I’ve tended to take that on as a cause of one.  Wherever my place should be, that’s where I stay, but in my own lane, with the length of empty road before me.  Without fail, as soon as the remaining scum in front of my blockade have been absorbed, the line, which had previously been at a standstill, begins to move smoothly.

But as proven by their waving arms and the number of times that I’ve had to sneak on to side roads to avoid road rage once the obstacle had been passed, the scum apparently feel that the moral advantage has been passed to them.  I am at fault, in their eyes, for preventing them from taking advantage of everybody else.

Well, whaddaya know:

There’s a growing consensus among many state transportation officials that when a lane closure is looming, getting drivers to use all available lanes until the point where cars need to merge can keep traffic moving more efficiently and safely, and even cut down on road rage.

The article is too delicate to explain the mechanism that makes it less efficient and safe when drivers get over too soon, but it’s clear nonetheless.  But come on, folks, we shouldn’t need government to cajole us into orderly cooperation.  If one individual out of every 50 or so drivers is willing to stand up to the scum, we’ll solve the problem entirely through private action and civil society.

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Watching the Planners

If there’s a state government agency on which Rhode Islanders should keep a watchful eye, but that slip below the radar most of the time, it’s the State Planning Council.  Roland Lavallee has been providing some eyes and ears:

The State Planning Council is proposing changes to the Transportation Improvement Program known as TIP. The proposed changes to the guide plans would severely limit public input on future transportation projects. The limitations would include a reduction in time for public notice to hearings from 30 days to 10, eliminate hearings at the planning stage, remove requirements for public workshops for applicants and to shorten the public comment period.

He’s posted additional video here and the edited planning document is here.

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