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Raimondo and the I-195 Land, Farther Into the Hole

In his Sunday column in the Providence Journal, John Kostrzewa gave voice to this local bit of common wisdom cum mythology about Gina Raimondo that probably isn’t going to die any time soon:

They are right-of-center Democrats with conservative leanings in their philosophy of government who understand that business, and private investment, drive the economy.

The other half of the “they” is RI House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston).  While the jury’s still out on his political philosophy, only a mainstream journalist could think that sentence can be written about Raimondo as if it needs no evidentiary support.  She let us know it wasn’t true when she accepted an award for pension reform from the Manhattan Institute and told an anecdote about a fellow church-goer thanking her for bolstering Rhode Island’s faith in… government.  And she let it be known when she launched her campaign proclaiming the need for “a bold progressive agenda designed to jump start Rhode Island’s economy.”  And she’s letting it be known in some of her early actions as governor, for instance:

Raimondo wants government leaders to decide how the land should best be used. She calls it a “game-changer opportunity,” in agreement with past city and state leaders who have said the land is one of the state’s best assets for improving its stalled economy. She has said she doesn’t want to rely on the current approach to let the free market decide what gets built on 19 developable acres. …

She said she’d consider giving away the land, which the commission is now charged with selling.

Only a progressive could believe that organizations (like Stanford University, which she’s apparently already contacted) that are able, but not willing, to purchase land would make the most productive use of it.

Believe whatever you want about progressivism, but by definition it isn’t a “philosophy of government” that indicates “conservative leanings.”  It’s indicative of Rhode Island’s deep, deep problems that a prominent business writer would either ignore all evidence (and Raimondo’s own statements about herself) in order to maintain his own premature judgment of her nature or, worse, actually believe that anybody who concludes that government can’t always pile more money into its problems without changing direction must be “right-of-center.”

Can Kicking Defines Public-Sector Pensions

The entire structure, including the politics, of public-sector pensions is an exercise in kicking a can down the road.  It’s been rewarding to public officials to give lavish pensions to government employees, because it wins them votes, the financing confuses most people, and the bill doesn’t come due for decades.  A sufficiently aware electorate would be learning the lesson and not being so easily fooled.

Unfortunately, the public isn’t sufficiently aware, and so we get more can kicking.  Here’s what I mean:

Lawyers from both sides in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s sweeping 2011 pension overhaul law met in Newport Tuesday for a closed-door status conference with the judge. A court official said the jury trial in the case remains scheduled to begin April 20.

Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter said last month that she was satisfied that a jury should settle the long-running case. Meanwhile, Governor Raimondo, who as general treasurer crafted and lobbied lawmakers to approve the overhaul, has expressed willingness to try again to settle the case before then.

Why would Gina Raimondo want to settle the case?  As the general treasurer championing the pension reform, she expressed confidence that it was lawful far and wide, and even if there’s now doubt, why not get an answer?  Of all people in Rhode Island, she should know what a looming avalanche pensions threaten if they aren’t reformed.  And of all people in Rhode Island, the governor has a responsibility to guide the state past disaster.

We need to know how far the state can go toward undoing the unreasonable, impossible promises of past politicians, as encouraged by labor unions that gamed the system to control both sides of every bargaining table.  The sooner we find out that this reform isn’t constitutional (if it isn’t), the sooner we can get to work finding another — or changing the constitution, if no other reform will do.

Raimondo may still be confident that the state would win its case but wants to avoid the risk; there are two problems of short-sightedness to that approach.  First, it assumes that the things negotiated are worth sacrificing, and those things might only be indirectly related to pensions.  It’s possible that recent talk about exempting retirement income from state taxes is just a backdoor gimme to the unions, and that expense will require either cuts or taxes in another area.  It’s also possible that Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s job is on the negotiating table, which means that the future of Rhode Island’s children is a possible sacrifice on the pension altar. Is that worth it?

Second, if folks like me are correct that Raimondo’s pension reform was insufficient to solve the problem, then future reforms will be necessary.  In that case, if Raimondo’s reform stands because of behind-the-scenes negotiations, future reforms will be much more difficult to enact, because Rhode Island will have a better sense of the legal battle ahead, but without any more legal certainty.

The Bookends of RI’s Library of Decline

A pair of articles in yesterday’s Providence Journal give an excellent indication of why Rhode Island is the way it is.  The first is about the receiver’s plan for firefighters’ new employment deal with the Central Coventry Fire District.  The details of the plan are definitely interesting, but the key part, in my view, comes at the end:

The union will contest the new terms in bankruptcy court.

“We’ll out-lawyer them and outspend them and out-fight them,” Gorman said.

Think of the structural conditions — political and legal — that underlie that threat.  A financially struggling fire district must balance legal fees against the employment packages that the union is protecting.  Meanwhile, the union is fighting with money absorbed, at the point of the taxman’s gun, from local residents.  Can we agree that the union’s ability to “outspend” the employer (if true) is a pretty good indication that maybe the union has gone a bit beyond fixing a supposed imbalance between employer and employee?

The second article is about some hires by the new general treasurer of Rhode Island, Seth Magaziner:

Treasurer-elect Seth Magaziner has announced another round of staff picks, including Tom Sgouros as his senior policy adviser.

Sgouros, who waged a short-lived 2010 campaign for treasurer, describes himself as an engineer at Brown University and a freelance writer and public policy consultant who has consulted in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California and Vermont “on public finance, banking, tax policy, and sustainable economic development.”

Reporter Kathy Gregg leaves out the important background that Sgouros is one of the central spokesmen for Rhode Island’s far-left progressives.  (For fun, rewrite Gregg’s second sentence as it would appear if some conservative treasurer had appointed me as senior policy adviser.”)

In fact, we’re watching a whole generation of far-left progressives work their way into state government positions.  In 2013, then-Governor Chafee hired progressive activist Kate Brock, for example, and  even the supposedly conservative Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) hired RIFuture founder Matt Jerzyk to his legal staff.  That hiring produced this statement, which can’t help but resonate oddly for long-time followers of Rhode Island’s Left and Right:

“Matt’s experience in city and state government will be a valuable addition as we continue to focus on growing the economy and creating jobs,” Mattiello said in a statement.

How exactly are our leading elected officials planning to “grow the economy and create jobs” with staffs full of progressives?  Whatever the answer to that question might be, the two articles from yesterday’s paper  illustrate the left-right punches by which progressives implement policies and insiders, like public-sector labor unions, benefit from the unfair rules of the game.

The next round of RI’s political history has only just dawned, but it’s a safe bet that we’re entering four more years of what the last four brought, more or less.

Implications of the Gist Limbo

In addition to the points I emphasized here, when I was on the Matt Allen Show on New Year’s Day with Jay Martins, Jay asked me for my prediction about the pension lawsuit.

In a nutshell, I think the law will stand.  This is Rhode Island, so the legality of the thing is secondary to the politics, and the cost to the state of seeing the pension lawsuit invalidated, now, would be catastrophic.  However, there’s likely to be a backside payoff to the unions.

Seeing Elizabeth Harrison’s RIPR report that the State Board of Education hasn’t chosen to renew Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract (which only means that renewal isn’t guaranteed, but might be negotiated) makes me wonder if that’s one such backside.  Rhode Island’s education reforms under Gist haven’t been anywhere near what Rhode Island needs — or what its students deserve — but they’ve definitely been beyond what the teachers unions will willingly tolerate.

Gina Raimondo’s signature reform has a direct budget implication that will make the politicians’ lives more difficult if it doesn’t stand.  Gist’s educational reforms have no such immediate pain for politicians, so it’s possible that they may be sacrificed (along with her job) for the reform that does.

Destructive Policies, Waning Influence

Let’s be honest.  This would be a healthy thing for the country:

 If the trend since 2010 — dropping an average of two spots a year — continues, Rhode Island will be relegated to a single House seat [in the U.S. Congress] when the 2020 U.S. Census is tabulated.

If you’ve got a state that can’t keep the population it has and to which others don’t move, it’s clearly doing something — a lot of things — wrong.

Obviously, things don’t have to be this way.  Rhode Island has the natural advantages to thrive, but the thing is… it won’t.  An hour of listening to politicians shift blame and utter falsehoods concerning energy costs, yesterday, was an instructive exercise.

They want to do what they want to do, whether for friends or for ideology, and no amount of pain for the rest of us will penetrate that personal interest.  Worse: We’ve proven unable to overcome their institutional (and probably corrupt) advantages to make the electoral system work as it should.

At least in the case of Congress, there’s a formula to force some acknowledgement of the “these boots were made for walking” vote.

School Building Costs and School Choice

An op-ed by Brown English graduate student Aaron Apps in today’s Providence Journal drew my attention to an FY13 report put out by the Rhode Island Dept. of Education (RIDE).  Here’s Apps:

 Last summer, I wrote a Commentary piece (“City’s schools require immediate repairs,” Aug. 29) describing the conditions I witnessed inside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence’s West End. To reiterate: The paint is peeling off of the walls, the roof is leaking, ceiling tiles are falling down, the water is non-potable, and there is a giant curtain in the main auditorium made of asbestos. Not to mention probable mold, exposed rusty pipes, and piles of unattended-to bird droppings. …

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2013 “Public Schoolhouse Assessment” gave Gilbert Stuart a rating of 2 in its scale that ranges from 1 to 4, where 1 is “good” condition and 4 is “poor” condition. The report rates 304 public schools. Of these, the average rating was 2.05, meaning that Gilbert Stuart, in its appalling, unacceptable condition, is slightly better than average, according to the state’s own rating scale.

One important caveat on the study is that conditions are self reported.  That means the ratings are subject to the  perspectives and biases of the people in each district, as well as their political calculations.  A district that’s pushing for more state and local tax dollars might exaggerate its buildings deficiencies, while a district that’s truly concerned about backlash based on deteriorating schools might downplay the problems.

Be that as it may, RIDE estimates almost $2 billion in expenses to bring all schools up to “good condition.”  In contrast, it foresees a continuing drop in enrollment — by more than 13% in the suburbs, for the 2021-2022 school year (compared with 2011-2012).  That’s on top of an excess capacity already calculated at 19% (meaning that much space is available for more students).  So, that huge expense would be to maintain increasingly empty buildings across the state.

The report makes the obvious recommendation of closing schools and consolidating, which leads to the strategy of regionalization.  Whenever either of the steps of that suggestion come up in reality, however, they become the subject of push-back, both from parents and from labor unions, making them very difficult to execute.  As long as there’s a chance that other people can be made to pay the bulk of the cost, nobody wants to give up their neighborhood school or their job.

The solution (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be laying out over the coming months and years) is a broad program of school choice.  For one thing, empowering families with options changes the politics from a necessity of taking away money and local convenience to a policy of granting opportunity.  For another thing, initial estimates by the Center suggest that school choice would create billions of dollars of flexibility, both in public dollars freed up and in new private dollars invested in tuition.

The question of the near future is going to be whether entrenched interests, including unions, can explode common sense and rational policy for their own benefit.

Death by “Let Them Eat Cake”

I bought a basic cell phone for my grandmother, last night.  As the clerk in the Massachusetts store was adding the phone to my family plan, he remarked, “Wow, you pay a lot of taxes!  Oh, you’re in Rhode Island.”

With that anecdote in mind, this morning, I’d suggest that Rhode Islanders should be wary of advice from an economist who admits that (according to Kate Bramson of the Providence Journal) she’s “puzzled” that Rhode Island’s largest sector, education and healthcare, “is failing to enjoy the growth it’s seeing in the region and the country”:

“…  it seems like there’s this party going on in education and health services,” she continued. “And Rhode Island is not at that party, so I’m not sure why that’s not happening in this state.”

Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s heavy regulations and taxes, maybe?  Could it have anything to do with the fact that Rhode Island leads the country in health insurance mandates?  Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions being toward the front of the national pack in their power, especially in political activity and the resources going to the union and union members?

Also on the front page of today’s Providence Journal is a Jennifer Bogdan article about Governor-elect Gina Raimondo’s visit to the White House.  Although the visit, alongside other governors, was mainly a photo-op and meet-and-greet, Bogdan writes, “There were also a few moments for cake.”

Raimondo brought the president a slice of Death by Chocolate Cake from Gregg’s restaurant.  Isn’t that just perfect?

While Rhode Island is failing to join the economic party, the woman who will soon be governor is bringing cake to the president and kicking off her big economic strategy:

“My focus all day … my constant question was, ‘What can you do to help get Rhode Island back to work?’ ” Raimondo said. “I’m going to be very aggressive about knocking on doors.”

In other words, her economic strategy is to be a salesperson, not to change the underlying problems.  That won’t work.  The problem isn’t that business people around the country don’t know Rhode Island is here. It’s that they know what Rhode Island is all about.  It’s all about cake for insiders and shackles for people who want to bring their own little circles of the economy in a personalized direction.

Decreasing taxes, regulations, and mandates and allowing broad school choice would bring the economic party to Rhode Island, but anybody hoping that Raimondo is going to go in the direction of freedom over insiderdom is probably going to be disappointed.

Between the Wolf-Hounds and the Relativists

The general disinterest of Rhode Island’s mainstream media in a wide variety of controversies never ceases to amaze.  With the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, we get multi-page spreads on racism in America, but the racial slurs that members of a government board spat at audience members at a recent RhodeMap RI meeting didn’t even make it into Kate Bramson’s related Providence Journal article.  Jonathan Gruber, the MIT ObamaCare architect who has been caught on film multiple times rejoicing in the fleecing of Americans, and who did work for HealthSource RI that may have contributed to its unrealistic estimates of customers, has hardly been noticed by local journalists.

One of the many threads of thought that unwind from such observations is voiced here by National Review’s Jay Nordlinger:

A friend of mine wrote me this morning saying that he feared Republicans would not “put the genie back in the bottle.” Obama has now broken free from our political process. Republicans will feel unhindered, when they have executive power.

I don’t believe it. First, I don’t think Republicans in general want to abuse their power (though some do, for sure). They have a constitutional conscience, or a semblance of one. But second, the “culture” won’t let them. The media, the professors, the entertainment industry — they won’t allow anti-constitutionalism for conservative or right-wing ends. They will allow it only for “progressive” ends. If a conservative result threatens, they will be gung-ho for the process.

If nothing else, rapid juxtaposition of the media’s hostile  treatment of the Bush administration with its coddling of the Obama administration has been instructive — almost in a way that would be too obvious for a novelist to get away with.

Actually, it brings to mind a cluster of chapters in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, The First Circle.  Two pairs of political prisoners outside of Moscow are using their Sunday evening respite for conversation.  In one pair, the peasant character Spiridon is telling his life story, in which his decisions always had him working with whoever happened to hold local power, because his real priority was his family.  Asked for a guiding principle against this apparent relativism, he states, “wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

Meanwhile, one of the two other prisoners, having a more intellectual argument, accuses his opponent of having no intellectual consistency because the ends justify the means.  Rubin, the accused (a devoted Marxist), insists that’s false “on the personal plane.”  However, in the Soviet Union, “For the first time in the history of mankind we have an aim which is so sublime that we can really say that it justifies the means employed to attain it.”

One question for Rhode Island and America, I suppose, when judging its political class and the “culture” (in Nordlinger’s sense) is whether progressivism is a sublime aim or we’re the wolves to the progressives’ wolf-hounds.

Trying to Conduct Civic Debates in Town Politics

On one hand, people engaged in political and policy arguments at higher levels of government seem likely to have more experience engaging with people who disagree with them.  On the other hand, one would think folks would be more hesitant to play political cards like black-and-white “my opponent is just evil” games when they’re dealing with neighbors they see around town on a regular basis.

So much for expectations about how people would act.

Earlier this week, I published a commentary that went through the history of Tiverton Budget Committee elections and argued that, if the new Town Council does not appoint the next-highest vote getter from the Budget Committee election to fill a vacancy, it would be a divisive, precedent-setting move.

Until 2002, Budget Committees were elected biannually at the financial town meeting, and any vacancies were automatically filled in order of their totals from the previous  votes.  Since then, it has only happened once before that a Budget Committee member won an election to Town Council and had to be replaced immediately after the election.  In that case, the Council unanimously appointed the next-highest vote getter, even though she was from another faction in town than arguably a majority of the Council.

I acknowledged that the same Town Council had not appointed the next next-highest vote getter to fill vacancies the following year.  However, time had passed, and she doesn’t appear to have expressed interest in the job.

In the current situation, if the next-highest vote getter (from the slate of candidates whom I supported) is passed over for somebody more in step with the Town Council majority (from the slate of candidates whom I opposed), it would be a sign that endorsees from Tiverton 1st and the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee don’t really believe that stuff they say about “uniting the town” and “working together.”

The chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, Michael Burk, responded to my argument in the local Sakonnet Times.  Actually, he didn’t really respond.  It’s more like he took the opportunity to attack me as a villain.  It’s Saul Alinsky for locals.

I responded on the merits, here, but didn’t really convey how disappointing Burk’s response is.  It’s clear that there will be no arguing in good faith.  Whoever started town politics on this nasty path (I’d say it’s obviously them; they’d say the opposite), there’s no hope for bringing down the temperature when one side makes an argument supported by facts and the other side replies as Burk did.

Dangerous Complacency at Rhode Island League of Cities & Towns Towards RhodeMap RI?

A friend forwarded me an interesting and alarming e-mail thread with regard to RhodeMap RI. Below is the text of two of the e-mails, which went out this afternoon, followed by the author and his title. On Thursday morning, the State Planning Council will vote on a proposed Economic Development Plan which largely incorporates the […]

Dawson Doesn’t Get the Annex of Conservatism and Minorities

While preparing to disengage from the Internet Friday evening, I came across a statement from soon-to-be-former State Senator and unsuccessful Republican candidate for attorney general Dawson Hodgson that merits response.  From Ian Donnis’s weekly must-read TGIF post for the week:

Hodgson and fellow Republican Catherine Taylor got swamped in Rhode Island’s cities. So it’s not surprising to hear Hodgson call for the RI GOP to do a better job in courting Latino and black voters, particularly in Providence. “That’s the future of this [Republican] Party if we want to be competitive in the urban landscape,” Hodgson said on this week’s RIPR Bonus Q+A. “I think there are a lot of principles that cross over and that are very generationally appealing: freedom, the ability to control your own destiny and make your way in life and be given a fair shot by your government. That’s what being a Republican means to me. I think that’s a winning message in Providence if you can get people to listen to it.”

This makes me wonder if Hodgson has actually spent much time interacting with urban members of minority communities that already do or might nearly align with Republicans.  As I’ve pointed out before (on this site and on TV), while he and his fellow white, male, suburban Republican state senators were taking a bow for being the only full Republican caucus in the country to back same-sex marriage, black urban Senator Harold Metts (D, Providence) was standing against the wave as the voice of traditional values and a choir of presumably urban Latinos were singing for the traditionalist cause outside the Senate chambers.

The implications of this fact are larger than could be explained as a few old-school folks among the urban minorities who just haven’t gotten the “right side of history” message, yet.

Disadvantaged communities can see the brand of freedom espoused by relatively wealthy whites who profess to be “fiscally conservative, but socially liberal,” as a license to take away all supports from those who need them most.  Paring back government funding and programs that offer direct support for urban communities, while at the same time taking a sledgehammer to the social supports that help communities and families survive and thrive without government assistance, can sound like a promise of having freedom to drown.

Liberal Republicans shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the things they like about liberal Democrats are the same things that urban minorities like about liberal Democrats.  The bottom line is that — because of their values or because of the crass requirements of their bases — Republicans will never be able to outbid Democrats for the affections of disadvantaged groups; they have to offer an alternative.  Fortunately, the alternative available to them is both more moral and more powerful and sustainable.

A Tiverton Campaign Finance Answer

Frankly, I’m not a fan of campaign finance regulations, especially at the local level.  If the information’s out there, grassroots groups should use it, but that’s a separate question of whether the government should be able to impose these sorts of rules on the population.

Whom does it serve when people who are politically savvy and well organized (often within the political establishment) can comb through the donations and expenditures records of newcomers who want to serve their communities in public office?  And then there are the fines.

I go into more detail on this topic in a new post on Tiverton Fact Check, in which I answer a resident’s question about why the current Town Council vice president, Denise deMedeiros, has an inactive account on the state’s campaign finance site.  (Basic answer: because the Board of Elections spelled her name differently when she reactivated her account to run for Town Council a few years ago.)