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Cote & Reilly Call for G.A., Not RIDOT, to Set Tolls & Gantry Locations

Senator Marc Cote and Representative Daniel Reilly make a sound separation-of powers case for this in Monday’s GoLocalProv.

One of the most important checks involves the legislative branch’s ability to keep the executive branch from spending too much money. …

Essentially, DOT is being allowed to set a tax rate, collect the taxes and spend the proceeds, all without any input from any other branch of government. We see this provision as a violation of the principles of checks and balances and an infringement upon the principle of separation of powers.

The assignment to RIDOT of toll rate authority is clearly in violation of the separation of powers section of the Rhode Island Constitution. Members of the General Assembly must stand up and be counted. Do they stand with and for the state Constitution and the residents of the state? Or do they side with unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats against the people?

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If Progressives Had Perspective on the “Living Wage”

Maybe it’s an act, but sometimes it’s almost comical how little progressives understand economics and how unable they are to think of other people as, well, people trying to make the best decisions they can under the circumstances.  Oh, they say they have empathy for this group or that, but anybody who responds to actual incentives in the real world slips immediately into the bad-guy-who-gets-no-empathy column if they conflict with progressive fantasy.  Consider:

States and cities whose lawmakers proudly passed “living wage” laws are finding it difficult to make sure employers actually pay their workers accordingly.

Here’s a thought: Maybe the employers are finding it difficult to pay their employees at the level “lawmakers” decide suits their own ignorant vanity.

And many workers — especially those in precarious situations — fear they’ll be fired if they speak up.

And maybe those “firings” wouldn’t be retaliation so much as the simple calculation that government has forced on the employers.  See, wages before the increase were the rate that employers’ ability to pay matched employees willingness to work.  Progressives dehumanize workers by insisting that they can’t actually be making rational decisions to work for what they accept, and they devalue work by assuming it gives those who do it well no leverage — that they’re at the mercy of their employers.

If one imagines these interactions from a more empathetic point of view, the scenario can be one in which employers tell their employees the honest truth that meeting the arbitrary demands of government officials will put them out of business or at least force them to lay off employees’ coworkers and insist on more work from those who remain, leading the workers to voluntarily stick to the pay that they were already willing to accept.

How instances of that positive scenario balance out against instances of the evil-people scenario that progressives prefer is almost immaterial.  Politicians who pass these dumb laws are forbidding adults from making such decisions.

So, progressives double down on stupid:

“It’s pretty shocking how common the violations are,” said Donna Levitt, director of the labor enforcement office in San Francisco, which began ramping up to $15 an hour last year. …

The new laws are meaningless without proactive enforcement, labor advocates say, citing research that shows roughly one in four businesses nationwide already cheat their workers out of minimum wages.

What comes to mind is the IRS practice of aiding and abetting illegal immigrants who are committing fraud with Social Security numbers because, “It’s in everybody’s interest to have them pay the taxes they owe.”  So, why isn’t it in everybody’s interest to let people work for what they’re willing to work for?

The government would rather make it more difficult for people to come to voluntary agreements that ensure that they have some income.  That way, the taxes of those who actually keep their jobs can be used to make politicians and bureaucrats feel good about themselves, again, when they hand out welfare benefits.

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RhodeWorks Roll-Out Gives Illustration of Redistribution

Even as the conversation around repairing Rhode Island’s infrastructure shifts from fixing 152 bridges (and overpasses) around the state to re-imagining the 6/10 connector, it appears that the first toll gantry may be in the process of erection… down in the southern part of the state.  As previously noted, the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation is in the process of moving the gantries that formerly cast their ominous shadow over the Sakonnet River Bridge to some stretch of RhodeWorks-tolled highway.

The most likely spot, according to a source, is the bridge near exit 4 on Rt. 95, which goes over the enticingly named Nooseneck Hill Road (Rt. 3) down in the Exeter-Richmond area.  That location was among those listed as probable targets during the legislative debate, with a projected toll of $3.  That would also help explain, for another thing, the appearance of this electrical box down there:

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We can speculate as to why the state would want to rush forward with a single toll gantry before a more-final tolling-and-borrowing plan has been solidified.  The most compelling suggestion I’ve heard has been that the Raimondo administration is already preparing plans for additional borrowing through a revenue bond, which would be premised on the toll revenue and would not, therefore, require voter approval.  The sooner any potential lawsuits can be provoked and resolved, the sooner the state can issue (arguably unconstitutional) debt without paying a premium to cover the risk associated with possible litigation.

Whatever the case, though, Rhode Islanders shouldn’t miss the opportunity for a lesson, here.  RhodeWorks came into being as a statewide solution.  It looks like the great majority of the money is earmarked for a very specific location with very limited, regional impact in the Providence area.  Meanwhile, the first revenue-grab will be in a more-rural area in the southern part of the state.

Isn’t that just the way it goes?  Click on the House and Senate tabs of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Freedom Index, and you’ll see maps of the districts.  South of the prospective toll location, one has large districts and a total of around six to ten elected representatives and senators.   Meanwhile, the Providence area is a dense cluster of small districts with a great deal of representation.

Not only is RhodeWorks an exercise in redistributing money from taxpayers and drivers to labor unions and Wall Street investors, but the program also redistributes from the less-well-represented suburbs to the heavily-represented urbans.

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Two Quick Hits on RI Policy: RhodeWorks and Municipal Debt

I see everybody’s wondering how the we-must-borrow-money-and-impose-tolls-because-bridges-all-over-the-state-are-about-to-fall-down RhodeWorks program became a let’s-spend-a-lot-of-money-to-put-a-tunnel-under-nothing-on-the-6/10-connector bait and switch.

While having these discussions, I encourage everybody not to forget the map that Governor Gina Raimondo and the Dept. of Transportation produced showing all of the bridges around the state that would be repaired with the new program if legislators would just pass the bill.  Take careful notice of the legend.  It shows 224 structurally deficient bridges, with 152 marked as “RhodeWorks Bridges,” meaning they’d be fixed, and 7 marked as 6/10 Interchange Bridges.  This shows both that RIDOT sold RhodeWorks as a statewide program and that the agency was likely preparing for a pivot to just the 6/10 already last June.

While I’m writing about being wary of legislation, I thought I’d mention H7551, which is scheduled for a vote in the Rhode Island House, this afternoon.  Basically, it would give every school department in the state a window for the rest of the fiscal year (i.e., before July 1) during which to borrow as much money as they want in order to capture state building grants… without voter approval, naturally.

How easily promises are broken and protections against government excess are swept away.

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Best/Worst List Highlights Insanity of Bill That Would Jack RI’s Already High Energy Costs

As part of its informative Best and Worst Bills of 2016, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity highlights this especially egregious bill.

Despite Rhode Island having some of the highest energy rates in the nation, a bill that would impose a new fee on carbon-based energy, resulting in even higher energy costs for most families and businesses, ranks among the worst bills yet to be voted on according to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, which today updated its list of the BEST and WORST bills of the 2016 General Assembly session.

Most of us, including myself, will greet with champagne and hearty applause the invention/discovery of a cheap, widely available, reliable, sustainable, “green” energy source, if and when this ever happens. Meanwhile, the sole effect of taxing (let’s call it what it is) politically incorrect fuel sources will be to needlessly make it even more expensive for individuals to live in RI and businesses to operate here.

(By the way, check out how your own legislators are doing so far this session on the Center’s 2016 RI Freedom Index.)

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So Why Is Rhode Island’s Governor Not Pushing For the Line Item Veto?

In an op-ed in today’s Providence Journal, Ken Block does a very good job making the case for the line-item veto.

A line-item veto provides greater budget transparency by allowing a governor to strike out pieces of the budget, forcing the legislature to hold an override vote for each struck item. With the line-item veto, a more nuanced debate can be had in the legislature regarding the merits of each struck item, making it very difficult to override vetoes of particularly bad parts of the budget.

It sure seems like a no-brainer for Rhode Island to join forty four other states and give the line-item veto to its governor. Why is Governor Raimondo, who is unquestionably a numbers person and, accordingly, must see the value of this tool, not rallying public support or lobbying legislators to implement the line-item veto in Rhode Island?

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Hospital Mandate as Proof RI Government Is Off the Rails

In a state in which at least one hospital is losing $3 million every month and is facing bankruptcy, some legislators have the jaw-dropping gall to introduce legislation (H7863 and S2695) that would set maximum numbers of patients who can be assigned to each nurse, with very specific differences depending on the patients’ condition.

Folks, we have to begin taking the warning that such legislation provides.  On a case-by-case basis, these thousands of bills every year may seem inconsequential; they might even meet the standard of representatives and senators who believe they should pass any bill for which they can’t see the downside.  “That sounds like a good idea” is a fine standard while sitting around chatting at a family gathering, but when it comes to actually passing laws, that standard is dangerous.

It is not the government’s role to be a corporate board for all aspects of the economy or the society.  It is not the government’s role to put strict limits on our behavior, our interactions, and our commerce in the name of protecting us from all harm or risk.

We’re coming to a real and final tipping point.  If Rhode Islanders don’t begin insisting that elected and appointed officials are not parents for every adult, child, and pet in the state, we’re going to find ourselves losing all of the services and opportunities that the little tyrants think they control.

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Check Out Your Legislator’s Ranking on the Freedom Scorecard

Don’t miss the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s “Freedom Index & Legislator Scorecard“.

From the Center’s statement earlier this week:

Lawmakers and the public are encouraged to visit the “Legislation” tab on the 2016 Freedom Index to determine the bill rankings for the majority of bills that have been rated, but not yet voted on. The “Summary” tab displays individual lawmaker scores.

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An Obvious Solution to an Energy/Environment Problem

Uh-oh. Alex Kuffner reports in yesterday’s Providence Journal that there’s a legal stumbling block… sort of… for the proposed energy plant in Burrillville:

A Brown University professor who helped craft a key state law on climate change is arguing that the construction of a new natural gas-fired power plant in Burrillville would make it impossible for Rhode Island to meet the law’s targets for reducing carbon emissions in coming decades.

In written testimony that is set to be filed with the state Energy Facility Siting Board on Thursday, J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology, says that building the 900-megawatt Clear River Energy Center conflicts with the Resilient Rhode Island Act, the 2014 law that set a non-mandatory goal of eventually reducing state greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

If this is a problem, the solution is obvious:  Kick anybody who voted for this ridiculous legislation out of office and repeal it.  To check who voted “yea” and “nay,” refer to H7904 (item 27) on this House journal and S2952 (item 8) in this Senate journal.

Truly, no word is better than “decadence” to describe the folly of legislators in an economically failing state thinking up ways to make life and business more expensive, here.

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Empowering Schools to Stay in the Status Quo Fold

It looks like RI education commissioner Ken Wagner is getting another bite at the apple for public promotion of his “empowerment school” idea, which I addressed back in January.  Dan McGowan’s got a handy question-and-answer-style review, but Linda Borg’s promotional article  is notable for the refreshing honesty that it includes from Wagner:

“Quality charter schools make the whole system stronger,” Wagner said. “But we absolutely need a strategy to reduce the demand for charter schools. We must … strengthen our neighborhood schools so they can compete.”

In combination with new restrictions making their way through the pipeline — especially legislation that would give local governments more say in whether to accept new or expanded charters serving students from their towns — one could surmise that the effort is not so much to improve district schools to make them competitive in a growing landscape of actual school choice, but to reroute that demand back toward an in-district, more-union-friendly variation on charter schools.

I’ve argued, before, that taxpayers are absolutely justified in demanding more say when it comes to the big invoices that charter schools are permitted to send to them for payment and that charters have become a method of disrupting the private-school market.  That said, these “empowerment schools” have the feel of going in the wrong direction, particularly to the extent that teachers unions and other insiders get on board with the idea.

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Laws Are for the People, Not Their Betters in Government

During yesterday’s discussion on the Rhode Island House floor of H7147, the bill’s primary sponsor, Democrat John “Jay” Edwards (Tiverton, Portsmouth) presented it as a matter of fairness.  Those poor, put-upon elected officials have to provide some degree of transparency into their finances, while local grassroots groups that (very suspiciously) oppose many of the things those politicians want to do to their towns get away with spending money to voice their opinions on local issues without having to provide the politicians’ friends with ammunition for whisper-and-intimidation campaigns.

I’ll leave it for later to go into detail about Edwards’s dishonesty during his State House performance, yesterday.  For the moment, I’ll simply note the audacity of this line of argument coming from a supporter of imprisoned former Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and move on to a national issue that gives some sense of the contempt that Americans should have when government officials chastise the People to be more transparent:

The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group’s Ethan Barton reports that lobbyist, Michael J. Brady, asked in a private email for a little favor of EPA General Counsel Joe Goffman, his insider friend at EPA: “Joe, would you please send this email to Gina for me? I would have sent it to her directly with a cc to you but I don’t have a private email address for her and would prefer to not use an office email address.” (Emphasis added) Brady represents a number of green energy groups that want to support EPA’s Cross-State Pollution Rule. Goffman

The casual tone of the email exchange shows “that it is a regular practice of senior officials of this EPA to use private e-mail accounts and other ‘off-book’ techniques to craft rules with ‘green’ activists with clear financial and political interests is now clear beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Chris Horner, the man who exposed former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s “Richard Windsor” email moniker.

As I said, this is a national matter, but there can be little doubt that it’s an issue at the state level, too.  For example, we’d have had no idea that George Nee — a big-time labor figure who sits on multiple government boards at the state level — used his Yahoo email account to lobby for a union-friend’s daughter to get a 38 Studios job if those emails hadn’t been part of the giant scandal of the company’s bankruptcy that lead to lawsuits and legal disclosures.

It’s increasingly clear that people in government don’t see themselves as our representatives, but as our aristocracy, with free license to seek out ways to make it impossible for us to operate without their permission.

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“Fair” Workweek Would Be Anything But to Rhode Island’s Already Beleaguered Businesses

Dale J. Venturini is president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association but she spoke for all state businesses when she made the overwhelming case in Tuesday’s ProJo against this hideous proposal.

For the first time in Rhode Island’s history, legislation is being proposed in the House of Representatives that would place impossible scheduling requirements on businesses. It would not only change the way business is done in the state but would cripple it.

The bills are offered under the guise of a “Fair Workweek for Rhode Island,” but they are anything but fair to local businesses, large and small.

And don’t miss Arlene Violet’s smart, insightful take on this in today’s Valley Breeze.

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Drivers Licenses for Illegal Aliens Are Exactly the Wrong Thing For Rhode Island

Tuesday at the State House:

Debate over making it legal for undocumented immigrants to drive automobiles in Rhode Island echoed through the State House Tuesday as hundreds turned out to have their voices heard on a series of bills on opposing sides of the issue.

Illegal immigration erodes taxpayer-funded budgets, wages, jobs for legal immigrants and citizens, public safety and sovereignty. The only way to address it is to stop offering incentives for people to come here – here to the United States and, in this case, here to Rhode Island. For the State of Rhode Island to issue drivers licenses to illegal aliens would be a step in exactly the wrong direction as it would encourage rather than discourage illegal immigration into the state. Most deplorably, state elected officials who are advocating for these licenses are doing so for crassly selfish, politically-self-promotional reasons and definitely not with the best interest of Rhode Island – or, laughably, public safety – at heart.

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Stronger Leverage for Failure to Pay Tolls Would Only Applies to Newport Bridge … Yeah, That’s the Ticket

Huh, this must be a huge coincidence, following as it does closely on the heels of the passage of the governor’s horrendous toll plan: bills have popped up that would give the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority greater leverage to punish people and collect from those who fail to pay tolls when crossing the Newport Pell Bridge.

A series of bills filed in the General Assembly on behalf of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority would allow the agency to report toll violators to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which would place a hold on license and registration renewals.

Technically, the new statewide tolls – collections and presumably punishments – will be administered by RIDOT. [Correction.] In fact, statewide tolls will be administered by the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority. But So is there any doubt that, if these bills pass, this punishment and leverage would quickly be extended to toll violators around the state, not just those crossing the Newport Bridge?

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Mike Stenhouse: Your Family Deserves Better Than 48th

What if lawmakers were to realize that Rhode Island’s policy culture of considering only the material needs of individuals, all along, has been harmful to the family unit? For too long, the status quo in the Ocean State has stood in the way of Rhode Islanders achieving their hopes and dreams. New national research released this month indicates that Rhode Island families are not doing as well as lawmakers may currently believe. The Family Prosperity Index (FPI) measures both economic and social factors to determine the results of our state’s public policy culture on our families.

For example, the often cited unemployment rate, a narrow snapshot of employment only, has declined notably in Rhode Island, giving lawmakers false occasion to trumpet success. When considering broader economic, social, and demographic data, all combined into a single index over a longer period of time, Rhode Island fares very poorly, ranking 48th in the nation on the FPI index for 2015. This new research can be ground-breaking in that FPI broadens the scope of analyzing official government data, that result from public policy on actual families in each state. Your family deserves better than these poor ratings.

Do most Rhode Islanders feel as good about their family’s well-being as the unemployment rate and our politicians might suggest? I don’t think so. With FPI, we now have a measurement that can more fully measure family well-being. We believe that family-level shortcomings, caused by Rhode Island policy culture, are the root causes of the current economic malaise in the Ocean State. Rhode Island does not need to grow the elite, through ‘advanced industries’ as suggested by the recent $1.3 million Brooking Institution report.

Lawmakers can become heroes if they can design policies that actually address the real needs of real families. Rhode Island needs a new vision, one where the people of our state can achieve prosperity through free-market solutions. Your voice can be powerful. We encourage you to speak out about the issues in Rhode Island that are making things more difficult for your family. Free market policy can strengthen our state and our families by giving the people of our state more access to opportunity. Thank you.

[Mike Stenhouse is the CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.]

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Tolls For Thee But Tax Amnesty for Me?

Nice work by WPRI’s Dan McGowan ascertaining that Rep. Thomas Palangio (D, Providence) might well have benefited from a bill he was co-sponsoring.

A Rhode Island state representative has pulled his name from legislation that would put a 10-year statute of limitations on the collection of state taxes after acknowledging that he may owe the state more than $120,000 in back taxes.

The hypocrisy here is palpable. Rep. Palangio voted to legalize a whole new, highly destructive revenue stream (tolls) … but appears to have been caught trying to relieve himself of his obligation to pay an existing one.

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In Rhode Island, Momentum Means Not Completely Falling Apart

Reading Kate Bramson’s article, today, on the predictable and usual downward revision of Rhode Island job statistics, I thought this quotation from the governor must certainly be an abbreviated version of the full statement:

“We still have a tall hill to climb to turn this economy around. However, we have momentum. Just yesterday, Citizens Bank announced that it will renew its investment in our state with a new corporate campus in Johnston,” Raimondo said. “I will continue to hustle every day – listening to employers’ needs and working closely with the General Assembly – to invest in growth, attract new businesses, and rebuild the Rhode Island economy.”

I mean, things must be bad, indeed, if the best spin Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo can come up with is to point out that Citizens Bank didn’t run screaming out of the Ocean State.  But no, that’s the full statement, and the picture really is that bleak.

The revised data for RI-based jobs (which is limited to just the one month of January 2015, so far) brings that statistic in line with the employment data reviewed in this earlier post.  Both suggest that Rhode Island’s pitiful recovery hit a complete stop during the first year of Raimondo’s governorship.

One is tempted to see the dramatic halt of employment growth last summer as an immediate reaction to the first legislative session of Raimondo’s term and the first full one with Democrat Nicholas Mattiello (Cranston) as Speaker of the House.  That would be a faster-than-expected validation of my suggestion that the night the House passed the budget marked the state’s entry into the next stage of its collapse.

It’s also tempting to recall the disappointing yield from the governor’s new tax on summer rentals and that the state has been on a minimum wage binge.  In general, one would expect such policies to bend the employment curve downward.

It’s a little early to make such declarations, however, and the odds are good that a much bigger problem will soon arise, swamping the stagnating effects of the General Assembly and governor’s annual shortening of the Rhode Island economy’s leash and giving them a big ol’ excuse why their top-down centralized economic plans didn’t work.

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Um, Can We Send the R.I. Attorney General Some Material on the First Amendment?

With it shaping up to be a contentious election year here in Rhode Island and concerned citizens poised to be sharp in their criticism of legislators who voted for the horrendous new tolls, it is easy to agree with a caller to the Tara Granahan Show who finds the timing of this proposal quite … interesting.

But another bill would target a wide range of social media activity that makes people “feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.”

Unlike current state “cyber-stalking” laws, which require police to prove a pattern of harassing behavior, someone could be prosecuted under the new Kilmartin bill for a single post if at least two others pile on with “separate non-continuous acts of unconsented contact” with the victim.

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Was Final RhodeWorks Vote Scheduled Before the Bill Was Submitted?

Correspondence related to the removal of the toll gantries on the Sakonnet River Bridge on Super Bowl Sunday suggests that the date was no surprise, that the state paid a premium for the timing, and that government officials had the schedule for RhodeWorks legislation planned out well in advance.

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Senator Doyle’s Views on Payments and Obligations

Folks in Rhode Island’s attention-paying class are rightly highlighting Ethan Shorey’s article in The Valley Breeze, which reports some business difficulties of state Senator Jamie Doyle (D, Pawtucket):

A woman who once did business with Pawtucket state Sen. Jamie Doyle and his Doyle Respiratory says Doyle still hasn’t paid her a penny more than two years after a judge ordered him to start paying down a $6,843 debt to her. …

Records of correspondences connected to the court case show that Doyle Respiratory, a Pawtucket-based medical equipment company, has had significant financial issues. Attorney John Longo, in a letter to Doyle Respiratory attorney Steven Hart in May of 2014, wrote that Doyle Respiratory was struggling with financial difficulties and that there were four companies with judgments against it. In that letter, Longo stated that Doyle Respiratory owed the Internal Revenue Service “tens of thousands of dollars.” He added that the company was attempting to turn things around and then inquired about a temporary payment arrangement.

Although not surprising, it’s discouraging to hear such news about one of 38 people authorized to change the laws of the state via the state Senate, especially one who sits on the Finance Committee.  As the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity documents through our Freedom Index, both chambers of the General Assembly pass legislation every year that takes an increasingly strong and unrestricted hand directing Rhode Islanders on how they must live their lives and conduct their business.

If that’s the level of authority politicians claim for themselves, then at the very least, constituents should expect the politicians’ own behavior to be beyond reproach.  For an underline on the point, consider three bills that Doyle has submitted this session.  None of these has seen action, and they aren’t yet on the running Freedom Index for this session, but they don’t exactly correspond with Doyle’s own behavior, as reported:

  • S2189 and S2550 would forbid state and local agencies from holding on to a 5% retainer for public works projects for 90 days after completion (as a protection against shoddy workmanship) and apply the same percentage and standard to general contractors on the project, in their relationships with subcontractors.
  • S2551 would force all employers to pay for employees’ transportation to doctors or other health care services related to workers compensation benefits.

It’s very easy to sit in that fortress on a hill in Providence and tell businesses how to operate.  Much easier, it would appear, than operating a business that successfully pays its service providers in a timely fashion, even without a court order to do so.