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Needing a GPS to Navigate the Law

In April, I noted my wife’s ticket in Massachusetts for holding her cell phone in her hand in order to better follow audio GPS directions.  Surprisingly, although we requested a court date to contest the ticket, we haven’t heard anything yet.  Meanwhile, judges in Rhode Island are coming to conclusions unhelpful to our cause:

In a decision that has drawn criticism from some in the defense community, a three-magistrate panel upheld a finding that an East Providence man violated a state law banning text messaging while driving when a state trooper spotted him using his GPS.

If upheld, the tribunal’s reading of the law would make Rhode Island the only state in the nation to ban any manipulation of a cell phone by drivers, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. However, talking on a cellphone — an activity that many other states prohibit unless a hands-free device is used — is still allowed.

In Rhode Island, naturally, the problem is compounded by bad drafting of the law, with a definition of “text messaging” as “the process by which users send, read, or receive messages on a wireless handset, including, but not limited to, text messages, instant messages, electronic messages, or e-mails, in order to communicate with any person or device.”  Where the judge’s decision is specious lies in the fact that GPS already exists, so legislators could reasonably have been expected to put it on the list of examples.  “Not limited to,” in this reading, would be a phrase intending to cover some innovation in technology or obscure messaging application that might arise to skirt the law.

Sadly, this is how law gets made, and it probably has been.  The difference was that the law attempted to do much less in the past, leaving people less susceptible to being caught in such interpretations.


Union Dislike for the Ethics Commission’s Independence

Here’s an interesting commentary by National Education Association Rhode Island honcho Robert Walsh on the proposed constitutional amendment in Rhode Island to give the Ethics Commission authority over the General Assembly, as highlighted on Twitter by local progressive Sam Bell:

… ever since the Ethics Commission tried to stop any Union MEMBER for voting on any issue related to unions the potential for mischief was clear.  An unelected 4th branch of government that makes regulations, enforces them, hears violations, and renders judgement? A constitutional abomination.

My gut inclination is to agree with Walsh on the Ethics Commission.  My own disenchantment came when the commission ruled, essentially, that government employment can never be considered a corruptible activity itself.  If a town solicitor, for example, plays both sides of a trial when a business associate or family member is brought up on some sort of violation before the city or town that he or she serves, then that’s corrupt, but if the business associate is another government employee abusing his or her position, then that’s perfectly fine.

But the peculiarity comes in the fact that government of the progressive, union-dominated type that Walsh prefers is practically built upon unelected agencies making regulations, enforcing them, hearing them as judges, and imposing consequences.  The Dept. of Education does this.  The Labor Relations Board does, too, as does the Department of Labor and Training and probably every single agency, in its own capacity.  This isn’t a problem for progressives; it’s the plan.

That leads me to suspect that Walsh’s real problem with the Ethics Commission is that its makeup and structure may allow it to make decisions from time to time in ways that go against the system that RI insiders prefer.  That’s almost enough to make me a modestly enthusiastic, rather than tepid, supporter of the amendment.


Sheeple Index – 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly

Despite policies that have caused the Ocean State to suffer with the 50th ranked business climate, the 48th rank on the Family Prosperity Index, and the 48th rank on the Center’s Jobs & Opportunity Index, our new 2016 “Sheeple” Index demonstrates that there is scant dissent among Rhode Island lawmakers who vote for such policies. The 2016 “Sheeple” Index is a collaboration between WatchdogRI.org and our Center. In a healthy democracy, there should be a rigorous debate of diverse policies. Sadly, and conversely in Rhode Island, it seems that when leadership authorizes bills to move forward, legislators feel compelled to automatically support them.

An alarming number of lawmakers vote in lock-step with leadership here in the Ocean State.


Be Sure to Vote Your Sheeple Back into Office

Year in and year out, we watch bills pass the General Assembly with little or no opposition, raising the unavoidable conclusions that (1) the General Assembly is a corrupt enterprise, and (2) our elected senators and representatives don’t really get the role that they and government generally should be playing in our society.  (That’s a purposefully inflammatory construction; one could say they just have different political philosophies, which is ultimately mere semantic spin.)

A study published yesterday by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity in cooperation with WatchDog RI found a shocking lack of divergence from the preferences of the senate and house leaders. As the following charts show, only 5% of senators and 11% of representatives voted with the leaders of their chambers less than 75% of the time.  (The list of legislation reviewed removes resolutions and marriage solemnization bills.)



Even limiting the bills just to those on which there was at least enough controversy for one legislator to vote against the Senate president or House speaker (or miss the vote), 78% of senators and 68% of representatives voted with leadership on at least three out of every four votes.

Given the condition of our state, there are really only two possibilities, here:  Either our elected legislators waste our time fiddling with legislation that is so benign that it generates no substantial disagreement or opposition, or they aren’t representing the people of Rhode Island, with all of our diverse interests and perspectives, but rather a narrow band of special interests who can be corralled into agreement on bills that help them while harming the rest of us.


The 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly Freedom Index

It is a result of the failed status quo of increased government intervention in our personal and business lives that the Ocean State ranks so poorly on so many national indexes. It is not acceptable that we rank 50th with the worst business climate in the nation, 48th on the national Family Prosperity Index, and 47th on the Center’s Jobs & Opportunity Index. It is up to voters to review all the data, and decide whether or not to hold lawmakers accountable for their voting records this November. This trend is exemplified by continued deeply negative overall General Assembly scores on our 2016 Freedom Index.

Loaded with information that will be useful to voters this fall, the Freedom Index is part of our larger transparency initiative. The index examines legislators’ votes in terms of their likely effect on the freedom in the Ocean State.


And Now on to the General Election and More Debt

With the general election now the next big event (if the primaries in Rhode Island can even be said to be a big event), I took a look at the bonds that will be on the November ballot.  In total, we’ve got $227.5 million (nearly a quarter-billion dollars) in new debt that Rhode Islanders will likely approve, not including the tens of millions more that municipalities are surely seeking.

That’s crazy.  Government bonds are one area of democratic action that make me mildly sympathetic to progressive inclinations to limit the franchise to those with some basic knowledge.  They’re also a reason I wonder if progressives might be incorrect to assume a more-educated electorate would tend in their direction.  What might voters do differently if they understood that debt isn’t just free money to spend on feel-good projects?

Making matters worse, these bonds aren’t just desperate attempts to gain money to build things for which the state should have budgeted with regular revenue; some of them are clearly policy issues.  How many voters, I wonder, would really want to supply the state government with borrowed money to buy up even more property in the state?

Would voters really fall for these schemes if they took the time to consider just how much of it will (or at least can) become subsidies for private businesses — from the URI “innovation campuses” to help private businesses use public-university research to come up with new products and services for a profit to the government purchase and discounted resale of farmland to improvement of ports that benefit a limited number of businesses at public expense?  All of these things benefit narrow groups at the expense of everybody else.

Even more concerning is that, when you add them all together, the picture becomes one not of a few included groups siphoning off public resources, but a comprehensive system that ultimately excludes those who don’t receive some sort of public aid.  If you’re an ordinary Rhode Islander who wants to know who those excluded parties are, take a look at your latest selfie.

Apparently every hyper-informed person in every ideological group believes that the public would agree with his or her beliefs if only people were better educated, but I can’t help but think that my ideological group is correct in that belief.  As the saying goes, everybody’s conservative when it comes to the things he or she knows best.  I simply don’t believe that people who’d been shown the corrupt, incestuous connections building into a web that ensnares our freedom and opportunity would continue to support such things… or the politicians and organizations who work so hard to make them a reality.


The 38 Studios Misfire

Putting together the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s 38 Studios scorecard, the peculiarity of the whole matter reared its head.  Most folks who’ve watched the controversy closely know that the Economic Development Corp.’s (EDC) loan guarantee program first arose in a supplemental budget, but the details aren’t widely understood.  Here are some findings that don’t entirely jibe with the common recollection:

  • The increase of the $50 million program to $125 million — to surreptitiously cover the 38 Studios bonds — was not slipped in as a floor amendment during the infamous floor session at which Republican Representative Robert Watson of East Greenwich stood as the lone “nay” vote when the bill came back around a second time.  It was part of article 7 in the SubA bill (2010 7105) that the House Finance Committee sent to the floor with the supplemental budget.
  • More representatives voted against the program in the supplemental on April 13, 2010, than as a separate bill, although all but one apparently changed their views when the bill came up again:
    • Rod Driver
    • Larry Ehrhardt
    • Robert Jacquard
    • Charlene Lima
    • Brian Newberry
    • Robert Watson
  • Cranston Democrat Lima even put in an amendment that would have required disclosure of any elected officials who contacted the EDC on behalf of any company seeking to participate in the program, and 25 representatives voted for it (which is a relatively large vote for an insurgent amendment).
  • The Senate actually did pass the supplemental budget, on April 14, but oddly didn’t transmit it to the governor.

The immediate question that the Center had to consider for its scorecard was whether to count these votes.  Ultimately, we decided not to do so because, in the weird circumstances, it never became law.  Even if, for example, Lima’s floor amendment had passed, it wouldn’t have been part of the law because she didn’t resubmit it to the version of the statute that made it into law.

Had we counted the supplemental, some legislators would have edged a grade up or down, but no incumbents.  Moreover, in the discussion over the years, the public has generally considered the 38 Studios controversy as having begun with the freestanding bill that actually made it to the governor’s desk.

Reviewing the history, though, does make one wonder who knew what, back then, and why an issue that did spark some push-back in April seemed to zip right through when it came around again in May.


Check out Your Legislator on the “38 Studios Legislator Scorecard”

The public is outraged that there has been zero accountability on the 38 Studios issue. The insiders have failed to provide any transparency by releasing the 38 Studios documents. The Center is now offering our own version of transparency by publishing a new scorecard that tracks and grades the voting records of lawmakers on the 38 Studios affair. Many people consider it extremely hypocritical for any lawmaker who rated an F or D on this scorecard for their past record to now jump on the band-wagon by calling for the Attorney General or Governor to release the documents.

Despite the johnny-come-lately calls from many lawmakers for the release of documents from the government’s 38 Studios Investigation, 81 of the 113 sitting General Assembly lawmakers graded an “F” on their related voting records. On the scorecard, we documented and scored legislative votes on 15 related bills, amendments, and budgets since 2010 related to the 38 Studios disaster. There have been many missed opportunities for transparency. Why do they feel they have to protect the political machine?

As we approach the November elections, we’re providing voters with the voting records of their elected officials so they can decide whether or not to hold them accountable. It is up to you to choose if you want to change the Ocean State. Overall, of the 178 lawmakers, 132 graded an F, 10 a D, 8 a C, 6 a B, and 14 an A. You can see the full scorecard by clicking here now.

Rhode Islanders have had enough of the insider machine. It is time to make a complete turnaround. We must adopt an open and transparent public policy culture that can make our state a place where our families can be prosperous. The 38 Studios disaster is the perfect example of everything wrong with the way our state is being run. You do not have to tolerate the cronyism and elitist attitude any longer. Don’t be on the sidelines. The rigged system in the Ocean State has kept too many people out of the process. Now is the time for you to speak out and demand that the status quo changes.

[Mike Stenhouse is the CEO of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity.]


Ray Mathieu: Not Too Late to Default on 38 Studios and Force Investigations

Taxpayers are and should be outraged not only at the final “findings”, or rather lack of findings, resulting from the conclusion of the multi-year investigation of the 38 Studios fiasco, but also at the lack of transparency surrounding the investigation. Based upon what professional bond investment managers have told me, I have stated repeatedly since long before the first bond payment was ever made that the only way to have a thoroughly independent, full-blown professional investigation would be to default on the bond payments, thereby forcing the bond insurance companies, who would wind up paying these bonds, to perform their own deep investigation.

Of course, The Powers That Be did not want that, for fear of the real truth coming out, so they used the fear mongering excuse that the state’s bond rating would be adversely affected if we defaulted on the bonds. While, as I’ve been advised, it may be true that the rating of moral obligation bonds like the 38 Studios bonds, which are not backed by the full faith and credit of the State and, therefore, do not carry a low tax-exempt interest rate but rather a much higher and fully taxable interest rate, may be adversely affected, we should not be issuing anymore of these moral obligation bonds anyway. Such bonds are approved by the legislature so the debt can be issued without requiring voter approval. Needless to say, after the result of the 38 Studio investment, the practice of issuing bonds without voter approval should be curtailed permanently.

As I have been also advised, the ratings of the state’s general obligation bonds may also be affected by a default on the 38 Studios moral obligation bonds, even though general obligations require voter approval and are backed by the full faith and credit of the state. Even so, the possible potential increase in the amount of interest the state may have to pay on potential future bonds not even yet issued would be far less than the $90 million we are currently paying on the 38 Studios bonds, and the state would have avoided what now appears to be a cover up.

If the governor and state treasurer had stepped up and done the smart thing by defaulting on the bond payments initially, the taxpayers could have saved tens of millions of dollars and would have had the results of a professional insurance investigation made public years ago.

It is still not too late to default on the remaining 38 Studios bond payments and, thereby, force the bond insurers to give us the full investigation the taxpayers deserve and reduce the cost of this fiasco to the taxpayers.


Ray Matheiu is an independent candidate for RI state representative in district 1.


Bike Paths, Lights, Sustainability – RhodeWorks Tolls Turn into Huge Bait-And-Switch

Am I going crazy? (Don’t answer that!) Didn’t Governor Gina Raimondo sell us on her unnecessary and highly destructive RhodeWorks toll plan by saying that the money would go to repair our very unsafe (oh so unsafe; most unsafe in this quadrant of the galaxy) bridges? But look at this RhodeWorks Quarterly Report!

Bike paths, lights, guardrails, road re-paving, something called “I-95 Sustainability” – RhodeWorks is being spent on all kinds of projects, not just bridge repair. Remarkably, there is even a RIDOT sign that CONFIRMS money from the RhodeWorks/Toll Project is being spent on a bike path!

What the heck??? Tolls were supposed to go to our unsafe bridges! Where did all of these other projects come from?


ME vs. RI: A State Works by Making Work Work

In The Daily Signal, Rachel Sheffield highlights some states that have taken the lead in reconnecting welfare programs (notably SNAP, or “food stamps”), with the inclusion of New England’s own Maine:

The decline in food stamp rolls between March and April of this year follows the re-establishment of work requirements in a number of states. On Jan. 1, 22 states had to reinstate the federal work requirement for areas of the state or the entire state because their waivers expired.

Some states did not wait until their waiver to end, however. Instead, they took a proactive approach to ensure that able-bodied adults were encouraged toward work.

Maine, one of the most proactive states in reinstating work requirements for food stamps, saw its caseload of able-bodied adults without dependents decrease by 80 percent within just a few months after re-establishing the work requirement.

Readers who’ve paid attention to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) won’t find Maine’s inclusion surprising.  From 2012 to the latest report, Maine has climbed from 32nd in the country on the index (for which SNAP enrollment is one of 13 indicators), and second-to-last in New England, to 17th in the country, which is second best in New England.  Overall, Maine’s SNAP enrollment dropped 24% over that period (60,441 people), compared with a 5% (8,592 people) reduction in Rhode Island.

Starting with the year of Maine’s SNAP policy change (2014), Mainers have benefited from a 16% reduction in state and local taxes, while Rhode Islanders have endured a 10% increase, according to U.S. Census data.

These differences are starting to make a real difference to the people of the respective states.  Per the underlying data for JOI, the first six months of this year have brought Maine a nine-times-larger increase in employment, compared with Rhode Island, while jobs in the state have increased there, while decreasing here.  Personal income in Maine is up 2.36%, compared with only 1.85% in Rhode Island.

Whether these comparisons — like comparisons with states that have implemented right-to-work policies — will show an expanding disparity between a state that is making positive, small-government, free-market reforms and one that is not, those of us who live in Rhode Island should begin demanding that we no longer be the control group for these tests of economic policy.


Riding ObamaCare Down the Mountain with No Brakes

According to data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the number of Rhode Islanders enrolled in Medicaid/CHIP increased by 126,486, that’s an 81% jump, from December 2008 to March 2016, and the total is rapidly approaching 30% of our entire population.  Almost one in three people.

This gigantic surge resulted from the state government’s decisions to jump into the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion with both feet (and no public debate) and then to advertise its new exchange so aggressively and draw new Medicaid recipients into the system.  Granted the federal government picks up more than half the tab for non-expansion enrollees and will perpetually pay most of the cost for expansion enrollees, but ratcheting up the recipient side of the equation spells trouble for the payer side of the equation at both the state and federal levels.

That’s especially true because, nationally, original projections for the expansion were way low, even on a per-enrollee basis:

… By 2022, projected per enrollee costs for this newly eligible population is more than 40 percent higher in the 2015 report than it was in the previous two years. The outer years of this projection are most important from the state perspective because it is when they will begin to bear some of the costs of the Medicaid expansion population. States that have moved forward with the Medicaid expansion might be forced to pursue significant fiscal adjustments to other aspects of their Medicaid programs, or to other components of their budgets.

In short, we’ve got more beneficiaries than expected costing more money each than expected.  Where do lawmakers expect to find the money to cover this program?

Let’s play the “making matters worse” card, too.  Stephen Green highlights several stories finding that fewer people are signing up for payed ObamaCare plans, and they’re less healthy than hoped (costing more to insure and care for).  Meanwhile, ObamaCare is also strangling innovators and forcing small players to hand cash directly to major players with inside connections, like Blue Cross.

ObamaCare and Rhode Island’s full embrace of it were terrible, terrible ideas, and we’re all going to pay for it.  Unfortunately, precious few will understand the source of our pain, and progressives and partisan Democrats (whose party is fully responsible for the result) will work overtime (often on our dime) to distract people and prevent them from allocating responsibility where it belongs.


Support for Families More Effective than Government Co-parenting

Grover Whitehurst of Brookings has made an attempt to compare research findings concerning the effects of different programs on the test scores of young students, and the findings conflict with the progressive preference for increasingly moving responsibility away from people and toward government:


Whitehurst suggests:

The results illustrated in the graph suggest that family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades. The finding that family financial support enhances academic achievement in the form of test scores is consistent with other research on the impact of the EITC showing impacts on later outcomes such as college enrollment.

The most important takeaway from this is that it reinforces conservatives’ contention that government should not seek to displace parents, relieving them of responsibility for raising their children.  Government policy should seek to strengthen families.

Of course, the fact that this would tend to reduce the influence of government and (therefore) progressives leads me to expect Whitehurst’s research not to have a significant effect on progressive policies.  Indeed, in his subsequent discussion, Whitehurst endeavors to speculate that imposing restrictions on families’ use of the funding would be even more effective than simply improving their financial standing. However, if giving parents money is so much more effective than public funding of pre-school programs, one might question Whitehurst’s belief that letting the public funding stop in the parents’ accounts for a moment would be better than both approaches.

Note, too, the limits of Whitehurst’s consideration.  The first and irreducible assumption is that government must do something to bring about specific social outcomes.  If supporting families through broad welfare that is largely free of strings is so much more effective than building government programs, one might expect even greater rewards from getting government out of the way of families.  Let people act in the economy without the weight of high taxes and oppressive regulations; allow communities and states to determine their own economic and social policies; allow the society, broadly, to follow cultural traditions that have proven, over time, to be the healthiest for human society (such as the traditional institution of marriage).

Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to test for and make charts of the effects of progressive redistribution on the whole society.  Researchers can’t know (to simplify) that taking EITC money out of the economy wound up hurting other families, resulting in worse test scores.  Still, taking in all of the evidence, the weight of it suggests that leaving people free is not only the most moral approach, respecting civil rights, but is also likely to prove to be the most effective system by any standard apart from the wealth and power of government.


Katz’s Kitchen Sink: But Bountiful Parody Song

As the fiscal year comes to a close for the State of Rhode Island and most municipalities in June, it’s ever more clear that civic life in Rhode Island revolves around government budgets.  For insiders, town, city, and state budgets represent their hopes and dreams — often their livelihoods.  For everybody else, though, they can be a time of dread, as the impossibility of real change is affirmed, cherished programs are threatened (if you’re on that side of the ledger), or more money is confiscated from your bank account (if you’re on the other side of the ledger).

Herewith, a parody song to the tune of “But Beautiful,” inaugurating a somewhat regular new video series, “Katz’s Kitchen Sink,” which will feature whatever sort of content I think might be useful to throw at the problems of the Ocean State — songs, short skits, commentary, or whatever.

Download an mp3 file of this song.

But Bountiful

A budget’s taxes, or it’s pay
Handouts are credits or giveaways
We’re investing, or we save
But bountiful

Bountiful, our industry’s bureaucracies we run
It’s a budget you have no choice but to fund

A budget appropriates, or it steals
Votes are traded in backroom deals
Nobody’s sure just what’s real
But bountiful

And I’m thinking if I had chips, I’d cash them in for gold
And take them to a more bountiful abode


Taking the “Predatory” Out of Lending

Although I can’t find the offending essay, just now, some years back, I upset some people by suggesting that the attack on payday loans was taking the wrong direction by using government to shut the practice down.  As I’ve also noted, such approaches tend to address what activists see as a problem without addressing (or even seeking) the underlying incentives.  As a result they can make things worse by, for example, denying opportunity to somebody whose specific interests might actually be served by a short-term loan at very high interest.

I noticed, in particular, that while all of the activists were sure that the terms of such loans were unfair, none of them appeared interested in providing high-risk, short-term loans at better rates, whether as a better business model or by writing off any losses as charity.  If the argument is that lenders are abusing people and charging them unfair rates, given the risk, then it ought to be easy for more moral people to make a healthy profit at the same occupation; otherwise, we can’t really say that the lenders are being abusive.

I was intrigued to see, therefore, a Los Angeles Times article reprinted in the Providence Journal, this weekend, about employers setting up such programs as a benefit:

[Doug] Farry isn’t trying to shame employers into boosting wages. He’s trying to persuade them to sign up with his company, Employee Loan Solutions, a San Diego startup that works with a Minnesota bank to offer short-term loans. They carry a relatively high interest rate but are still cheaper than typical payday loans. …

That there are multiple firms in the market illustrates the size of the opportunity and the dire financial straits many workers experience. An estimated 12 million Americans use payday loans, borrowing tens of billions of dollars annually.

Even with this approach, activists are worried that the loans don’t come with enough investigation about borrowers’ ability to pay, to which the entrepreneurs point out that they’re serving customers’ needs for high-risk loans made on short notice at the lowest possible cost.  Paying for reviews of their credit will either take longer than they have to wait or cost more than they can afford to pay.

Whether any of these products is the ideal solution, I don’t know.  But in a recurring theme, of late, solutions have to begin by acknowledging that everybody involved in a transaction is a human being in unique circumstances that can’t be addressed well when activists use government to make judgments for people whom they don’t know.


Government Runs the Economy in Reverse

Sometimes policies become commonplace to the point that we no longer question their purpose or wisdom until legislators build them up so high as to expose their underlying problems.  Targeted development funds from the state government may have hit that point with S2042, which passed the Rhode Island Senate but died in the House this session.

The legislation would have allowed cities and towns to set up “micro zones,” requiring them to give property tax exemptions or at least stabilization agreements, that would open up access for developers and businesses to exemption from a wide array of state taxes, such as sales tax, income tax, and interest taxes, as well as discounted and expedited fees related to development, all under the famously watchful eye of the Commerce Corp.

Apart from the details, though, two passages catch my eye.  This one’s from from the “legislative findings” section:

That the numerous programs undertaken by the federal government and the state during the past two (2) decades to stop the deterioration and stimulate economic activity in these 14 distressed areas have, in large part, failed…

Even acknowledging that they’ve failed — that their approach simply doesn’t work — legislators think the solution must be to double-down and ramp up the special treatment, which relates to this section:

To the maximum extent possible, the directors of the departments of administration, business regulation, labor and training, environmental management, human services, transportation, and the Rhode Island housing and mortgage finance corporation shall provide special assistance to the zones. This shall include, but not be limited to:

  1. Expedited processing;
  2. Priority funding;
  3. Program set asides; and
  4. Provision of technical assistance in furtherance of the public policy enunciated in 34 §42-64.32-2.

Even in milder forms, it’s objectionable that the state government would distort market signals by subsidizing development in certain areas, but this legislation truly brings into relief the degree to which the prioritization comes at the expense of others, who have to get in line behind the super-favored developers.  Of particular note is that the state government is making the healthy parts of the state’s economy wait behind parts that have failed… and without any assurance (or even hope) that the underlying factors that have made those parts failures have been fixed.

It’s not as if Rhode Island, overall, is going so gangbusters that its economy is throwing off wealth for the state government to apply in this way, and if it were, the state probably wouldn’t have to do anything to make it happen.  The market would take care of it.

This proposed program is all too emblematic of Rhode Island’s approach.  A corrupt government would be reinforcing an admittedly failed strategy to invest the state’s limited resources in the areas of least opportunity.  How could that scheme possibly work?


Government Contracts to Infringe on Rights

Here’s an interesting bill — H7736 — on the Freedom Index (having passed both chambers) that raises some interesting political questions.  Basically, it forbids state and local government agencies from contracting with any company that is engaged in a boycott, unless the contract is very small or the company is much cheaper than competing bids.

Inasmuch as boycotting is more a thing for progressives than conservatives, particularly corporate boycotting, my gut reaction isn’t entirely negative.  I mean, boycotting Israel or North Carolina for political reasons doesn’t tend to endear a company to me and, in fact, tends to encourage me to direct my business elsewhere.

Even if every corporate boycott were a creature of the Left, though, such legislation gets dangerously close to using government’s economic clout to infringe on the speech and association rights of the individuals who band together for corporate purposes.  As government expands into more and more activities, increasing its role in our society, it approaches the point at which being blocked from government contracts would be a killer in more and more industries.

According to the Family Prosperity Index, using a metric that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity also uses for its competitiveness report card, Rhode Island ranks near the back of the pack when it comes to the private sector’s portion of the economy.  That means companies can be locked out of a disproportionately large part of our local economy if they don’t wrap themselves in these sorts of strings, just like the federal government’s increasing role in funding the states has given it power in direct contravention of our Constitution.


Raimondo Vetoes Reasonable Compromise with Wartime Rationale

Early on in this session, asked for an opinion on a bill that would allow the Dept. of Motor Vehicles (i.e., the executive branch, i.e., the governor) to enter reciprocity agreements with other countries with respect to driver’s licenses, I suggested that it contained a loophole for executive granting of licenses to illegal immigrants so big that a truck could drive through it, with room for a toll gantry.  The final version of the legislation, which passed the General Assembly, answered that concern to a high degree.

Well, surprise, surprise, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed it, with a strange rationale:

In a veto letter signed late Wednesday night, Raimondo said she supports the reciprocity aspects of the bill that would have potentially allowed someone with a foreign driver’s license and an active visa or green card to get a Rhode Island license without taking a test. But she took issue with a section that would have narrowed existing standards — requiring those drivers to submit additional documents before their foreign licenses could be recognized in Rhode Island. …

“The additional application and certification requirements of this bill are at odds with the [Geneva Convention’s] purpose of simplifying and unifying driving regulations on an international level. As such, these restrictions limit rights granted by the Convention and thereby violate the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution,” Raimondo wrote.

I’m no expert on the Geneva Conventions, and the governor’s veto message doesn’t appear to be online, so I don’t know if she provided some additional legal explanation.  However, the Geneva Conventions are mainly addressed to war-time matters.  A 2009 booklet for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators gives the impression that what’s really at issue is a United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, to which the United States agreed in Geneva in 1949.  There, one finds the “establishing uniform rules” language, but also that the convention doesn’t have any mandates for foreigners in a country for more than a year, and it also refers to international driver permits (IDPs), which could easily be interpreted to be the foreign nation’s way of validating the person’s driver’s license as required in the bill.

Who would have thought that this issue would be so complicated, both politically and legally?  If the legislation comes up again next year, it’ll be worth a deeper dive, but at the moment it seems to me that either the governor’s goal is to secure the loophole mentioned above or the legislation isn’t needed in the first place, because anybody with a license and an IDP can drive here for up to a year, anyway.


The Speech About Which the Governor Cares

All things considered, I’d probably have to side with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo in concluding that the “revenge porn” legislation that she just vetoed is too broad and ought to be much more explicit in protecting free speech.  That said, this line from her veto message contributes to my cynicism:

“The breadth and lack of clarity may have a chilling effect on free speech,” she wrote.

The reason I smirk at that is that other legislation that would most certainly have a chilling effect on free speech has passed both chambers of the General Assembly, and I suspect the governor won’t find it quite so objectionable.  Specifically, I’m referring to H7147, which would subject any individual, or any kind of organization at all, who spends more than $100 advocating on local ballot questions to campaign regulations, including reporting requirements.  (The legislation is championed by Tiverton Democrat John “Jay” Edwards and is obviously aimed at my friends in town.)

There’s no question but that adding such burdens to political activity has a “chilling effect,” and there’s no question that electoral speech ought to be the most sacrosanct when it comes to the law.  Yet, under the current progressive understanding of free speech, it seems publishing naked pictures of people without telling them is a more fundamental right than expressing opinions on local issues without telling your vicious rumor-mongering opposition who your friends are.


A Recess from the Diktats

Sometimes we can discern important principles most easily in relatively inconsequential contexts.  Take, for example, Senate bill 2669, which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity did not consider substantial enough to include on its Freedom Index.

It mandates that “all children attending public schools… shall receive… at least twenty (20) consecutive minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free play recess each day.”  When Republican Senator John Pagliarini (Tiverton, Portsmouth, Bristol) initially stood up against the group-think and voted against it, Democrat Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed (Newport, Jamestown) chided him, saying “How can you vote against recess?”

Let’s be specific.  Voting against this bill wasn’t a vote “against recess”; it was a vote against the state government’s assuming that it is swooping in as the hero of recess to save the kids from horrid local committees and administrators bent on depriving children of unstructured play.

Just so, politicians in their vanity layer on mandates that make them feel good about themselves and give them something to brag about to voters with no strong base of information on which to make electoral decisions.  Rather than observing a problem (no recess) and investigating its causes for factors within the proper scope of their role (like eliminating other state mandates), the legislators go straight from intention (encourage recess) to command (thou must).

Sen. Pagliarini was correct in his first instinct.  His narrow-minded peers may fervently believe that children should have time to play in an unstructured way, but they can’t imagine that their neighbors can live without the detailed list of rules and requirements to which the legislature and bureaucracy add year after year after year.


Ethics (Authority) Poised to Return to General Assembly

The Providence Journal reports on one of the few bright spots out of this General Assembly session: the passage of a resolution that would, as Common Cause Rhode Island phrased it in an e-mail last night with the subject line “Victory!”,

… put a question on the November ballot to allow you, the citizens of Rhode Island, to restore the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over legislators.


Accounting Issues Persist for John Hope … and, Far Worse, for Government

The impression about financial irregularities at the John Hope Settlement House has been that all of that took place years ago. Well, yes, it did. But now the problem seems to be that the organization cannot demonstrate to HUD’s satisfaction that it has taken sufficient corrective action to prevent a repeat.

[Providence Director of Community Development Brian] Hull said the Department of Community Development was troubled that audits of John Hope’s books showed shortcomings in 15 areas, such as monitoring payroll, tracking cash receipts and payables, loans to employees without a loan policy in place, late debt payments and a lack of documentation in numerous other areas. The city sought guidance from HUD’s New England area office and the agency, which finances the CDBG program, told the city not to give John Hope the grants “at this time.”

“We note that the entity responded to many of the auditor’s concerns but no evidence was provided to support whether the discussed corrective actions were verified or whether the corrective action taken resolved the deficiencies,” New England HUD Director Robert Shumeyko wrote.

In light of that, it was prudent for the city of Providence (at the recommendation of HUD) and the state to pull back on grants to the organization, though apparently the organization can re-apply if it can show it has come in compliance with HUD’s accounting requirements.

The bigger issue here is that, whether it is social programs or corporate welfare or community grants, government has an obligation to keep tabs on the tax dollars it hands out and make sure that they are not abused. (We are stipulating for a moment the worthiness of the expenditure. The John Hope Settlement House is, for example; corporate welfare is not.) While the Gallison scandal has compelled the state and the city of Providence to start checking into grants as with the John Hope Settlement House and others, little is done to prevent waste and abuse in other programs – the aforementioned social programs, for example – where far larger amounts go out the door. It’s simple. If our elected officials lack the resources or inclination to properly oversee the tax dollars they hand out, they need to stop doing so.


Speaker & OHIC: Stopping Some of the State Taxpayer’s Bleeding

As with his pulling of Budget Article 18, another reason to praise Speaker Mattiello this week: he is not seeing why state taxpayers should be forced to step into the breach left by the drying up of federal funds.

The office responsible for protecting consumers from excessive health insurance rate increases stands to lose nearly its entire staff if the House on Wednesday approves a budget amendment passed by the House Finance Committee. The $1.03-million loss in funding for 9 of its 12 full-time staff would leave the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner (OHIC) with only three employees …

Governor Raimondo’s budget included $1.03 million to replace federal grant funding for the nine staffers when the grant runs out on Sept. 30, but the House Finance Committee last week voted not to replace the funding. “When the money runs out the programs are off,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello said during a budget briefing last week. “Every time a federal grant expires everybody wants the funding to continue. You have a government that Rhode Island cannot afford.”

If I understand correctly (let me know if I’m wrong here), these FTE’s are in ADDITION TO the staffing of Rhode Island’s (completely useless) ObamaCare exchange, HealthSource RI. Staffing levels of this department have fluctuated somewhat but have generally suffered as the tide of federal ObamaCare funds has receded (as scheduled).

There needs to be some thought before state officials agree to implement a federal program with funds that sunset. State taxpayers simply don’t have the capacity to take on the funding of ever more, new programs.

And if the sitting Governor (in this case, Governor Raimondo) feels that the program should continue with state taxpayers picking up the tab from the lapsed federal funding, he or she should make cuts elsewhere in the budget to find that revenue, not simply heap another burden on state taxpayers.


Matthew Henry Young: Proposed Budget Challenges Educational Choice, Families

The Rhode Island House Finance Committee’s proposed budget includes, among other things, a substantial cut to funding for Rhode Island’s 18 charter schools. Charter schools receive government funding, but are managed separately from the public school system, and are able to tailor their programs, hiring, and management to meet specific goals. The proposed budget would allow for municipalities to subtract certain costs from their funding for local charter schools—a move that could hamstring high-performing charter schools, and will reduce any edge that charter schools enjoy in providing a higher quality education.

Charter schools are an important part of providing educational choice and freedom to Rhode Island’s families—without the presence of charter schools, children from low-income families unable to afford private school tuition may be trapped in underperforming public schools.

Rhode Island can ill afford more setbacks to its educational system. While Rhode Island ranks 29th in the nation for educational attainment in the Family Prosperity Index, minority groups experience substantially different outcomes. According to data from the American Community Survey, African American and Hispanic youths in Rhode Island are 2 and 3 times less likely (respectively) to graduate from high school; a trend that is mimicked in college-graduation rates.

Many of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable communities are being poorly served by the public school system—the last thing we should be doing is limiting their choice of schools.