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Raimondo’s Putting It Right in Your Faces, Rhode Islanders; React to It

Every day, it seems, we get more evidence that Rhode Island’s ruling elite are done with pretenses about how they believe our system of government should work. It could just be, of course, that they aren’t sufficiently self aware — or sufficiently inclined to think about the consequences of their own demonstrated political philosophy. In that case, though, I wonder why the news media and activists aren’t calling them on something to which we all obviously need to be attuned.

Here it is, with everything short of a highlighting, slipping right by in Ted Nesi’s summary of Governor Gina Raimondo’s appearance on Newsmakers, this week:

As for all those companies howling [about truck tolls], Raimondo said state leaders “are very open to the possibility of coming up with an economic package that would take these concerns into account.” Keep an eye out for that.

This is nothing more nor less than admission that state government is more than happy to create loopholes and buyoffs for companies that are able to bring enough political heat. This is exactly Rhode Island’s core problem, politically and economically. If you can’t get a special deal from the state, you’re out of luck. (And, by the way, special deals can come in the form of hindering competition.)

Since this apparently isn’t obvious to everybody, let’s think it through: The state imposes tolls on large trucks. Either collectively or individually, businesses that are particularly hard hit appeal to the politicians, who craft specific carve-outs elsewhere in the budget — money taken from one pocket is simply placed in another. In order to place money in the second pocket, the government either has to redirect funds from other purposes (mainly by draining down the general fund) or come up with yet another source of revenue.

Why would politicians want to operate this way? Because they get to be the check point. The businesses are now reliant on the politicians to keep the special deal in place, and everybody else sees quite clearly that bowing to the politicians is a necessary part of operating in the Ocean State.

Postscript: For some reason I don’t understand, WPRI reporters Ted Nesi and Tim White let Raimondo repeatedly get away with the untruth that the tolls are capped at $20. Unless I’m missing something, the legislation is quite clear on this point: The $20 cap is on one truck going one way across the state, all on Route 95. These are truly the out-of-state trucks that everybody claims they want to target. The actual cap is double that — $40 during a full day.

It’s especially rich that Raimondo repeats this untruth so frequently, considering that she accuses truckers of lying about their likelihood of rerouting.


About Hitting Out-of-State Trucks for 60% of Tolls

An assertion made repeatedly by pro-toll people at the House Finance hearing on Thursday was that out-of-state truckers will pay 60% of the bill. A commenter on this site just made the same point:

At the hearing it was said that 60% of the toll revenue would come from out of state large trucks. I don’t understand why toll opponents want only RIers to pay for road repairs, especially as those large trucks do significant damage.

The first point to make in response is that the objection isn’t to people out of state helping to pay for our infrastructure. The problem is: To get out-of-staters to pay 60% of tolls, Rhode Islanders have to pay the other 40% on top of all of the already-high taxes and fees they pay to government. The argument is akin to expressing disbelief that somebody objects to paying $4,000 more for cable TV on the grounds that the bill is actually going up $10,000, but is discounted by $6,000. In other words, it’s the kind of argument that only sounds good in government debates in which facts and the truth don’t matter.

Speaking of the truth, though, unless there’s a new source for this 60% claim, it comes from a study by CDM Smith. Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, that study doesn’t account for diversion. In October, I found:

Just for illustration of the effects that change could have, if we apply the diversion evenly across all routes and assume the extreme that all diversion would come from out-of-state truckers, then the percentage of traffic more than flips. In-state trucks would account for 60% of all truck traffic in the state.

Applying rough ratios for a multi-trip discount and assuming the discounts would all go to in-state truckers, they would still be responsible for nearly 57% of all tolls, or $34 million per year, if the goal is $60 million in revenue. That’s more than $10 million larger than implied by CDM.

On the broader argument about user fees, as I’ve written often before, it would generally be a good thing to transition from broad-based taxes to user fees, but that’s not what we’re getting, here. State and local governments have maxed out the taxes they can collect from Rhode Islanders, so they’re using this stuff about a “user fee” as an excuse to raise even more money. By all means, get people who use a service to pay for it, but when we’re already paying for it and won’t be getting that money back, increasing revenue is simply a money grab for special interests.


Civility Deteriorates Further Under Mattiello and Raimondo

I’ve attended a lot of legislative hearings at the Rhode Island State House, and they’re often an exercise in endurance and almost always give one a sense that the plan is to dissuade the public from paying attention, as I described for WatchDog.org last May. Usually, though, the only real insult is the contempt and lack of serious that one would expect when the people conducting a long hearing know it’s just a dog and pony show.

House Finance under Raymond Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth) has been particularly bad, though, and yesterday’s 9+ hour hearing on Governor Raimondo’s toll-and-borrow RhodeWorks plan was exacerbated by the attitude of Dept. of Transportation Director Peter Alviti, which drew multiple remarks on Twitter about his rudeness and arrogance from people present and watching on television. Goading his behavior, no doubt, was Gallison’s repeated practice of intervening on his behalf in exchanges with Republican committee members, even chastising Patricia Morgan (R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) when Alviti had interrupted her. Also prodding Alviti on was the vocal backing of Michael Sabotini of the Laborers union (which recently employed Alviti) and a gaggle of other labor lobbyists in the audience.

Here’s a clip of the most egregious moment. The performance-art cackling you hear in the background is Sabotini and cronies:

Anybody who’s gone to a school committee or town council meeting during a labor dispute will recognize the bullying strategy of both Alviti and his backers. It’s rare at legislative hearings with executive-branch department heads, though, and it’s unfortunate to see us descending to this level. The governor and her transportation director should publicly apologize to Morgan and to the people of Rhode Island.


AAA Southern New England Becomes a Political Action Committee

As a AAA member since 1992, when my late mother insisted that I join, I was disappointed (to say the least) to see WPRI’s Ted Nesi tweet, during a long RI Senate hearing on Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s toll-and-borrow infrastructure plan, that AAA Southern New England is officially in favor of bringing widespread tolling to Rhode Island.

When the roadside-assistance organization released a poll, recently, showing that a relatively narrow majority of its members support Raimondo’s RhodeWorks plan, I was willing to let it slide as purely an information activity, even though people with whom I agree on the issue suggested that it had essentially been a push poll that obscured the difference between supporting road repairs and supporting tolls. (N.B., I was not polled.) Sending a lobbyist to actually put the organization on a particular side of the issue is an entirely different matter.

According to the Secretary of State’s Lobby Tracker, Lloyd Albert, the Senior Vice President of Public & Government Affairs for AAA Northeast whom Nesi had named as offering testimony, collects $100 per hour to lobby in Rhode Island. Another lobbyist for the company, Mark Shaw, collects $150 per hour. Some portion of my most recent membership check, in other words, went toward paying Mr. Albert to argue for a major government revenue grab that I believe will be terrible for the state.

Of course, even if my money all went to Albert, it wouldn’t have covered a full hour of hanging out at the State House. The state government, by contrast, gives AAA enough money to have covered its entire $21,000 lobbying bill last year. According to RIOpenGov, the state Dept. of Administration paid AAA an average of $21,222 per year from 2010 through 2014. According to the state’s transparency site, the Governor’s Workforce Board began giving AAA Southern New England thousands of dollars a year, as well, in 2014 — $18,100 in fiscal year 2014, $500 in fiscal 2015, and $8,523 so far in fiscal 2016.

Yesterday, I noted that the private-sector groups that should offer some counter-force to the agents of big government are next to useless in Rhode Island, perhaps because they’ve simply been bought off. It’s more important to the people at the top of these organizations to preserve their network with government insiders than to assert the interests of their members when they conflict with the government’s interests. Members and potential members should take this reality under advisement.


UPDATED: Frias Shows Raimondo Doubletalk on Taxes

One really has to go out of one’s way not to see evidence that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and the rest of Rhode Island’s political establishment is not interested in coming to correct answers so much as saying anything to get their insider deals over the (ostensibly) legal finish line. In today’s Providence Journal, Steven Frias notes that Raimondo’s friends at the Brookings Institution proclaim that “Massachusetts and New Hampshire show the way forward,” but gloss over the degree to which cutting taxes made a difference:

In 1979, the Massachusetts High Technology Council (MHTC), a trade association of high-tech companies, declared that the “single most important step to stimulate the growth of the high technology industry in Massachusetts is real tax relief.” MHTC explained that the “higher cost of living and doing business in Massachusetts can no longer be offset by the proximity of MIT or Boston’s active venture capital market, or the cultural and environmental amenities.” Instead, MHTC insisted “Massachusetts must reduce the tax burden,” particularly for property taxes and income taxes.

MHTC and Citizens for Limited Taxation, an anti-tax grass roots organization led by Barbara Anderson, joined forces to support a voter initiative known as Proposition 2½. Proposition 2½ was designed to reduce property taxes and limit future property tax increases to 2.5 percent per year. To control spending, Proposition 2½ also repealed state laws that gave school committees fiscal autonomy and mandated binding arbitration for police and firefighter unions.

In passing, we should observe that Frias has hit on another of Rhode Island’s problems. Whether because of the state’s size or its long history of corruption, the “business backed” groups that should offer a counterweight to state government as the MHTC did in Massachusetts — think chambers of commerce, business associations, and RIPEC — have simply been bought into the insider system. In RI, they are now almost completely controlled by people with high (often six-figure) salaries who are more worried about losing access to the political font than losing ground for their members.

More relevant to the governor’s budget, though, is the tax-limiting reform: “Proposition 2½ was designed to reduce property taxes and limit future property tax increases to 2.5 percent per year.” Raimondo is headed in the opposite direction.

As I noted last week, her Funding Formula Working Group suggested getting rid of the legal requirement that local taxpayers must pay at least as much toward education each year as they did the prior year, instead requiring them to increase taxes every year for inflation and/or for enrollment increases. (The report did not suggest that this ratchet should go in reverse in times of deflation or dropping enrollment.)

I didn’t see confirmation in the governor’s budget documents that this provision made it in, and the budget legislation isn’t available, yet, but Lynn Arditi has reported that it is, presumably as part of the governor’s effort to make the districts’ complaints about charter funding go away by throwing more money at them.

Bottom line: The Raimondo-Brookings plan is an attempt to work around the problems we all know are destroying the state.

UPDATE (2/3/16 7:58 p.m.):

Well, there it is on page 167. Local taxpayer funding of schools must go up by the greater of inflation or the increase in student enrollment. Municipalities can still calculate the increase per student (to account for decreased enrollment), but inflation must still be included. (Of course, this per-student approach is tricky, because it’s not clear what number counts. If the district projects an increase, for example, even after years of decreases, does that mean the budget must go with the district’s estimate? In RI, the safe bet is that the answer is “yes,” if the district challenges the number.)


With Raimondo Budget 2.0, Welcome to Second Class Status, Rhode Islanders

Anyone who thought Rhode Island had reached its peak for governing in favor of special interests learned from Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget, released last night, that a whole new level exists. The overarching assumption is now that a few connected insiders in the state government, in nonprofit groups, from private companies and investment firms, and from Washington, D.C., think tanks and agencies can and should map a course for our shared future and spend our money to make us get in line.

“Nearly every item is directly targeted toward a particular narrow group of recipients,” said Justin Katz, research director for the Center. “It’s the kind of budget a chief executive puts forward when she doesn’t trust the people of her state to make their own decisions.”

In ways small and large, the vision of the budget is what one might expect to be crafted in the halls of the progressive Brookings Institution, with its recent report funded by private interests (mainly Raimondo donors), and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which got its hooks into the Ocean State through the RhodeMap RI plan.

Continue reading on RIFreedom.org.


Constitutional Amendment Limiting New Tolls to be Heard Alongside the Rhode Works Bill

Today, the Rhode Works plan, which creates a system for tolling trucks across the network of Rhode Island highways, will have its first hearing in the RI Senate Finance Committee….the Senate Finance Committee will also hear a bill today to send to the voters a constitutional amendment which would require that any future car tolls be directly approved by voter referendum….and there is no reason why both bills shouldn’t move through the legislative process together — unless, of course, the plan all along has been to use truck tolls as a stepping stone towards car tolls.

Any legislator who votes for the Rhode Works bill without also voting for the constitutional amendment will be voting for truck tolls now with an option for car tolls later.


James Cournoyer: Tolls – Resist the Urge to Create a Big Bang Wrapped in the Worn Flag of “Economic Growth” and “Creating Jobs”

Dear Members of the General Assembly,

Please vote against Governor Raimondo’s and Speaker Mattiello’s Rhodeworks plan that calls for Tolls and more Debt.

RI may have the worse roads and bridges, but we are also saddled with one of the highest Debt burdens in the nation – both on a per capita basis and as a percentage of Gross State Product. We simply do not need more debt.

The Governor explained to us in October that the RIDOT, which has a stunning $450+ million budget this year, was “dysfunctional” and that they “never produced start-to-finish budgets and schedules”. That is precisely the reason our roads are in such disrepair. It is NOT due to a lack of funding; rather, it is due to a lack of planning and oversight, and gross mismanagement.

Tolls will simply add to RI’s already notorious national reputation of being “anti-business”.


“Clarifications” About Infringements on Your Rights

Conspicuously on the same day I highlighted his legislation seeking to regulate even small-scale grassroots political activity at the town level, state representative John “Jay” Edwards (D, Tiverton, Portsmouth) put out a press release on the subject, which is built around a… let’s say… highly spun premise. The five-paragraph release uses some variation of the word “clarify” in each of its first three paragraphs:

  • The bill will “increase accountability” by “clarifying language.”
  • It will “extend [government] power” by “clarifying which people and groups are obliged to submit campaign finance reports.”
  • It will “clarify the definition of the term ‘entity’.”

All this talk about “clarifying” seems designed to disguise just how radical and tyrannical a step Edwards wants to take. In a word, the clarification is that Edwards wants the term “entity” to apply to everybody. Any single person or any group organized in any way who spends $100 in the course of a year on a local matter would have to “file reports of contributions or expenditures every seven days.” That’s not clarification; it’s asphyxiation.

Two items that could use a little clarification, but about which Edwards doesn’t seem concerned, are whether there’s ever an end to the weekly reports or if they go on every week through the end of the year and how much overlap in reportage is necessary. If Uncle Joe gives $100 to Patricia and Jim down the street so the couple can print up some fliers about their shared opinion on whether the town should buy land for a community mini-golf course, do all of them have to start filing reports because Joe has an expense and Patricia and Jim have both a donation and an expense?

Note, too, that the bill does not apply this onerous “everybody” standard to the election of local or state politicians. This not only protects Edwards’s supporters and those of his friends, but it also creates incentive for the public to limit its political activity only to that which is filtered through insiders.

Forgive my repetition, but the purpose of Edwards’s bill isn’t to “clarify” anything. It’s to create even more disincentive to civic participation in the general population. It’s to give people the general sense that getting involved in politics — even at the town level — is something people should only do if they’re willing to start regularly filling out publicly accessible forms with their addresses and other information — not the least, a record of those with whom they associate in an exchange of money. It’s also to give Edwards’s political allies more insight into whom they should add to their target list for gossip, anonymous attacks on the Internet, and other forms of intimidation.

The only things Edwards clarifies with this legislation are that he has no respect for the rights of Americans and that neither he nor any representative of any party who supports his bill should not be trusted with public office.


Decorating the Governor’s Office with Red Flags

This paragraph from Ted Nesi’s weekend column, Saturday, deserves reading and clipping for future reference:

Tapping unusual funding sources to pay for public initiatives has become a hallmark of Gina Raimondo’s political career since she took office five years ago, and this was the week it backfired on her rather spectacularly. Raimondo has always had an easy time harnessing cash, as was widely noted as far back as 2010, when she set a blistering fundraising pace in a sleepy campaign for treasurer. Then in 2011 she courted controversy by encouraging anonymous donors – later revealed to include the hedge-fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife – to drum up support for her pension overhaul through EngageRI. Soon after she became governor, Brown created a new policy shop to advise her office, funded with nearly $3 million from Arnold. Then there was the Brookings study, commissioned by Raimondo to guide public policy but paid for by private donors (including Rhode Island native Mark Gallogly, whose old firm, Blackstone, just bought Wexford Science + Technology). And now there’s the contretemps over tapping the RIC and URI foundations to pay for, respectively, a chief innovation officer and a trip to Davos. In each case, Raimondo allies say she’s saving taxpayers money while doing things that are good for Rhode Island. But continuing to go the non-traditional route will also continue to raise questions about whether Raimondo’s methods skirt normal rules and accountability.

“Always had an easy time harnessing cash.” That’s something to watch in and out of government. In the ’80s, the design-the-world Greenhouse Compact failed when a required bond gave the people a vote, so now we get Raimondo funding her economic development schemes through a fancy debt refinancing deal and seeking to fund transportation infrastructure through a revenue bond based on tolls.

There was a time when even progressives and journalists were suspicious of the alchemy of creating money from air. Now, we get Rhode Island’s useless, navel-gazing, and corrupt Ethics Commission blithely noting that the chief innovation officer Raimondo hired through the private nonprofit Rhode Island College Foundation isn’t subject to its review because he doesn’t actually work for the state. Nesi hedges too much, because it’s absolutely clear that “Raimondo’s methods skirt normal rules and accountability.”

Remember, too, in this context, that certain legislators — notably Democrat House Whip John “Jay” Edwards and Republican House Minority Leader Brian Newberry — apparently believe the real threat to representative democracy in Rhode Island isn’t a governor who can bring a cauldron to a boil and produce a shadow government with private money, but regular Rhode Islanders who put down $100 over the course of a year to push back on the special interests that dominate local government.


The Fruits of Halting Education Reform

Through the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, I put out a one-page report today, time to coincide with National School Choice Week. Using data available through the Center’s interactive application to review state-level results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, the one-pager points out something that I’ve noted before: Rhode Island actually gained ground through much of the last decade, particularly among disadvantaged students, but hit a hard ceiling when reforms were halted. Here’s one of the charts from the report with an added political dimension that’s quite striking:


As the General Assembly promises to knock around charter schools this session (with some reforms that I actually break from school choice allies in supporting), Rhode Islanders should rouse themselves at least a little bit to insist that the special interests who control our state — in particular, public education — must be made to step aside in the interest of real, secure, long-term school choice that stops funding government-branded schools and starts funding education. In other words, we need real school choice in the Ocean State.


Charters as a Step to True Government Monopoly

For a year or more, my fellow conservatives have looked at me a bit funny when I’ve suggested that maybe we shouldn’t see charter schools as part of our school choice movement.  If you look past intentions and the first-order effects of charter school proliferation and take into account other forces in public education, observing what’s actually happening, you can easily foresee a future in which we discover that charter schools were simply a stepping stone to a total government monopoly of education, rather than just the near-monopoly that we have now.

First, we find it is impossible to break the insider-labor-union grip that’s preventing public schools from fulfilling their mission.  Second, charter schools act as a school choice opportunity with full public school–level funding (which is much higher than most private school options in the state).  Third, non-elite private schools go out of business because they can’t compete with charters’ free-to-parents price point.  Fourth, once charters have killed the private school market in the state, the insider-labor-union forces flex their muscles and absorb the charters back into the education blob.

A Linda Borg article in today’s Providence Journal suggests that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence — the state’s single largest operator of private schools, most of them in the affordable range — sees the threat of step 3 and isn’t interested in playing along.  The diocese has opted not to extend a lease with Blackstone Valley Prep, the largest network of charter schools.

Charter supporters claim there’s no evidence that they’re poaching students from private schools, despite the striking parallel of the numbers, but they ignore the complexity of human decisions.  As contrary evidence, Blackstone Valley director of external affairs Jennifer LoPiccolo notes that “the vast majority of their students are enrolled in kindergarten, not the later grades” (in Borg’s paraphrase), so kids leaving Catholic schools can’t be transferring.  But take a bunch of kindergarten kids out of a private school, and its tuition has to go up, pushing parents out.  Some of their children will win the charter-school lottery, but most will simply lose their choice and return to district public schools.  When the Catholic school ultimately closes its doors, that scenario plays out across its entire student body.

From a small-government, free-market perspective, one would have difficulty coming up with a better example of government’s using its ability to regulate, legislate, and direct near-limitless public resources to its preferred providers (mainly its own) than charter schools.  Still, somehow, I’ve already had heated arguments about, for example, H7067, which would remove the unfunded mandate that local property taxpayers must provide big funding to charter schools.  In my assessment, that would be a good, positive change consistent with conservative principles.  Local taxpayers have next to zero input when it comes to charter schools, so they should have some say about whether or to what extent they want to fund them.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, Rhode Islanders need to give some fresh consideration to charters.


Let’s Not Get Carried Away with Education Rhetoric

Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee makes several points with which I agree in his op-ed, today, in the Providence Journal, but Rhode Islanders should keep two things in mind if the truly want an education system that helps turn Rhode Island around.

First, McKee’s core prescription is that Rhode Islanders should change their state constitution to “guarantee[] every Rhode Island student a right to a high-quality public education.”  It’s the sort of proposal that sounds good while giving the impression that it won’t actually change anything.  Who could argue against such a thing, stated broadly and with no details?  We need to know what the proposal actually means, though, especially when the state constitution already requires the General Assembly (i.e., the state government) “to adopt all means which it may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

If some provision of state law and budgeting is standing in the way of adequate public schools (collective bargaining for teachers, say), one could argue that the General Assembly was not authorized by the constitution to implement that law or, alternately, that the General Assembly is obligated to change the law.  An amendment such as McKee advocates might bring this right to a more individual level that would grant Rhode Islanders standing to sue the state, but in the State of Rhode Island as it currently exists, what might be the outcome of such lawsuits?

I suspect we’d see demands for more spending.  That’s the one thing on which every powerful force in the education establishment can agree.

From there, the second point responds to McKee’s assertion that “if our public schools performed as well as those in Massachusetts, earning power in Rhode Island would jump by $1.5 billion to $2.1 billion annually.”  To the extent that greater education increases each person’s earning potential, Rhode Island would likely find its students increasingly likely to leave the state.  Investing in education doesn’t do much good for the economy if the state’s policies prevent Rhode Islanders from realizing their potential as entrepreneurs or even just as workers.

And if the end result of a right to “a high-quality public education” is to drain more resources out of the economy to fund the beat of Rhode Island’s ruling class, then even if the net result turns out to be better educated people, they’ll have even less opportunity in the state when graduating.  Then, just as Connecticut is losing GE, we’ll lose even more of our children.


More Wealth Transfer to the Urbans; More Bad Drafting

Among the first bills rolling out of the General Assembly, this year, is one to transfer even more state tax dollars to Rhode Island cities.  As the related press release puts it:

Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), Rep. Michael Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. John M. Carnevale (D-Dist. 13, Providence, Johnston) and Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Dist. 56, Central Falls) sent a letter to the co-chairpersons of the working group — which is poised to vote on its recommendations Thursday — beseeching the panel to consider shifting aid to communities with high concentrations of affordable housing, in large part because of correlations between low-income populations and students with higher education expenses. …

“Our communities have met the state goal of 10 percent low income housing. As such, we are generally absorbing additional costs since it has been repeatedly determined that students who live in public housing perform worse in school than students who live in other types of housing, thus requiring additional interventions,” the group wrote in the letter sent last month to the the working group’s co-chairpersons, Elizabethe Burke Bryant and Donald R. Sweitzer.

It could just be ignorance on the part of the legislators, but the state’s funding formula already notches state aid up in response to the community’s low-income residents at least twice: once by estimating that a low-income child needs 40% more money to be educated, and once by turning the balance of the obligation toward the state based on the principle that low-income communities have less “ability to pay.”  This new bonus would be little more than a transfer of wealth that gives municipal government incentive to prefer low-income residents.

Moreover, bad drafting could make this bill even more mischievous.  Note the calculation:

After the five (5) year period provided for in subsection (a)(1) of this section, and for each year thereafter, any community that exceeds the required minimum goals identified in subsection (a)(1) of this section for low and moderate income housing shall have its education aid increased in a percentage amount equal to the percentage by which the community exceeds its required minimum goals of ten percent (10%) or fifteen percent (15%) whichever is applicable.

If you’ll recall word problems back in math class, that language would have a huge effect.  A community that is supposed to have 10% affordable housing, but that has 20% affordable housing exceeds its minimum goal by 100%.  That would mean its education aid would double.  The language ought to say that the aid increases by a percentage equal to the percentage points “by which the community exceeds its required minimum goal.”


Seattle Minimum Wage and Restaurant Jobs

Yesterday, I initiated a conversation with Jared Moffat on Facebook when he shared a post by local progressive activist and writer Steve Ahlquist, who linked to an article on Forbes.com by Erik Sherman scoffing at conservatives who proclaimed the drop in food service employees in the Seattle area from January to May of last year following a big jump in the city’s minimum wage:

Yes, the loss of 1,000 jobs between April and May, after the implementation of the $11 an hour minimum wage, was large. There was a 900 position drop between August and September, which only shows that few trends work in absolute straight lines. But the gain of 1,100 jobs between May and June, at the same $11 an hour minimum wage, was larger. And that was equaled by the 1,100 position jump between September and October.

Noting one of the commonly cited studies on minimum wage (this one, I think), I suggested that an increase in the minimum wage might increase minimum-wage jobs among stores that disproportionately cater to minimum-wage-earning customers.  Nobody claims that minimum wages wipe out low-end jobs, and employees who keep their jobs have more disposable income, so the businesses they frequent should see an increase.

That one big beneficiary might be fast-food restaurants is not an encouraging sign when it comes to improving the lives of the workers or the local economy.  The money has to come from somewhere, and one would expect that taking money from elsewhere in the economy to supply it to dining establishments wouldn’t help pave the way for advancement.

Be that as it may, this morning, I came across a post at ZeroHedge that incidentally posts a chart which proves the Seattle results were merely have been part of a national trend.  Here’s the data from the St. Louis Fed that Sherman cited.  It shows an increase in “food services and drinking places” jobs of 2.18% from May 2015 to November 2015.  Looking at the same data nationally, though, shows that the decrease in the spring smaller and shorter in duration than in Seattle, and the increase thereafter was almost as large, at 1.83%.

As a consequence, from November 2014 to November 2015, Seattle-area jobs in this sector increased 1.87%, while nationally, such jobs increased 3.45%.  This could suggest two similar dynamics:  Seattle-area employers in the industry laid off too many people because of the minimum wage increase, not taking into account industry-wide growth trends, and after the initial layoffs, the disposable income adjustment kicked in, although not as strongly as the original Seattle-area chart would suggest.  All in all, that doesn’t look like an encouraging development.

(The annual increase in this industry in Rhode Island, incidentally, was 5.35%.)


Constructing “Bold” Reforms in Rhode Island

Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Ken Wagner, has some ideas worth considering, as Linda Borg reports in today’s Providence Journal.  Time will tell how much of it is just sparkly talk from a guy who is neither a former teacher nor a parent.  The initial points, however, do leave me a little concerned that he won’t pursue reforms with an eye toward their effects on incentives and rights.

The notion that principals should be empowered, for instance, sounds wonderful:

One of Wagner’s most dramatic suggestions calls for investing principals with the power to hire their own staff, manage their budgets, even set the length of the school day. Historically, the state Department of Education or the school superintendent have dictated everything from curriculum to the length of the school day.

Wagner said, “School is where the magic happens. Ken Wagner can’t create a culture of innovation and improvement, nor can the superintendent. That culture can only be created by a principal but not alone. The principal needs to be surrounded by a leadership culture” of committed teachers.

The tricky part will be in establishing accountability.  Yes, principals are more directly knowledgeable of and accessible to their students and teachers, but insulating them from the influence of the superintendent and school committee insulates them from direct accountability to anybody.  And if principals set their own budgets, what happens if local voters or the municipal government does not provide the district with everything it requests?  The details of budget control will be very important.

Another of Wagner’s larger suggestions might seem to provide some answer on the accountability front:

Wagner’s most unorthodox proposal involves giving parents the opportunity to send their children to another school district. He cited the constant movement of students back and forth between Providence and Pawtucket and Central Falls.

“We’ve created this burden by making them go to school where they live,” he said. “If a school has extra seats, why not open the door and allow people to come in?”

This idea, called “open enrollment,” was actually part of the Bright Today legislation on which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity worked, last year, and it would likely increase accountability among public schools, including for principals.  A principal whose school began emptying out would have a lot to answer for, while the reverse would be a spotlight on merit.  But if a bad principal is insulated from superiors, it isn’t clear how much the pressure would actually increase.  Once again, the details are going to be important; Rhode Island government tends to try to hold everybody harmless, which reverses incentives.

Lastly, Wagner’s idea that 90% of Rhode Island students should be accessing advanced courses could set a metric that actually harms students.  If only 20-35% of students reach the point of taking advanced classes before graduation, that’s fine.  Education should be about achieving individual potential and finding personal direction, not pretending everybody is advanced or needs to reach levels of highly technical learning.


The Odd Language of Progressive Activism

A line in Kathy Gregg’s Providence Journal article about protests at the State House today — one against the truck toll proposal and one in favor of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — seemed to stumble on language in a telling way:

“No more second class status. All Rhode Islanders should come in from the shadows. It is time for all of RI’s workers to have equal access to our roads,” said Mike Araujo, executive director of the coalition known as “RI Jobs With Justice,” in a media advisory for this 3-to-4:30 p.m. march and rally.

“Second class” is an adjective, and “status” isn’t a very descriptive word.  Second-class what?  Most commonly, in American politics, one would expect the noun to be “citizens,” but that’s clearly not the case, here.  Second-class residents?  That still seems odd.

The phrase “second class status” deliberately attempts to skirt this question in a way that insinuates rights without thought, skipping a legitimate question:  Are there rights and privileges that somebody who came to this country and this state illegally should be denied?  Clearly, the answer is “yes,” unless one intends to claim that anybody who manages to cross a border should be entitled to vote and hold public office.

Such rhetoric, frankly, reveals the lie behind claims like Raimondo’s assurances that granting licenses to illegal immigrants is simply a safety issue.  It’s all about safety in much the same way that same-sex marriage was all about allowing gay partners to visit each other in the hospital… until to turned out to be about forcing Christian bakers to help celebrate same-sex marriages or Catholic adoption agencies to place children in same-sex households.

Americans should stop falling for the bait and switch.  If advocates and progressive Democrat politicians want to push our society in a particular direction, they should make the case.  They shouldn’t try to sneak it in as simply a practical tweak.  Supply the noun.  Giving illegal immigrants licenses would make them “full” whats?


Young Men Might Want to Have Their College Experience Somewhere Else

When the press release about Mia Ackerman’s legislative commission “to study the issue of sexual assault on college campuses” arrived in my inbox, I put it aside with a mental note to keep an eye on whether the committee spent any time at all actually challenging the assumption that there’s some sort of sexual assault crisis on U.S. campuses.  My expectation is that the question won’t be asked, and that this is an issue only because the preacher-dad from Footloose has re-imagined himself as a progressive and because divisive identity politics will help Democrats during the upcoming election year.

But the last paragraph of a quick Providence Journal write-up of the commission’s first meeting by Lynn Arditi truly merits some consideration:

Ackerman introduced legislation to form the study commission after victims advocates opposed a bill she introduced last January to require colleges report sexual assault to law enforcement. Day One, a nonprofit that advocates for victims of sexual violence, opposed the mandatory reporting bill saying it could discourage victims from coming forward. Ackerman withdrew the mandatory reporting bill.

The advocacy group doesn’t want colleges and universities to report allegations of crimes, because the victims might not make the allegations if they expect that to happen.  Here’s the question: What are the colleges and universities supposed to do differently than the legal system that alleged victims will find less threatening?  Worry more about their feelings than the facts?  Remove the alleged perpetrator without due process?  National news on the issue suggests that’s exactly the intention.

The whole discussion has something of a surreal quality.  One would think, for instance, that people obsessed with equity and identity groups would notice how much female undergrads already outnumber male undergrads.  If Collegedata.com is accurate, URI has a male:female ratio of 46:54.  At RIC, it’s 33:67.  The private institutions vary as well, although Brown is pretty close to even and Bryant has more men.

This commission’s report is do by May, and there might be some legislation to come out of it.  Then the advocacy may continue.  All of this goes to suggest that if you’re in the process of helping your son figure out a path to college, just now, you might want to leave open some options that are outside of the reach of Rhode Island’s legislature — somewhere that left-wing activists and special interests don’t have elected officials on quite so short of a leash.


Catching Up on Coventry

Kevin Mooney summarizes the saga of the Central Coventry Fire District for The Daily Signal:

In a battle of political wills in Rhode Island, local voters so far have held their ground against efforts by union leaders and state officials to make them pay more for fire and rescue services.

State lawmakers and local activists who side with the voters, however, see the situation as an ongoing threat to self-government.

“The people have rejected higher taxes over and over again because they want a new way of doing business,” state Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, says.


Rhode Island’s ‘Ouroboros’ approach to economic development

At the request of third graders from an elite Newport private school, lawmakers in Rhode Island this year declared the American burying beetle to be the official state insect. The designation is appropriate not only because the Ocean State is one of the few that still can claim the bugs as residents, but also because the species feeds on and breeds in carrion — i.e., “the decaying flesh of dead animals.”

If Rhode Island legislators are looking for ideas for next year, the Ouroboros should be a candidate for the official state economic symbol. Historically, the mythical snake eating its own tail has been emblematic of renewal and self-creation, but Rhode Islanders may finally answer its greatest mystery: What happens when the snake finishes?

Rhode Island’s strategy of subsidizing every step in the economic chain has a similar circular feel.

Continue reading on Watchdog.org and then… return for this bonus ending, only on the Ocean State Current:

Despite a one-month increase of 1,100 jobs in “education and health services,” the total number of jobs located in Rhode Island decreased by 300, in June, after a longer-term trend of slowed growth, and the latest economic development controversy is the shift of a local star start-up company, Teespring, to Kentucky, after that state provided $2.5 million in tax incentives while Rhode Island officials had no interactions with its executives.

Bugs that require carrion to survive must live in a world of living animals.  Somebody has to pay for expanded government programs that provide services to beneficiaries of other government programs.  Otherwise, the economy will ultimately become a central-planning head with nothing left to eat.


Allowing Representative Democracy at Outdoor Restaurants

Reviewers of legislation for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s annual Freedom Index had some mild disagreement about H6210, which passed the Rhode Island House but didn’t make it over to the state Senate before the end of the session.  Basically, the bill would have given restaurants with outdoor tables some flexibility to allow patrons to have leashed dogs with them.

The negative view of the bill begins with the (appropriate) belief that it is ludicrous for the government to be getting involved with this question at all.  On the other hand, the positive reviewers assumed that this was a legislative attempt to return some freedom to Rhode Islanders, providing relief from rules already on the books.

It turns out that the assumption is correct.  Regulation 6-501.115(A) of the state Dept. of Health’s “Food Code” is the culprit:

Except as specified in (B) and (C) of this section, live animals may not be allowed on the PREMISES of a FOOD ESTABLISHMENT.

The exceptions are edible or decorative fish, patrol dogs, security dogs in outside fenced areas, service animals, and pets in institutional care facilities.  Arguably, the additional relief that the House bill sponsors sought to provide was so narrow and minimal that it didn’t justify inclusion on the index at all, but lovers of freedom in Rhode Island have to take whatever hints of light they can get.

Upon consideration, the bill actually raises an indictment of the depths to which we’ve allowed our government to sink.  Apparently, the process for law is for regulators to issue decrees, and people can appeal to the legislature for relief on specific grievances.  That’s more like a parliamentary monarchy, or something, whereby the emperor pronounces rules, but people can go to the parliament (or senate) to argue for mild relief.  That is, the representative aspect is effectively secondary.

In June, I noted a similar encroachment when it comes to the bureaucracy-decreed mandate for all seventh graders to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted HPV disease.  In that case, it appears that Rhode Island is one of only two states to mandate the vaccine, and the other, Virginia, did so by legislation, not by bureaucratic fiat.

What legislators ought to begin doing — and what Rhode Islanders ought to begin demanding that they do — is going through the Rhode Island General Laws and tightening whatever language it is that allows unelected agencies to assume the authority to issue such edicts.  The basic assumption is that experts in the government have a need, and the right, to comb through our society searching for anything that might cause harm to anybody and implementing rules to protect us from ourselves.

If we don’t demand that such a bureaucracy be pulled back, then we can’t claim to be a society that values independence and freedom.



The Web of Accumulating Legislation

On GoLocalProv, Stephen Beale revisits the habit of Rhode Island legislators to burden the state law with restrictions that make no sense and/or of which residents might not even be aware unless they’re cited for breaking them.  Both Steve Brown of the local ACLU and I point to the danger that this attitude toward the authority of government can move into areas of political activity:

“It is not far-fetched to worry that other dubious laws on the books, like one banning online impersonation, could easily be used against political speech or even satirical Web sites,” Brown said. He cited the newspaper case as an example of why such fears are not groundless. …

Katz … worries about further government limits on political speech.

“For example, S0384, which passed the Senate but died in the House would have expanded the requirements for politically active citizens to register and file reports, forbidding them from running for office if they run afoul of the regulations and owe fines. A story on your site today illustrates how people organizing on important political questions might be contacted by the state government to let them know that they’re coming up to the line of the law. Others are less fortunate and only find out that their civic engagement has been illegal when somebody files a complaint,” Katz said.

Of course, it’s much worse than direct regulation of political activity and related rights, like free speech.  In a society in which everyone has pretty good odds of breaking some law, somewhere, at any given moment of the day, government has a limitless power to arrest or at least discredit anybody in the entire society who might become a problem.


One Piece of the Health Care Solution Puzzle

From time to time people who are inclined to support heavy government involvement in healthcare will ask me what the alternative is.  My answer has been a system that disengages health insurance from employment, drives down the cost of insurance, and creates incentive for people to make prudent decisions and spend wisely.

Basically, the law would end existing incentives to route health insurance through places of employment and ease mandates to make high-deductible plans that really are insurance, rather than health management programs, more feasible.  With that done, opening up the insurance market across state lines would be no problem.  To compete and to manage their own costs, insurers might throw in things like a free check-up every year, but the idea would be that the purpose of their service is to manage risk, like car insurance, not to negotiate every detail of a person’s medical consumption.

To fill in the gap, everybody would get health savings accounts into which anybody concerned could put money — the people themselves, their employers, the government (for low-income people), and charities.  It would be tax free and would be an asset that could (maybe) be spent in retirement or at least passed down.

I bring this up because a bill for Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts passed both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly, this session.  Basically, it would create accounts for blind and disabled Rhode Islanders that the state would manage and into which any supporters could put money.  As designed, the system probably has more government involvement than needed, but the concept seemed familiar.


Legislation in the “Know Not What They Do” Category

Sometimes I think I ought to be entitled to some sort of hazard pay for my work reading the legislation that passes through Rhode Island’s General Assembly.  (Naturally, it would be a matter for me to negotiate with my employer, not to try to put into another awful piece of legislation.)

Take S0134, which Governor Raimondo signed into law last Friday.  On first read, it looks like an attempt to require government agencies that handle people’s private information to have security programs in place and processes to notify people in the case of a breach, and that’s a good intention.  The problem is that, in the operative section, the law refers to “a municipal agency, state agency or person.”

“A person,” in the legislation, includes “any individual, sole proprietorship, partnership, association, corporation, or joint venture, business or legal entity, trust, estate, cooperative or other commercial entity.”  And “personal information” includes social security number, driver’s license (or other RI ID card) number, account numbers with their PINs or passwords, medical or health insurance information, or even email addresses with passwords “that would permit access to an individual’s personal, medical, insurance or financial account.”

It’s easy to see the reasonable intention, here, but the language is frighteningly broad.  Suppose I… I don’t know… start a small Web site and give contributors email addresses with the URL.  Since it’s just a small, cooperative project, I don’t have any written policies or anything like that — we’re just a few folks trying to make a difference in our community.

It’s conceivable that one of the contributors might use the email to set up some sort of financial account, whether intended to be related to the site or not.  It’s also conceivable that a hacker might someday crawl some file, somewhere, and get the person’s email info and use it to gain access to the financial account.

Do I need to figure out what “a risk-based information security program” is and implement it?  Or maybe it’s worse than that, and the law ultimately will require every Rhode Islander to buy such software for computers with family information.

I could be taking the law too literally.  It would probably be necessary for the scenarios that I’ve described to actually occur for some unlucky people, and however the legalities played out for them, the law would very possibly be changed to be more specific.

Be that as it may, as the government grants itself more and more authority to regulate every personal interaction in our society, one can see how it becomes more and more difficult to do anything without a team of lawyers.  The impulse to make the world a safely padded playroom may be admirable, but it simultaneously turns us all into children who can’t be expected to address the concept of “risk” by ourselves and makes it impossible for us to innovate and thrive in a way that moves society forward and reduces income disparities.


U.S.A. Now the U.S.S.A.

The United States of America is no more.  Our experiment with representative democracy in a constitutional and federalist republic is finished, and it failed.  We are now the United States of Social Acceptance.

You are not free.  Everything you do must be explicitly or implicitly be approved by the government.  We’ve gone from the idea that the laws of the land draw narrow boundaries for government to the reality that laws and regulations draw the increasingly restrictive boundaries of what you are permitted to do.

The examples are everywhere proving that those who dominate our government see themselves as an authority over every personal interaction in the country.  One I spotted over the weekend while reading legislation from the General Assembly’s last week, and that was featured in the Providence Journal on Sunday, gives the government authority to judge whether employers are making reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees (and those who recently gave birth).  In the Senate, the bill is S0276 from Hannah Gallo (D, Cranston); in the House, it’s H5674 from Shelby Maldonado (D, Central Falls).

As it happens, I agree — as I’m sure most of us do — that an employer should make accommodations for such employees unless doing so causes “undue hardship.”  In such decisions, I agree that some of the relevant factors are “the nature and cost of the accommodation,” “the overall financial resources of the employer,” “the overall size of the business,” and “the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise of such accommodation upon the operation of the employer.”

But in most cases, both the employee and the employer are adults.  It shouldn’t be up to me to decide whether the inconveniences to the employee outweigh the business needs of the employer, and it shouldn’t be up to the government, whether legislators, judges, or bureaucrats.

In the progressive mindset that dominates in Rhode Island and, increasingly, at the federal level, we are not adults.  We’re children who need some superauthority over our lives to whom we can run when we’re not happy with each other.  Whining ten-year-olds run to their parents when they think their peers have done something that isn’t “fair.”  Adults shouldn’t require the same condescension.