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Corporate Personhood and Three Steps to No Rights

Brad Smith recently took up an important point in the Providence Journal, responding to Democrat U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is seeking to “strip rights from corporate entities,” in Smith’s words.  He cites the 1819 Supreme Court case, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward:

A corporation, the court noted, “is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” But that didn’t mean that people gave up their rights when they formed a corporation. Rather, the decision emphasized that when people join together to accomplish things, they usually need some form of organization, and shouldn’t have to sacrifice their rights just because they organize.

This is one of those recurring discussions that are frustrating because they’re mainly semantic, and one feels as if normal people sitting down to fairly explain to each other what they mean will agree and move on.  The danger is that the semantics could allow radicals like Whitehouse to push the law a few steps to totalitarian control.

Step 1 is to force people to organize for any sort of public activity by offering either competitive enticements (from tax benefits to liability protections) or regulations restricting activities if people do not organize.  We’re already pretty far along this path.

Step 2 is declare that those organizations that people have formed don’t have rights.  Another way of putting that, as Smith explains, is to say that people lose their individual rights when they organize as corporations… which they were more or less forced to do in order to accomplish their goals.

Step 3 will be to force people to do what government insiders want by imposing requirements on the rights-less corporations.

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Government Coercion by Another Means

Here’s the article I mentioned in this week’s podcast, about tax deals for corporate charity:

A bipartisan group of congressmen recently introduced a new bill intended to reinvigorate America’s poorest communities. The Investing in Opportunity Act (IOA) will allow investors to temporarily delay paying capital-gains taxes on their investments if they choose to reinvest the money into “opportunity zones” or distressed communities across the country.

The legislation was cosponsored in the Senate by Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, and in the House by Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and Ron Kind (D-Wisc.).  These congressmen report that their bill has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers, and they believe that its provisions will allow for tremendous economic growth in some of the country’s most underserved communities.

I might have misspoken in the podcast and attributed the article to the legislator.  The legislator is Tim Scott; the writer is Alexandra Desanctis. Whatever the case, this isn’t a direction in which we should go.

There’s a push among conservatives, recently, to rephrase policies in terms more amenable to the themes in which the Left has caught up the public conversation.  On one end, this is an obvious thing to do — to explain why conservative policies are the ones that will actually help individuals and families come to their full fruition.

Less obvious are policies that accomplish some of the Left’s goals (like making government central to charity), but that have potential to start to reshape thinking.  In that way, for example, taking the step suggested by Representative Scott could lead, in the future, to the additional step of questioning why government’s picking charitable causes at all.

I think this proposal goes a little too far over that line.

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Clarity When Legislators Decline to Increase Their Own Leverage

Rep. Jared Nunes (D, Coventry, West Warwick) may not have succeeded in passing much-needed reforms to the state House of Representatives’ rules with recent legislation, but he managed something very important, indeed.  Reformers at any level of government in Rhode Island face a long, frustrating slog and must find encouragement wherever they can.

One source of encouragement is that having somebody push against the establishment wall at least forces its supporters to dispense with some pleasant illusions.  In that way, even unsuccessful reform efforts show where doors are merely painted on the wall or where something solid proves to be soft.

Consider this, from a recent Providence Journal Political Scene:

“There are a number of reasons you put a bill in; sometimes you put a bill in to engender discussion,” [Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence)] said about the “held for further study” amendment. “Sometimes people put in bills and tell the chairman or leadership, ‘I don’t want this bill to see the light of day.'”

There you have it.  Many of the bills that give activists hope on one side or headaches on the other are never intended to go anywhere, even by their sponsors.  They’re meant to patronize you and stitch together a constituency that keeps legislators in office to accomplish what they’re really there for — mainly structuring government in ways that benefit their friends and special interests that actually pay for their connections.

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Voters Must Be the Adults in the Process or Idiocy Will Reign

In keeping with my post, yesterday, about the government’s impositions on people who dare to work with others’ hair without a license, Jeff Jacoby highlights, in his Boston Globe column, an exchange between Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders and hair salon owner LaRonda Hunter during the senator’s debate last week with his Republican peer Senator Ted Cruz.

Ms. Hunter wanted to know how she’s supposed to grow her business when the government imposes thresholds for benefits, like health care, that don’t work within her profit margin.  Jacoby:

The exchange could not have been more enlightening. For entrepreneurs like Hunter, a mandate to supply health insurance triggers inescapable, and unignorable, consequences. For Sanders and other defenders of Obamacare, those consequences are irrelevant. They believe in the employer mandate — a belief impervious to facts on the ground.

Lawmakers so often enact far-reaching rules with worthy intentions, but little awareness of how much harm government burdens can cause.

Jacoby goes on to note this classic anecdote about liberal Democrat Senator George McGovern:

After a long career in Congress, former senator George McGovern tried his hand at running a business — a small hotel in Connecticut. “In retrospect,” McGovern wrote after the inn went bankrupt, “I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business. . . . I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day.”

Think of all the idiotic (yes, idiotic) legislation being submitted by the likes of the General Assembly’s quintessentially inexperienced Ivy League legislator Aaron Regunberg.  Voters must become the adults in the process, because too many of the politicians and their special-interest-or-ideologue supporters are not capable of playing the role.

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What You Are and Aren’t Allowed to Try to Change on the Left

Although some of us on the right find their viewpoints intellectually incoherent, progressives do have consistent guildelines that can help one to predict what their opinions will be on particular issues.  On matters of biology and sexuality, the guideline appears to be that any movement away from the attitudes and lifestyles that facilitated human society’s advancement through to the 1960s is good.  Consider legislation that Steve Ahlquist promotes on RI Future:

House Bill 5277, which if passed would prohibit “conversion therapy” by licensed health care professionals with respect to children under 18 years of age was popularly supported at the House Health Education and Welfare Committee meeting Wednesday evening. Conversion therapy as defined in the bill includes any practice that “seeks or purports to impose change of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, practices which attempt or purport to change behavioral expression of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or attempt or purport to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”

So, to review:  Progressive legislators have submitted an extremely broad and radical bill that would prevent just about any government interference when women want to kill their babies in the womb.  The Department of Education has issued regulations authorizing schools to guide students along the path of changing their genders, even if it means deceiving their parents.

And yet, progressives want to forbid people who wish to reduce or eliminate their same-sex attractions from working with professionals who might be able to help them do that.  This is pure ideology, like a fundamentalist dogma with no tolerance for individual choices that stray from the accepted beliefs.

Not to play Internet psychotherapist, but one gets the impression that people who’ve made radical lifestyle choices want to use the law to prevent others from choosing differently if their doing so might imply that the radical choice is wrong.  As for the progressive movement, as a movement, undermining the social structures and freedoms that empower individuals in the context of their families leaves a hurting population ripe for progressive rule.

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Looks Like There’s No Reason to Go After Guns in Rhode Island

Well, well, well.  According to Amanda Milkovits, shootings are down in Providence:

The number of shootings has decreased over the last five years, and with 68 victims last year, is reaching the level of nearly a decade ago. There were 11 homicides in 2016, which is tied with 2006 for the lowest number of homicides in about three decades, according to statistics from the Providence police.

Last year, there were no gang-related homicides – a first in recent memory. That is significant, as one gang killing can often lead to retaliation.

Clearly, therefore, violating Rhode Islanders’ Second Amendment rights with new gun control measures is unnecessary.  That’s especially true given that violent crime is up at the same time, per WPRI’s Dan McGowan.  Looks to me like law-abiding citizens could probably use more guns to protect themselves from thugs.

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Upward Mobility And Prosperity For Ocean State Families

New national research shows that Rhode Island ranked just 48th on the 2016 Family Prosperity Index (FPI). In December 2016, our Center in conjunction with our national partner, the American Conservative Union, issued a 52-page RI Family Prosperity report that highlighted contributing factors to our state’s poor rankings across 57 indexes. Among other discussions, the report suggests that Rhode Island has room to modernize and improve its criminal justice system. Reforms put forth as part of the state’s JRI, and by other organizations can help provide more opportunity for upward mobility and prosperity for Ocean State families.

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A Great Step Toward Regulatory Relief

Until they get tangled up in them, most people probably pay little attention to the metastasizing regulations that governments impose on us.  Spread across society, regulations tend to avoid focusing so much pain as to spark broad, targeted resistance, whereas special interests, including established businesses with incentive to create barriers to entry for competition, have great incentive to keep the ratchet turning.  Moreover, most people don’t see the direct link between regulation and mounting costs in the prices of goods and services and opportunities they personally never realize.  That’s why common sense rules of thumbs like this, described by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, are important:

President Trump signed an executive order Monday that will require federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new one created, fulfilling another signature campaign trail promise.

The president signed the order from the Oval Office minutes after emerging from a roundtable with small business owners, who surrounded the Resolute desk as Trump praised the rule.

The executive order would also forbid estimated costs of regulations from going up.

We need this sort of policy on steroids in Rhode Island.  Maybe a dozen regulations killed for every one introduced.

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Toward an Obvious Education Reform

Rachel McGuire is correct when she writes:

The answer is obvious: We shouldn’t deny any parent – or any child – the benefits of school choice. That’s what National School Choice Week is all about. As we gather this week (through Jan. 28), let us reaffirm the value that comes with opportunity and pledge to continue our work to extend that value to every child in Rhode Island.

Stop by the State House this afternoon to see what school choice is already available in Rhode Island and to hear how more could benefit the state.  This is an issue that should cross ideological and partisan lines.  Indeed, it’s only not obvious because the special interests that benefit from the status quo are so well funded (at taxpayer expense).

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Another Government-Wall-Street Scheme; Of Course, RI Is In

The Wall Street Journal’s Kirsten Grind raises a red flag over another mortgage-related investment scheme:

About $3.4 billion has been lent so far for residential projects, and industry executives predict the total will double within the next year. That would likely rank PACE loans as the fastest-growing type of financing in the U.S.

As the loans spread, so do problems that echo the subprime mortgage crisis. Plumbers and repairmen essentially function as loan brokers but have scant training and oversight. They often pitch PACE loans to help land contracting jobs and earn referral fees from lenders, according to loan documents and more than two dozen borrowers, industry executives and employees.

The referring contractor gets a cut.  The municipality gets a cut.  And taxpayers will wind up on the hook if things go wrong.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Rhode Island has this.  Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the legislation into law in 2013, after Democrat Art Handy (Cranston) passed H6019 and a gang of Democrat state senators led by William Conley (East Providence, Pawtucket) passed S0900.  The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity did include this legislation in the 2013 iteration of the Freedom Index.

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Left and Right Need to Acknowledge Decisions Based on Policy

Hugh Hewitt makes a great point that conservatives like me sometimes need to hear:

It would be fair to announce the end of the mortgage-interest deduction in 30 years. It would be fair to phrase out the deductibility of state taxes by, say, 2050. But not overnight. Not unless you want to give the gavel back to Nancy Pelosi.

Purists have great arguments against “market distortions” in the tax code—in theory. But Americans don’t live in theory. They live in homes they bought at a value based on the existing deduction, in states whose taxes were partly offset through the federal code. Change those rules and what’s left of the GOP in high-tax states will be gone.

While those on the Left would like to treat this sort of consideration as justification for keeping government programs going forever, those on the Right do have to acknowledge that people make decisions based on bad government policy, and it can be overly harsh to the point of injustice to drop onto their heads the roofs that they’ve built over the policy framework.

Unfortunately, as with everything else, we can expect that reasonable concessions from conservatives will not be reciprocated.  For example, with the beginning of this century, special interests pushing bonds and Tiverton’s Town Council doubled the tax levy in Tiverton in less than a decade, to the point that house buyers who shop based on the monthly payment on a 30-year mortgage payment would have to pay around 15% less for a house in Tiverton than in Westport, Massachusetts, next door.

Those who bought in Tiverton before this punishment was dished out have been unfairly penalized, and many have been responding by cutting their losses and leaving town, not just because of the cost, but also because of the injustice.

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Why Go After the Car Tax?

I’ve been meaning to suggest that this doesn’t look like such a great idea:

[Democrat Speaker of the House from Cranston Nicholas] Mattiello says the state’s recent increase in revenue will help.“Our revenues are on the rise,” he said. “They’re $40 or $50 million ahead of our projections just last year. The first year I was elected our revenues were dropping like a lead ball, hundreds of millions of dollars almost overnight, and now we’re getting that revenue back. So it’s that revenue that we get back that we’re going to dedicate to our taxpayers.”

I get that the car tax is an emotional issue for some people, although it has seemed to come under fire mostly for the unfairness of assessments.  But tax policy should not be determined by emotion.

Other taxes have a more negative effect on jobs and the economy.  That means not only that the state would be better off applying its tax-cutting motivation to other taxes, but also that replacing the car tax with other revenue, as Mattiello suggests above, is by itself a job-killing reform.

Additionally, shifting more decisions about tax revenue and the spending thereof to state government reduces the independence of local government, and to the contrary, that’s something of which we need more.

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Setting Degrees and Boundaries for Telling Parents What to Do

Abby Schachter raises a warning flag on the presumption of government agencies to tell parents how to raise their children:

The fact that legislation is necessary to correct the imbalance between parents’ rights and the separate, independent rights of their minor children is one of the defining characteristics of our current age, one in which the government at all levels has become involved in the private lives of families, dictating child-rearing standards and penalizing parents who do not follow the rules. This condition of overbearing state interference in the lives of families is pervasive, though not coordinated…

“Not coordinated” in the sense that there is no secret council with a defined plan to absolve parents of the rights and responsibilities of parenthood and transfer them to the government.  However, one would have to deny the link between big-government philosophy and a definable set of beliefs associated with progressivism not to acknowledge an implicit coordination.

Look, this is one of those areas in which the degrees to which interference is permissible and the boundaries at which such interference ought to be allowed through government, through social institutions, or merely through personal social pressure ought to be available for debate, but such decisions, being so personal and intrinsic to the perpetuation of families’ belief systems, ought to be made at the most local level possible.

My opinion is that government oversteps its boundaries when it mandates behaviors beyond immediate harm and with less than near-certain risk.  As for voluntary association with moral institutions, like churches, they ought to be nearly as free as individual families are.

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Influencing Elections for Personal Gain and Power

The Rhode Island Democrat Party and other left-wingers have been trying to make a big deal out of the fact that conservatives aren’t entirely sitting on their hands during this election cycle:

On Thursday, former Democratic party chairman William Lynch, now senior adviser, issued a news release calling on voters to “reject special interest money” from “outside right-wing organizations” trying to influence the election.

He pointed to $90,294 in combined independent expenditures from the Roosevelt Society, led by former Republican Providence mayoral candidate Daniel Harrop, and the Gaspee Project, founded by activist Mike Stenhouse, and suggested they were being secretly funded by the trucking industry.

That’s two organizations spending on a range of candidates and issues.  A GoLocalProv article out today actually puts the groups’ combined spending at $60,850, but either way, the idea that this represents some invasion of voter sanctity by self-interested parties is absurd.  Just look through the bigger spenders on GoLocal’s list:

  • $335,000 from the URI Foundation and URI Alumni Association to push voters to put taxpayers in $72,937,126 of debt (principal and interest) for spending on URI programs
  • $175,000 from two individuals directly involved in ProvPort to push voters to put taxpayers in $112,210,962 of debt to expand their port and do work at the one in Quonset
  • $100,000 from United Way, as mentioned on this site yesterday, to push voters to put taxpayers in $80,150,687 of debt to fund the local affordable housing industry
  • $1,700,000 from Twin River to promote state and local ballot questions to allow a new casino in Tiverton
  • $146,500 from Alan Hassenfeld, partly to push for passage of ethics reform, but more to back candidates who’ll work to infringe on Rhode Islanders’s Second Amendment rights
  • And rounding out GoLocal’s top 10 list is Planned Parenthood, with $25,712 to promote politicians who’ll fight to continue allowing the killing of babies before every inch of them is clear of their mothers’ bodies

Anybody who’s concerned about the use of government to take away people’s property and rights should be much more concerned about money for debt and left-wing policies.  Voters should also be concerned about a party and ideology that tries to make it seem scandalous that those who disagree with them have the audacity to participate in the political process.  They’d rather be able to take your property and your rights without any opposition.

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Keable’s RhodeWorks Vote Shows Ballot Question #2 Would at Least Give a Chance of Inquiry

A concrete example of a situation in which the state Ethics Commission should have some authority over legislators might give anybody on the fence on ballot question #2 a nudge.  By way of a reminder, owing to a court case, the commission is not permitted to investigate allegations that legislators have conflicts of interest.  Senators and representatives can vote for legislation that will profit them directly, and the Ethics Commission has no authority even to investigate.  Ballot question #2 would repair that check against corruption.

Consider Democrat Representative Cale Keable (Burrillville, Glocester).  According to his official biography, Keable is employed by Providence legal firm Partridge Snow & Hahn, where he works in civil litigation, especially “real estate, construction disputes and environmental litigation.”  According to the state transparency site, Partridge Snow & Hahn has received more than half a million dollars of business from the state government of Rhode Island over the past few years, most of it specifically from the Department of Transportation, for which the firm has handled “infrastructure – engineering” matters and “agency bonds.”

And yet, Keable voted for the DOT’s RhodeWorks toll-and-borrow plan.

Given its often-disappointing approach, the Ethics Commission might not find that to be a problem, even were it fully empowered to investigate.  It’s conceivable that Keable will receive direct benefit in his role at Partridge Snow & Hahn from RhodeWorks (say, by handling litigation arising from the road reconfiguration).  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, his role in the firm may be completely disconnected from anything having to do with its government contracts (as disconnected as it’s possible to be within a single company, that is).

In other words, the Ethics Commission might look into the matter and conclude that Keable’s vote did not represent a conflict of interest under the code of ethics.  But right now, the commission can’t even look into it, leaving Rhode Islanders with no reason to do anything but assume the worst about their legislators.

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Needing a GPS to Navigate the Law

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

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

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

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

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

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Union Dislike for the Ethics Commission’s Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheeple Index – 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly

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

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

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Be Sure to Vote Your Sheeple Back into Office

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

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

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

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

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The 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly Freedom Index

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

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

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