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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Alarming – Budget Article 17 Could Set Up Stream of 38 Studios-Style Failures

Another problem article in the proposed House budget would, remarkably, put state taxpayers in positions of equity in certain, chosen companies. See the language below on page 9:

(b) Notwithstanding anything in this chapter to the contrary, the commerce corporation may make a loan or equity investment as an alternative incentive in lieu of the provision of tax credits so long as the applicant otherwise qualifies for tax credits under this chapter.

This is a bad idea and poses serious dangers to taxpayers if it passes, as Rep Patricia Morgan (R – Coventry, Warwick & West-Warwick) outlines in the following statement just issued.

Rep. Morgan Questions New Commerce Article Which Puts Taxpayers at Risk

STATE HOUSE — Representative Patricia Morgan (R-District 26 Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) is calling attention to the new provisions in Article 17, which relate to commerce and economic development.

“The new language governing the Commerce Corporation’s program for economic development on the 195 land is troubling. The new law would fundamentally change the original intent of the program and lead the state into areas best left to financial experts. Financial money managers risk private money, the state risks taxpayer money,” stated Representative Morgan.

“Rhode Islanders have made it clear that they do not want tax dollars given to projects that should be left to the private marketplace. In the past, we have granted authority for the Commerce Corporation to issue tax credits which have the goal of growing tax revenue as the company thrives. However, the Commerce Corp. is now asking for the ability to make equity investments. This investment puts taxpayers in the position of being owners of the company.” explained Morgan.

“If the company thrives, the state not only receives the investment, but also a potential profit. However, if it fails, as in 38 Studios, state would lose the entirety of the taxpayer investment. Public money should never supplant private investment in the marketplace. It’s dangerous for taxpayers.”

Other provisions the Article17 also raise a red flag. “In existing statute the Commerce Corporation is authorized to give up to $15 million, capped at 30% of the total cost of the project, to a developer. The new Article allows a developer to split the project into two and accept $15 million for each portion for a total of $30 million. Additionally, the new language allows the Commerce secretary to waive the 30% cap once a year. That takes away taxpayer protections.”

“One major concern is a taxpayer funded subsidy for the Superman building project in Providence. In current law, economic development incentive programs for the 195 land reclamation project, include the Downtown Providence area with the Superman building. The budget article before the General Assembly increases the maximum aggregate tax credits for this program. The program has been increased to $150,000,000. With such a high program cap, the fear is that money will be diverted to fund redevelopment of the Superman building without taxpayer input.” explained Morgan.

“While these changes were presented to the Finance Committee, albeit well after midnight, they have not been thoroughly explained or vetted. The financial impact to Rhode Island must be thoroughly reviewed before any budgetary vote. I, as a House Representative, want to be fully confident this program will not lead taxpayers down another dead-end path of wasted taxpayer money.”

“Ultimately, our state’s leaders need to do more than find creative corporate subsidies. This welfare takes money away from hardworking Rhode Islanders and is funneled to companies of specific choosing. The State should not be in the venture capital business. Instead we need to do the hard work of reforming our economic climate; reducing property taxes, eliminating costly and non-value added regulations, changing a hostile legal system, restoring ethics, and reducing the cost of government instead of tacking on new taxes, fees and tolls each year.”

“Companies should come to Rhode Island because it’s a great place to grow, not because we pay them to come.”

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Article 18: Another Insider “Deepwater” Scam in the Making? (Corrected)

Despite disturbing new revelations and renewed public criticism about insider legislative grants, cronyism appears to be alive and well at the Rhode Island State House. And once again, Ocean State families and businesses would be asked to foot the bill.

In the budget that got voted out of the Finance Committee early Wednesday morning, alert observers spotted and brought to the attention of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity as well as the Ocean State Current on Friday an extensive revision to Article 18.

They are correct to loudly ring warning bells about it. If it stays in, state electric ratepayers are in for even higher electric rates than they currently pay.

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A Word of Caution When Reacting to Targeted Legislation

Here’s a hypothetical:  State legislators create an unaccountable bureaucratic board and, over time, invest it with power to make increasingly minute and economically significant decisions affecting private businesses.  After an extended and costly ordeal, one such business resolves to address an abuse that its leaders see as affecting not only its own bottom line, but the future of its entire industry.

Lobbyists and political donations are almost universally despised, but they are the the way the system works, and the business utilizes them.  Legislation it proposes to rein in the power of an insider-tied public utility and the unaccountable board make it nearly to the point of passage by being placed in the House’s revision of the budget.

How should free-market, small-government conservatives react to this sequence of events?  Apparently, if the business in question is a renewable energy company, it’s a story of cronyism on the part of the business.  I’d suggest that conservatives should temper the broad indictments of the system they’re making about the story of Wind Energy Development and House Finance’s Article 18.

Yes, there’s clearly an immediate benefit to Wind Energy if this article passes, but here’s the first provision of the relevant section of the budget article:

The electric distribution company may only charge an interconnecting renewable energy customer for any system modifications to its electric power system specifically necessary for and directly related to its interconnection. Any system modifications benefiting other customers shall be included in rates as determined by the public utilities commission.

I have to admit: that sounds reasonable to me.  Switch the details around a little.  Imagine a manufacturer wants to set up a new energy-intensive factory in the wilds of Southwestern Rhode Island, and the current practice of National Grid and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) would be to force that company to pay 100% for upgrades to any part of the power grid that its increased usage might affect, even if a particular bit of the infrastructure were on track for a scheduled upgrade the following year, anyway.

Would we characterize it as cronyism if the company took its case to the General Assembly through the usual means, asking only to pay for modifications “specifically necessary for and directly related to” its business?

There is, of course, a bit of justice to the PUC’s ruling.  National Grid should be making upgrades anyway (with the urging of the PUC), perhaps with money that it currently funnels to insider green-energy deals.  That would create a healthier business and residential environment for all of us.  One could see the Wind Energy ruling as a sly way of redirecting some of that cronyism to the public good.

But let’s be careful about our generalized proclamations.  When a near-government entity like an electric company conspires with an unaccountable bureaucracy to tilt deals away from private companies, the recourse should be to the legislature.  Maybe we don’t like the players in a particular case, but we shouldn’t attack broad principles for a particular contingency.

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Toll Relief (Shhhh! It’s Not That!) for In-State Truckers Falls Way Short

It turns out that the General Assembly’s proposed 2017 budget will, after all, contain very partial relief from impending truck tolls in the form of lower registration fees for in-state trucks though, due to questions of constitutionality, the Speaker is asking that we not connect the two.

With the national trucking industry threatening to challenge the constitutionality of the truck tolls in court, after the first gantry goes up, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was insistent on Thursday that the registration-fee cuts in the newly unveiled budget bill have nothing to do with the tolls.

“I don’t want to connect the two,’’ House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Thursday.

Okayfine, they’re not connected. The reduction in registration fees for this NON-RELIEF from tolls will vary with truck size.

At the lowest end, the annual registration fee would drop from $106 to $78. For trucks weighing more than 74,000 lbs. — which are at the top end now — the fee would drop from $972 (plus $24 for every additional two pounds in weight) to $510. For even larger rigs, there would be a graduated fee schedule, topping off at $690 for tractor-trailer trucks weighing more than 104,000 pounds (plus $12 for every additional 2,000 lbs. of weight).

Soooo, on the upper end – $500-$600 savings per year? By the way, this means that some of the heaviest trucks which do the most damage (to use Governor Raimondo’s logic for implementing truck tolls) to our roads and bridges will be getting relief from tolls EVEN THOUGH THEY WILL NOT BE PAYING TOLLS.

Back to the matter at hand. Approximately $500-$600/year in registration savings for this NON-TOLL RELIEF. Now let’s look at the cost of tolls. At the $40 max per day, a truck driving around in Rhode Island, assuming he operates five days per week, fifty weeks a year:

5 days/week X $40/day = $200. $200 X 50 weeks/year = $10,000/year

Ten thousand dollars a year. Yeah. “Token” relief is actually an understatement, Christopher Maxwell, President of the Rhode Island Trucking Association:

“If they’re trying to help the truck industry, great,” Maxwell said. “But it’s a long way from undoing the damage the tolling would do. It looks to me more like a token gesture.”

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Latest (Bad) Rankings of RI: Will the Budget Turn Them Around?

The release of some new/updated rankings of Rhode Island are perfectly timed as we sit on budget watch.

Rhode Island currently has the eighth highest state & local tax burden as percentage of income.

And the Providence Business News points to a new study by WalletHub showing that Rhode Island has the eleventh worst economy in the United States.

These are the rankings that need to be turned around. The Governor’s proposed budget of a couple of months ago won’t get the job done. Will the General Assembly step up to the plate? Judging from alerts via Twitter about the just-announced availability window later today of the Speaker and the new Chairman of House Finance, we will know soon.

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Will Governor’s Toll Projections Fail as Badly as Her Admin’s Short-Term Rental Tax Projections?

Of course, Governor Raimondo’s new tax on vacation-home rentals needs to go. Rhode Island government doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

The bigger take-away from this Providence Journal article is how far off base her administration’s projections have turned out.

So far, Rhode Island’s plan to collect an extra $7.1 million in annual revenue through new vacation-home rental taxes is falling short of expectations.

In the first eight months since collections began, from last July 1 to the end of February 2016, the state has received just $1,563,565 in new rental taxes, according to Neil Downing, chief revenue agent for the state’s Division of Taxation.

Even on the basis of another projection – $5.3 million – presumably revised to account for a shorter season last year, the $1,563,565 actually collected is far short. Meanwhile, the biggest effect of the introduction of a new (ineffective) tax/fee is to reinforce Rhode Island’s reputation as heartily anti-taxpayer and anti-business.

Is this a preview of how far off the projections by her administration about toll revenue are? If so, what happens then? We know the answer: “Sorry, our projections were off. We now need to toll all vehicles including cars.”

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Lawmakers Moving to Tighten Up Punishment Procedure of Toll Violators

Isn’t this charming.

A package of toll scofflaw bills sought by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority are moving slowing through the General Assembly and drawing questions about whether they might apply to the state’s planned truck toll network.

The bills, sponsored by Middletown Democrat Louis DiPalma in the Senate and Tiverton Democrat John Edwards in the House, would allow the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, through the Division of Motor Vehicles, to block toll violators from renewing their driver’s licenses or registrations.

Important to note that these toll scofflaw bills are sponsored by East Bay legislators – DiPalma and Edwards – who fought tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge but voted in favor of statewide tolls. Tolls for thee but not for me appears to be their repugnant philosophy.

Now they are going a step further and spearheading the legislative effort to make it easier for the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to crack down on toll violators. At this point, the RITBA only administers tolls on the Newport Pell Bridge. But the RhodeWorks toll law enables them to administer statewide tolls if RIDOT wants it. Even if RIDOT goes with a private firm to administer tolls, it’s a snap that these tougher measures would quickly apply to statewide tolls – just as it’s a snap that litigation will morph tolls on trucks into tolls on all vehicles INCLUDING CARS.

We know how DiPalma and Edwards voted on Governor Raimondo’s highly destructive statewide toll plan. How did your legislator? Find out here for reps and here for senators, then please keep that in mind in November. Rhode Island DOES NOT need toll revenue to repair its bridges, only legislators who are willing to think for themselves and act in the best interest of all Rhode Islanders rather than blindly accept destructive marching orders from above.

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Whew, No Subsidies for Superman Building – At Least, This Year

WPRI’s Dan McGowan reports the good news (pointing out that the ProJo had announced it first).

The effort to secure millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies to revitalize Providence’s tallest building has again stalled at the Rhode Island State House.

This is a very good thing, as far as it goes. City and state taxpayers already pay too much in taxes, fees and cost-of-living without also being compelled to compensate property owners for the effects of both a real estate market that has not fully rebounded but especially for the state’s abysmal business climate that is keeping prospective tenants out of the state.

“As far as it goes”, however, because, like the Terminator, the owner of the Superman Building has promised, “I’ll be back” next year to once again try to tap into the taxpayer’s already seriously overextended wallet.

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Energy Surcharge and the Scam of Magic Government Economics

The green program that Patrick Anderson describes in a Providence Journal article today may be a near-perfect encapsulation of the scam that is progressive government, with its magical economic thinking (i.e., that everybody makes out when government controls money):

State lawmakers are debating a plan to help home heating oil and propane customers pay for energy efficiency improvements — such as new furnaces — with a surcharge on those fuels. …

The cost: a half-penny-per-gallon surcharge on oil or propane in the first two years of the program that would rise to 1 cent per gallon in the fourth year of the five-year plan. …

There are an estimated 186,400 properties heated with oil or propane in Rhode Island, 149,800 of them residential, Kearns said.

The program would be capped at $2 million per year, be overseen by a new advisory board and administered by a third-party consultant. Administrative costs would be capped at 10 percent.

For the low, low cost of a few bucks a year to 186,400 fuel users, some contractor can get $200,000 to manage the program.  Installers and manufacturers get to pocket the other $1.8 million, and a few hundred Rhode Islanders (heavily weighted toward insiders and others “in the know”) would get new furnaces (or something equivalent).  It all sounds great, doesn’t it?

Except… you’re still talking $2 million from people who won’t have it to spend on something else.  If a single household were able to invest its $4 per year at a 4% rate of return, the family would have another $224 after 30 years.  Now add that loss to every other similar scam that government runs at our expense.

On the other end of the deal, the consumer either gets a furnace or something else that he didn’t really need or simply unloads a cost he would have had to bear on to somebody else.  As for the installers and manufacturers, they absorb resources that would have gone to some other purpose, setting off a chain of cost shifting that drains resources from some innovation at the margins of what people would voluntarily finance.

When government takes money from people to give it to somebody else, the things that might otherwise have happened are impossible to see, so the deal looks like it’s all upside.  We can imagine that every family would have just wasted that $4 per year.  But giving a few self-interested bureaucrats authority over other people’s money is never the most efficient plan for the economy.

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Burrillville Power Plant: Torn Between Empowered Taxpayers & Much-Needed Energy

On the one hand, I support the gas-fired power plant that Invenergy is proposing to build in Burrillville, in large part, because the EPA has UNNECESSARILY shut down other large fossil fuel-powered energy generating plants, leaving New England with few reliable, reasonably priced fuel sources for making electricity.

On the other, even though it might mean that this gas-fired power plant does not get built, I like the bill that passed the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources yesterday

The legislation, which passed through the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources by an 11-2 vote, would require an approval by Burrillville voters for any type of tax agreement between the town and the developers of the power plant.

especially because it apparently restores some authority that the taxpayers of Burrillville used to have.

“I think that’s excellent,” said Jeremy Bailey, who opposes the [power plant] proposal. “Years ago, we used to have that right to vote on a potential tax agreement or tax treaty, however you want to refer to it. That right was stripped from us. We lost a little bit of that democracy that we once had, so this bill is gong to help restore that democracy to us.”

Interesting and compelling. In fact, serious consideration needs to be given to expanding this right to the state level, as it would be another way to clamp down on all of the corporate welfare that the Raimondo administration has been handing out via the Commerce Corporation, formerly the EDC, the agency that faciliated the 38 Studios debacle, in lieu of real economic development measures.

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The Illegal Activity That the Government Will Tolerate

It’s good news, of course, that the powers who be in Rhode Island have held off for at least another year before amplifying Rhode Island’s magnetism for illegal immigrants, but this sentence in a related Providence Journal article struck me:

“There are many undocumented Rhode Islanders who work and pay taxes, but don’t have the right to obtain a license, like they do in 12 other states (and Washington, D.C.),” Raimondo’s statement said. “The reality is that they are driving on the roads right now without a license, and that presents a public safety issue.”

I can’t help but see this statement from the governor in the context of all the legislation that I read, with proposals like license-plate scanners to catch anybody who dares to drive with lapsed insurance and, as I mentioned the other day, pervasive linkage of databases centered around personal prescriptions of Rhode Islanders and their personal connections, to track the distribution of certain drugs.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that some laws will be broken in our society, but why, do you suppose, the governor is so keen to accommodate just a certain group of law breakers?

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Legislature’s Budget Expected “As Soon As Possible”

The Democrats caucused on Wednesday. Stand by, everyone.

Asked the likely date for the unveiling of the legislators’ version of Democrat Raimondo’s proposed $ 8.9 billion tax-and-spending plan, Mattiello again told reporters: “As soon as possible.”

Interesting observation by Rep Marcello about an admittedly small but highly controversial item in the budget.

“The elephant in the room [was] the legislative grants,’’ said Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, of the budget earmarks that have mired the General Assembly in controversy again this year, especially the $70,875 grant that went to an education non-profit that employed Raymond Gallison, the House Finance Committee chairman who resigned mid-session amid a police investigation.

Shall we start a pool? What’s going to happen in the budget with community service and legislative grants? Is it too much to expect that they will all be cancelled, along with tolls, and the revenue directed to repair our unsafe bridges??? (Okay, that last item may border on delusional. But it would certainly be the right thing to do!)

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Serving One Another Through Innovation

There are bills being considered by the RI General Assembly, H8044 &S2864, which may kill the efficient transportation network services like Uber & lyft in the Ocean State.

In this video, I give commentary on testimony given by Rhode Islander to the RI State Senate on the role of Uber in his life. Nick Zammarelli, a blind Coventry school teacher, testified to RI State Senators: “As a totally blind school teacher, prior to Uber’s arrival in Rhode Island, I had to think about how got from point A to point B every single day. ”

Watch my commentary on the compelling testimony now. For my money, the most important part of the testimony had nothing to do with Uber, per se. It had everything to do with innovation and everything to do with the way in which Rhode Island government prevents us from finding the most effective ways to serve one another. Why do we tolerate elected officials to kill the innovation that will help the disadvantage among us?

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The Panopticon State Moving Forward with Prescriptions

For the 2013 Freedom Index, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity highlighted legislation that was ultimately signed into law “to create a state-controlled electronic prescription database storing all information related to electronically distributed medical prescriptions.”  We gave it a -2, and naturally the General Assembly passed it and Governor Lincoln Chafee signed it into law:

  • S0647, sponsored by Democrat Senator Donna Nesselbush (Pawtucket, North Providence)
  • H5756, sponsored by Democrat Representative Joseph McNamara (Warwick, Cranston)

Well, surprise, surprise, legislators are in the process of expanding the reach of this database in newly invasive and frightening ways, and naturally the Senate passed the legislation last night, with only Republican Elaine Morgan (Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) voting “nay.”  This legislation will “empower the state Dept. of Health to combine its drug prescription database with any other source of data to analyze the behavior and personal connections of patients and pharmacists, under the pretense of finding abuse”:

  • S2946, sponsored by Democrat Louis DiPalma (Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton)

Add this database to the information that will be produced by gantry-based tolling systems and license-plate readers looking for the uninsured, and then mix in the comprehensive data to be collected by the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) and that which is already collected for taxation and other economic activity, and everybody in Rhode Island will have a frighteningly complete digital profile accessible to unaccountable bureaucrats, following the lead of a gang of elected officials best known for violating ethics rules and being investigated by the feds.

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Good Grief – No Grants or Any Other Tax Dollars Should Go to Lobbying

Good article in today’s Providence Journal by Patrick Anderson, headlined: “Do R.I. General Assembly grants funnel back into lobbying?”

The answer, in many cases, is “yes, they do”. And for those recipient organizations who use this defense of the dollars they receive from Smith Hill:

Many said they use only non-grant funds to lobby.

Bosh. If your organization does ANY lobbying, grant dollars free up other dollars in your budgets to be used to lobby.

Often, the goal of lobbying is for policies that are antithetical to the best interest of the taxpayer. Accordingly, it is grotesque that tax dollars, whether via grants or any other source, would go to an organization that lobbies any arm of the government of Rhode Island.

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Now They’re Coming After Uber

… by they, of course, we mean a few highly misguided legislators at the General Assembly. From the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s weekly blast about good and bad bills at the General Assembly.

By adding unreasonable burdens, H8044, sponsored by House Majority Whip Rep. Jay Edwards (D, Portsmouth), would impose heavy regulations and fees for transportation network companies (like Uber), including (among other things) $150 fees for each driver, unusual insurance regulations, bans against cash use, bans on driver gun licensing, and disability mandates.

In other words, Rep. Edwards wants to do instantly what the Rhode Island General Assembly usually does more gradually and unobtrusively, which is to regulate a business out of existence. (Okay, slight exaggeration. But not much.)

Is this to protect the taxicab industry? If so, here’s an idea. Rather than regulate Uber and Lyft, DEregulate taxicabs. Does RI charge a taxicab medallion fee on the state or local level? Stop charging it. (Cue the gasps of horror from revenue hungry officials.)

Let a new form of commercial transportation lead the way to a new way of treating business here in Rhode Island, rather than allowing bad old government ways to damage a new industry.

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“Field of Trains” Redux: Why Would We Spend Millions for 89 Riders Net Per Day?

The Wickford Junction is an unmitigated disaster. So, of course, it makes sense (???) to strive to repeat it in Pawtucket.

Rhode Island has taken its biggest step yet toward building a new train station to serve Pawtucket and Central Falls, requesting $14.5 million from the federal government to cover about a third of the project’s cost.

But a new train station in Pawtucket would net only eighty nine new riders per day, with hundreds more poached from the South Attleboro and Providence stops. By the way, it isn’t just federal dollars that would be involved.

Separately on Tuesday, the House Finance Committee is scheduled to take up a bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket, that would appropriate $10 million to help underwrite the cost of the Pawtucket train station. Tobon proposed a similar bill pegged at $20 million last year.

RIDOT is currently looking to fill a $126,648 – $140,920 position of “Administrator, Office of Transit, New Starts, Operations and Transportation Alternatives“. It looks from the job description that this proposed new train station would fall under the purview of this position. Is this taxpayer-funded job the sort of “opportunity to transform the area and provide much needed economic opportunity for local residents” that RIDOT Director Peter Alviti is referencing when he tries to justify this completely unneeded project?

This is serious derangement. The “If You Build It, They Will Come” approach to expensive public transit projects didn’t work in Wickford. We know NOW it won’t work in Pawtucket, either. So why are our elected officials working to repeat Wickford’s costly mistake in Pawtucket?

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What’s Really In Your Best Interests? John Marion of Common Cause RI on the Ethics Commission

This week on “What’s Really In Your Best Interests?” I sit down with John Marion of Common Cause RI to discuss the Ethics Commission. We talk about the growing coalition to restore the Ethics Commission in Rhode Island. The resolution being proposed will put forward a change to the RI Constitution to be approved by voters. With recent examples of bad behavior by the RI General Assembly, Rhode Islanders should ask themselves if a restored ethics commission is really in their best interests.

The Clean RI coalition is composed of almost two-dozen groups. This resolution does, in fact, restore the full jurisdiction of the ethics commission despite the speech and debate clause. Common Cause argues that the controversial moratorium should be set aside and placed into a separate statute. This is an important piece of the puzzle of good government in the Ocean State. We encourage you to speak out on the issues affecting your family in Rhode Island.

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Pass the Line Item Veto Now for Future Governors

Great job by everyone who turned out for yesterday’s very well attended hearing on the line item veto. Nice work by Ken Block raising public awareness of this good government measure that definitely needs to come to Rhode Island.

While the current Governor has said there was no line item in the most recent budget that she would have vetoed, this should be a tool in the belt of future governors, who might have higher standards, both for him/herself and for the legislature, than Governor Raimondo about all of the spending that goes into the state budget.

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Consolidation Must Be Done With Good Data & Open Eyes

While a proposal to consolidate dispatcher services on the city and town level would seem at first blush to be a good idea,

Mayors from six cities were joined by Lieutenant Gov. Dan McKee and several public safety officials at the State House Monday to call on cities and towns to bring dispatch services into the 21st century.

a statement by the author of this bill, Senator Louis DiPalma, is concerning.

“We believe this will save tax dollars,” DiPalma said in part.

“We believe” consolidation here will save money? Shouldn’t someone have done a little analyzing and come up with some figures before proceeding along this track?

As I said, it may well be a good idea. But the concerns voiced by some, articulated especially well by Justin Katz here and elsewhere, about consolidation and regionalization must be born well in mind. They will certainly not be assuaged if some of our officials embark on the voyage (… in an election year – not that I’m implying anything) without any numbers to back their proposal.

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Gender Gap as Excuse to Take Over Private Companies

Another example of legislation that proves legislators’ abhorrent understanding of government’s role in our lives is the deceptively named “Fair Pay Act.”  In the Senate, it’s S2635, and in the House, it’s H7694, which is (it’s depressing to note) cosponsored by Republican Doreen Costa (Exeter, North Kingstown).

Not satisfied with the law already on the books to forbid discrimination in employees’ pay based on sex, the legislation attempts to make the factors by which an employer can explain differences between individuals’ pay more rigid when appearing before government officials concerning a complaint.  In essence, every business in the state would practically be forced to have a detailed catalog of adjustments for employees’ pay.

So, whereas before an employer could argue that a particular man had an edge in “seniority, experience, training, skill, or ability” over a female colleague, the law would require the company to have “a seniority system.”  Other systems that employers would have to have in place are “a merit system,” “a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production,” and some way to demonstrate that some other “bona fide factor” exists.

Somehow, employers would have to be able to define every difference in the qualities that their employees have according to some sort of “system.”  That things just seem to go better when John (or Jane, for that matter) is doing them would be insufficient.

The “bona fide factor” exemption is where things become truly objectionable, with this:

This defense shall not apply if the employee demonstrates that an alternative business practice exists that would serve the same business purpose without producing the wage differential.

Think about what this means.  Based on the nature of the business, the company’s business model, and just the way that the people who own, work for, and patronize the company operate, the organization does something in a particular way.  If this particular way of doing business happens to favor the unique qualities of a man in the organization over a particular woman, the woman can go to a faux judge in the Department of Labor and Training and get him or her to force the company to change the way it does business.

Companies could no longer just experiment and find ways to do things that seem to work in the most efficient way possible for that company.  Rather, at the urging of a disgruntled employee, a bureaucrat in a state agency could insist that the business must try some other possible approach.  The only burden to prove that it might work is the subjective judgment of the bureaucrat, and the process to undo the change would, it appears, be for the employer to do a careful study to prove that the second option is not working as well and to return to the bureaucracy to make that case.

Who really owns the business? This is completely out of keeping with the principles of our country.  Indeed, it’s the sort of thinking that drains economies and pushes civilizations to collapse.