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General Assembly Must Step In – Tolls Have Taken A Dangerous Turn

Below is a statement that StopTollsRI.com (for which I am spokesperson) placed on its Facebook page last night. The R.I. Trucking Association and the American Trucking Association have announced that they would wait until all 30+ toll gantries were installed before they would challenge the legality of truck tolls in court. This alarming development first came to light Thursday night in testimony before House Finance. See Mike Collins’ testimony starting at approximately minute 1:52:40.

Tolls have taken a dangerous turn for Rhode Island residents and taxpayers. It is now imperative that state legislators and General Assembly leadership step in for the good of the state and end the truck toll program.

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Know Their Love for Innovation by Their Actions

Rhode Island politicians like to give lip service to making the state a hub for technology companies, but they seem to think that means encouraging interactions between groups that can only survive with government subsidies, mainly because of (and by means of) government’s imposition of high barriers to entry and costs of doing business.  The secret to generating new industries in Rhode Island is to lower costs so all variety of businesses can afford experiment (without government approval, as expressed through the subsidies) and reduce restrictions on what they’re permitted to do.

RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse and Taxpayer Protection Alliance Senior Scholar Drew Johnson highlight a great example in today’s Providence Journal:

Fortunately, the free market recently developed a way to bypass the optometrists’ office. New technology — known as “ocular telemedicine” — allows consumers to accurately measure their prescription strength on a smartphone or computer screen from the comfort of their own homes. A board-certified ophthalmologist then emails a vision prescription based on the results.

Patients can then use that e-prescription to purchase lenses or glasses wherever they choose, typically at much lower prices. With this technology, healthy adults only need to visit a brick-and-mortar eye doctor once every two years for a full eye health exam (as recommended by the American Optometric Association) instead of every time a lens refill is needed.

Naturally, entrenched interests have pushed for legislation to halt (or at least slow down) such innovations, and of course, some Rhode Island legislators are answering the call… no doubt with entirely selfless reasons.  It’s funny how protecting people from themselves so often seems to profit somebody else, at least when it comes to regulations.

Can we stop that sort of behavior, please?  Why not just let people figure out how to provide other people what they want?

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Crony Legislation to Cost Parents Time and Aggravation

When I first read the proposed legislation (H5457) to require all parents of young adults seeking their drivers’ licenses to take a course, I wondered why Rhode Island’s politicians presume the authority to behave like parents to every adult in the state.  One could imagine House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D, Warwick) overhearing some parent giving a child bad driving advice and determining to solve that perceived problem by implementing a blanket mandate for all parents.

This detail in a related AP story, though, makes me wonder if the motivation might be a bit more politically crass than that:

AAA Northeast is backing the bill, which was introduced by Democratic House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi. The legislation describes the organization as a possible course provider.

The legislation requires the course to be free to participants — treating their stolen time as without value — and doesn’t explicitly call for the state to pay providers.  Indeed, it says that if nobody wants to provide the program, it will cease to be required.  So, maybe there’s some payment from the state, or maybe AAA will only provide it to members (effectively forcing people to join), or maybe it’s a little more innocent and just an opportunity for AAA to give a sales pitch to a constant flow of captive audiences.

It’s the fact that AAA is “backing the bill” that raises my eyebrow.  Is this something for which the organization has actively lobbied?  Is it some sort of payback for, say, supporting RhodeWorks?

As I mentioned last year, I was a AAA member from the time I started driving (25 years ago, tomorrow).  The organization’s active support for RhodeWorks led me to quit, and finding it in bed with Rhode Island insiders who take their power over us as a marketable good to trade for cash and favors affirms my decision.

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The Corporate Welfare Strategy Has Failed

The massive budget shortfall is proof that the state government’s corporate welfare strategy has failed. Rhode Island’s current corporate tax-credit economic development strategy is highly inefficient as it creates relatively few jobs at an extremely high cost per job to taxpayers. This targeted ‘advanced industry’ approach does little if anything to improve the overall business climate, which is necessary if organic entrepreneurial growth is to occur on its own. A 3.0% sales tax would disproportionately help low-income families.

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Demagoguing Pre-Existing Conditions

Rich Lowry gives an explanation, in the New York Post, of why the fear mongering about the American Health Care Act (AHCA)’s effects on those with pre-existing conditions is yet another manufactured outrage:

The perversity of it all is that the legislation is properly understood as doing more to preserve the ObamaCare regulation on pre-existing conditions than to undermine it. The legislation maintains a federal baseline of protection in such cases, and says only that states can apply for a waiver from it, provided that they abide by certain conditions meant to ensure that no one is left out in the cold.

Since these provisions only involve the individual insurance market, a small slice of the overall insurance picture (about 18 million are on the individual market), and merely make possible state waivers, they are inherently limited.

You’re not affected if you get insurance through your employer (155 million people), or through Medicaid or Medicare. You’re not affected if you live in a state that doesn’t request the waiver, a category that will certainly include every blue state and most red states, too. Even if you buy insurance on the individual market and live in a state that gets a waiver, you’re not affected if you’ve maintained insurance coverage continuously and not had a gap in coverage longer than 63 days.

By this point, we’re talking about a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the population. If you do have a pre-existing condition in a waiver state and haven’t had continuous coverage, you can be charged more by your insurer only the first year. The state will have access to $8 billion in federal funds explicitly to ease the cost of your insurance, and the state must further have a high-risk pool or similar program to mitigate insurance costs for the sick.

People who oppose these sorts of measures — especially with as much heat and smoke as we’ve been seeing related to the AHCA — give the appearance of elevating their own access to power above any real policy consideration.

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No Health Policy Is Perfect, but Remember Both Sides

Mary Katharine Ham makes a critical point as we all debate (make that, “debate”) health care policy:

Arguing about this as if beneficiaries of ACA don’t exist isn’t right. Arguing about it as if people like me don’t is also not right. ACA was never the panacea it was sold as and it remains distinctly un-utopian in its results. Lazy characterizations of things you like as perfect—and of people you oppose as big fans of people dying—are not particularly helpful to actual people.

So if you’re weaving a utopian or dystopian scenario for Facebook, remember reality is almost always less extreme and more nuanced than you’re asserting, and you probably know a real human on both sides of every imperfect adjustment to our Frankenstein system.

That’s the level at which policy debates ought to be conducted, and it would be true to say that both sides have people who reach that level and people who decidedly do not.  It’s vertigo-inducing to watch the speed at which we go from a mainstream with no major concerns about the wholly partisan, parliamentarily manipulated, nature of ObamaCare to, for example, a Democrat Congressman’s proclaiming that overhauling health care shouldn’t be done in a partisan way.  (It’s like that childhood friend who would keep breaking the rules of a game and then saying that they would apply from that point forward.)

To get to that point, one must ignore the past, and in the case of ObamaCare, it means ignoring people who have been harmed, not to mention the long-term harm to our health care system and economy.  Somehow, we have to see the self-interested partisan talking points and get to the question of which direction policy should actually go.

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Congressional Health Care Bill and the Purpose of Government

Look, I get it.  It doesn’t do anybody any good (except maybe politicians) to caricature the opposition, and I understand that Big Government types believe, at some level, in the mission of government, and on that level, an equivalence between funding and policy goals is justified.  But reading news from up north, I can’t help but think a critical line of perspective has been crossed:

The health care bill that Congressional Republicans plan to bring to the House floor for a vote Thursday afternoon would result in “a massive loss of critical funds” for Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said. …

The potential loss of federal revenues, a major source of funds for the state budget, could compound budget problems associated with tax collections that for many months now have come in well short of the projections that Baker and legislative leaders have used to plan state spending.

Somewhere in this process of elected officials’ making statements and journalists’ reporting them, shouldn’t somebody have the role of putting front and center the key question, here, which is whether a particular policy is better for the people of the United States of America?  If ObamaCare crashes of its own weight, wouldn’t that be bad, too?  If so, wouldn’t that be worse than a state-level budget crunch?

(Yes, look, I get it… a health-industry collapse would just mean more money and power for the federal and state governments.  I’m being rhetorical, here.)

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Obvious Reasoning on “Free Tuition”

George Leef reviews the economics of adding strings to “free tuition” for the Martin Center for Academic Renewal and summarizes the matter very well on National Review Online:

It shifts costs where they don’t belong and interferes with labor market mobility. It also interferes with the market for education by “privileging” (to use a favorite word of the progressives) certain kinds of governmentally-run colleges over all other types of education and training.

States can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps with “free” education any more than they can with any other socialistic measure. Adam Smith had it right when he wrote, “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about in the natural course of things.” Sadly, that’s a message that most politicians just don’t care to hear.

There’s no shortcut to prosperity.  Or rather, if there is a shortcut, people interacting voluntarily in their own interests and by their own priorities are exponentially more likely to find it than is the government.  Why is this so difficult for people to accept?

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An Obvious Step for Hair Braiding

The Institute for Justice reports that Indiana has taken an obvious (if small) step in loosening regulation:

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed a bill that exempts natural or African-style hair braiding from the state’s cosmetology laws. Authored by Rep. Timothy Wesco and Sen. Liz Brown, HB 1243 passed by wide margins in the Indiana General Assembly.

“Indiana has long prided itself as ‘a state that works,’” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “This reform proves that those words are more than a motto by repealing a completely arbitrary labor-market regulation that stops braiders from earning an honest living.”

In Rhode Island, the similar bill is H5436, sponsored by Providence Democrat Anastasia Williams.

Even beyond this particular bill, Rhode Island should adopt this mentality of reform and get out of the business of extorting money from workers with binds that protect established players at the expense of their would-be competition.

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The Many Methods of Expanding Government’s Role

Although fully aware that I’m (let’s say) unique, I still think bottle deposit charges ought to outrage people.  The idea of the charges was to give consumers some incentive to recycle bottles and cans, but Susan Haigh reports for the Associated Press on how that rationale continues to transform into something else:

In Connecticut, distributors were allowed to keep the unclaimed bottle deposits to help offset the costs of running the program, but state officials decided in 2009 to use that money — about $34 million each year — to help balance the government’s budget.

Step 1: Use some public purpose as justification for the creation of a new funding stream, claiming (don’t worry) the government’s intentions are wholly dispassionate.  Step 2: Spot a big pot of money that government can contrive a justification for taking, and take it.

And now:

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa are among the states where bills have been proposed to replace the bottle deposits with a tax. Supporters say the tax revenue could support recycling efforts that did not exist when the bottle redemption systems were introduced.

Thus does the government essentially open up a line of business in recycling.  What started as an incentive charge that government imposed, but from which government did not profit, is becoming an excuse for government to process money for a particular activity.

Liliana Rutler and Rosie Woods report on another line of work the government of Massachusetts is edging toward entering:

Sheriffs urged lawmakers Monday to use the legalization of marijuana as an opportunity to invest in substance abuse treatment. They are urging state lawmakers to increase the tax on pot from 10% to 15% to pay for those treatment programs.

Step 1: Legalize an illegal industry.  Step 2: Effectively turn it into a government-monopoly.  Step 3: Find new sideline businesses such as treatment for those who abuse the government-monopoly substance.

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Well, RI Does Love Passing Laws for Emotional and Political Reasons

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed with the get-right-to-the-point title, “Tuition-Free College Is Nothing More Than a Political Ploy,” Allysia Finley suggests real motivation is Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presidential aspirations.  She also suggests another topic that merits some careful research before Rhode Island jumps on the bandwagon:

Promising free tuition could steer more students to public schools from private ones. The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimates Gov. Cuomo’s plan would boost enrollment at public colleges by 116,000 while reducing the head count at nonprofit schools by 11%. The declines would be particularly acute at small, less selective colleges. For-profit schools would be pinched, too.

According to the commission’s analysis, the plan would shift $1.4 billion away from nonprofit colleges, resulting in 45,000 job losses. Compensating jobs would be created at public schools, but dislocations would invariably occur. “Once this is out there and implemented, possibly some of the more precarious institutions will go under,” Gary Olson, president of Daemen College, told Inside Higher Ed. “And what that will do is cause millions of dollars of lost economic impact on the local community where the college is located.”

Yes, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities sounds like an interested party, but our society is supposed to work by pitting such interests against each other for the public’s edification.  Perhaps one of Rhode Island’s problems is that it isn’t big enough for collective voices to emerge, even as politicians have enough power to make individual institutions wary of crossing them.

In that, Rhode Island an excellent case study in the danger of big government.  When your economy depends on the ability to procure special deals from the government, the incentive is to not advocate for your interests publicly, which leaves the public uninformed for votes.

Anyway, if Rhode Island’s non-government institutions of higher learning are too besotted or timid to argue their own interests, mark this down as another reason the General Assembly should pass the “free tuition” idea along for a study commission that might draw some real evidence out of the still waters of public discourse.

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You Can Save Rhode Island From Progressive ANTI-JOBS Agenda!

As taxpayers continue to be asked to fund generous corporate subsidy programs, lawmakers are now dueling over two new spending ideas, reimbursing localities to phase-out the car tax and public funding for free college tuition, each of which would likely further raise taxes and fees on Rhode Islanders. But would these programs make Rhode Island a better state? Not only does cutting the sales tax to 3.0% make sense for improving our state’s troubled economy, it is also the cure to the dangerous progressive agenda.

The four major PROGRESSIVE legislative initiatives that Rhode Island families and business owners should be worried about are:

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Higher Education Funding for Unaccountable Administrators

The American Interest points to an investigation of California’s state higher education system:

In other words, administrators have been hiring more administrators for make-work positions and giving each other raises without sufficient accountability in a self-perpetuating cycle of bureaucratic decay that is sadly endemic to academia at large.

These findings should give pause to those who think that larger and larger state subsidies are the answer to higher education’s woes. Much of the public money spent on “free college” schemes championed by left-wing populists would end up being pocketed by the ever-expanding bureaucratic class of student services directors, Title IX coordinators, and HR managers, raising costs while steadily diluting quality.

Before Rhode Island embarks on this “free tuition” idea — Curious, isn’t it, how this out-of-nowhere scheme by the governor is being pushed through without any real time to think? — maybe the state should conduct a study of the administrative weight of the organizations under the state’s system.  It’d be difficult to out-do California, but Rhode Islanders have a right to know how much they’re wasting on unaccountable educational bureaucracy.

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The Risk of Premature Marijuana Policy

Mary Rezac, of the Catholic News Agency, reports on a study out of Colorado from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area, which is a government agency tasked with tracking the illegal drug industry in the Rocky Mountain Area.  Here’s a taste, but there’s much more:

Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 62 percent in 2013, the first year of legalization of recreational marijuana. About one in five more youth are now reporting having used marijuana in the past month since its legalization. Marijuana-related hospitalizations in the state nearly doubled from 6,305 in 2011 to 11,439 in 2014.

This statement, from Dr. E. Christian Brugger, a moral theology professor at a Colorado seminary, should resonate strongly in Rhode Island, as we debate taking the step of legalizing marijuana:

“If there had been any sincere effort on the part of Colorado citizens and legislators to gauge in advance the harms that would arise from legalization, they would have foreseen precisely (these results),” he told CNA in e-mail comments.

Rezac goes on to report that “adolescent exposure to marijuana can lead to an 8-point drop in IQ, on par with the drop seen in children exposed to lead.”  Lead, as we know, is treated as a public health crisis for children in the Northeast, and if I’m remembering my construction history correctly, the government once actually mandated that lead be put into paint.

Advocates on the other side of the issue do what one would expect and argue against the data and the incentives of the source.  Here, for example, is a Forbes article addressing the prior-year report from RMHITA.  At the link, Jacob Sullum makes some compelling points, but he also argues some of the statistics in ways that are, themselves, arguable.

These backs and forths would characterize any healthy debate about public policy, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of picking our favorite side and believing its data with undue credulity.  The problem is we’re looking at just a couple years of data from a single state, so it’s all difficult to sort through.  All that’s needed is time and dialogue.  There’s no hurry.

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Marijuana and the Inevitable Pin-Hole Burns

The headline for this post derives from the Pink Floyd song, “Nobody Home,” from the concept album turned movie, The Wall.  As our rock star protagonist slips into loneliness and insanity, he’s looking around his hotel room and at himself, and he sees “the inevitable pinhole burns all down the front of my favorite satin shirt.”  The holes are from the embers of his cigarettes, which presumably he’s chain smoking.

Of course, neither smoking nor the indolent burning of holes in your shirt are inevitable.

Anyway, the lyric came to mind when I read the reaction of RI’s leading lobbyist for the legalization of marijuana upon hearing that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo backs a study commission for the related bill, not the actual policy:

… legalization advocates say the commission would only delay the inevitable.

“The public is behind it. Massachusetts is moving forward. We don’t think a study commission is necessary because we already have the data,” Jared Moffat, of Regulate RI, said. …

Massachusetts retail shops will begin selling marijuana in July 2018. Moffat said delaying legalization in the Ocean State will result in sending jobs and revenue to the Bay State.

So speaks the pusher:  “Hey kid, your friends are all doing it.  You’re going to buy some eventually.  You might as well buy it from me, now.  Why be the last?”

Pink Floyd rhymes “inevitable pin-hole burns” with “the obligatory Hendrix perm.”  Hendrix’s death from a drug overdose wasn’t inevitable.  As a carpenter, I worked on a few projects with a painter who railed against anti-drug laws on the grounds that Hendrix died because his girlfriend was afraid to call for help out of fear of being busted for possession.  The first day I worked with that painter, by the way, he mentioned that he wasn’t quite himself because his friend had just died.  Another overdose.

Legalization is not inevitable.  If states that have made the leap find, for example, an explosion of hard-drug use (which is still in the cards), opinions will change quickly.  Haste is the imperative of those who fear a gamble will go sour.

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What Freedom Means When Government Takes Over for Organized Crime

The strongest argument for legalizing marijuana is based on freedom, particularly among the libertarians with whom I’m generally sympathetic.  Reading this article by Jennifer Bogdan and Tom Mooney in the Providence Journal, though, I’m surprised by ways in which this might not be so true:

Birenbaum touted the state’s camera surveillance system, which keeps electric eyes on all the grows, and various other tracking and security measures.

While the attorney general may have legitimate concerns about future recreational use, Birenbaum says, “we want cities and towns to see there’s a difference” with a well-regulated medical marijuana program.

Weeks after the tour, Pawtucket gave local approval for three medical cultivation applicants, noting how impressed they were with the state’s ability to track grows and the pot they produced.

Statewide surveillance of an industry and close government tracking aren’t generally the hallmarks of freedom.

That’s why my view is one of freedom gained through strengthening society.  If in general we’re operating under the civic premise that government has to take care of us all and take invasive measure to do so, then expanding the options for incapacitating ourselves and inviting government intervention aren’t likely to increase our total amount of freedom.

On the other hand, in a society in which individuals have strong character and families and communities are geared toward helping each other without the force of the law, our liberties can expand without infringing on our freedom.

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Rich Senators Target Poor Children’s Scholarships

Yes, of course we should be interested in having government-driven programs be free of waste, fraud, and abuse, but this sure does seem like a political attack on a policy that helps disadvantaged students escape failing government schools and secure real opportunities through private schools.  According to Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, three Democrat Senators are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate states’ tax-credit scholarships, which allow businesses to donate money for scholarships in exchange for some percentage back as a tax credit.

Naturally, Rhode Island’s upper crust U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the three signatories.  The emphasis of the letter on whether such programs “pose a risk of waste, fraud, abuse, misconduct, or mismanagement” indicates that the objective is to attack the programs, not simply to learn from them.  Note, especially, that the letter doesn’t ask the GAO to look into the positive results of the programs.

One wonders where Whitehouse sent his own children to school.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Republican state representative Robert Lancia (Cranston) has submitted legislation that would increase the cap on Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program and implement a feature that would allow it to grow according to demand.  His bill (for which I offered feedback based on a review of other such programs) would also make scholarships more predictable, by prioritizing continued funding of scholarships for students already receiving them.

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“Save RI”: The Antidote To The Progressive Agenda

Rhode Island families understand that our quality of life can only be improved if more and better businesses create more and better jobs! Yet, the progressive-left has a very different vision. They are openly promoting job-killing, anti-business, and anti-family policies. Their so-called “fair shot agenda” would transform our Ocean State into a liberal utopia … where businesses face even higher legal and financial risks, and where worker safety, absenteeism, and workplace productivity are compromised.

The Ocean State faces a stark choice.

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