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Shared Assumptions and Values in Government and Media

Here’s a key quotation that I flagged in Richard Benedetto’s essay, “How Obama Gets Away With It,” when I read it last week:

One of the news media’s main jobs is to hold public officials accountable, from the president on down. But Mr. Obama is the beneficiary of news-media managers and reporters who mostly like his style and agree with his policies …

If anything, this understates the degree of bias.  It’s not just style and policies; it’s a whole set of assumptions and sensibilities.

The matter is personal to me, this week, because an unsigned editorial in this week’s Sakonnet Times takes me to task for offering Tiverton voters an option that would control their taxes at this year’s financial town referendum (FTR), written from the point of view of elected Budget Committee members:

For a third straight year, they’ve labored over the town budget, crunched the numbers, sweated the details only to have a petitioner swoop in with a cheaper alternative.  Voters, of course, flock to the bargain rate — a 3.5 percent tax hike faces long odds against a 0.9 percent alternative.

This year, petitioner Justin Katz added insult to injury.  It’s not my job, he declared going in, to figure out how to make my budget work.  It’s your job, budget committee, to find $780,000 worth of savings — and if disaster befalls the library or some other account, it’s your fault.

If I were inclined to argue point by point, I’d note the large number of questions the editorialist begs.  For example, did the committee members “labor,” “crunch,” and “sweat”?  Some of them, sure, but as I noted last year and Budget Committee Member Donna Cook emphasized this year, some members’ attendance hardly qualifies for such admiring prose.

The editorial goes on to opine that Tiverton’s committee members must be envious that budgets in the “tightwad towns next door… flew through town meetings with scarcely a ripple.”  Unfortunately, the writer does not take the opportunity to go one step farther to the deeper truth:  The two “tightwad” towns listed have tax rates that are around one-third of Tiverton’s.

How is it that the newspaper gives no credence to the possibility that the Town Council, the Budget Committee, and the political groups that have dominated them for at least 16 years should ponder what they have done to put the town in this situation?  How can it not merit mention that the Town Council behaves as if petitioners’ budgets are mere suggestions even when the petitioner labors, crunches, and sweats to give line items?

The answer, it would seem, is the same at the local and national levels:  Journalists tend to agree with progressives’ view of the role of government.  When grassroots groups finally start pushing back against abusive government, the story is all about the poor public servants, not the people’s just grievances.

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… Wait, What? Tourism Dollars Were Spent to Attract BUSINESS to RI?

So NBC10’s Bill Rappleye reports that a special legislative commission is having a tough time getting satisfactory answers as to how the state Commerce Corporation (former the EDC, the agency that enabled 38 Studios) spent a bunch of tourism dollars.

Lawmakers put $5 million in this year’s budget to create a statewide tourism marketing plan. A legislative commission is trying to find out what happened to the money.

“You have almost $4 million being spent and not one paid tourism ad that I’ve seen,” Evan Smith of Discover Newport told NBC 10 News. “Not one.”

And via the Providence Journal today, we learn from that hearing where at least some of the state’s tourism money went. Turns out it wasn’t to … well, tourism. (Emphasis added.)

Evan Smith, CEO of Discover Newport, had a number of concerns, including the state’s focus on public relations and “earned media,” which account for $3 million of the total budget, rather than traditional advertising. “The amount dedicated to public relations is absurd,” Smith said.

He also blasted the one major commercial the state has purchased so far, a spot produced by CNN that appears in airports and on long-haul flights, for missing the “local drive” market the campaign was supposed to focus on. The airport spot, geared more toward CEOs than families, played in to a major complaint across the commission, that the Commerce Corporation was focused on luring new companies to Rhode Island at the expense of growing tourism.

Smith said he had asked six times to see examples of the paid tourism commercials the state was running, and only last week found out that they were all targeted to business attraction. “I thought it was very misleading and under the table, quite frankly, and didn’t appreciate it at all,” Smith said. “We would like to see a separation in business development and tourism.”

Hear, hear, Mr. Smith! So Governor Raimondo’s economic development efforts to date are comprised of 1.) corporate welfare and 2.) plundering the tourism budget???

This is NOT WORKING. The Raimondo administration took a bunch of tourism dollars back from regional tourism councils and squandered it. The money needs to go back to these councils, where it clearly was better spent by people who where in far better touch with the product that they were marketing. As for any statewide tourism efforts, it is now evident, from this eye-opening hearing, that the General Assembly would be chumps to give even one dollar, much less a budget increase (laughable idea), to the Commerce Corporation, which has demonstrated a lack of both competence and accountability in this area.

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Pawtucket Train Station – So RI is Just a Suburb of Boston?

My main beef with the proposed Pawtucket train station is that it is completely absurd to spend north of $40M to accommodate only eighty nine (89) net new riders.

But in its weekly look at Best and Worst Bills of 2016, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity (disclosure: I am their Communications Manager) raises another unfortunate aspect of the proposed station. They point out that it offers a disturbing insight into the economic development philosophy of state officials who are pushing for the station, which is that it

… perpetuates a submissive philosophy that the State of Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston and should rely on the Massachusetts capital’s economy to achieve growth. The Center strongly disagrees and for years has advocated that broad-based reforms can transform the Ocean State into a vibrant and independent economy of its own that will benefit all families and businesses, as opposed to the insider few industries targeted by the Brookings plan.

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The Panopticon State Moving Forward with Prescriptions

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

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

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

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

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

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A Teacher Calls Out Teacher Seniority

Whoa. Exactly right, dude. (From an op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal.)

Is putting such emphasis on seniority really in the best interests of the teachers? We, as teachers and professionals, look foolish showing the door to a rising superstar while retaining the services of “Mr. Deadwood” upstairs in history.

If I’m clearly an underperforming teacher why am I not on the short list to be shown the door? What can we possibly tell students who lament losing that rising superstar when they sincerely ask, “Why is the abysmal Mrs. Do-Little still here?” Good question, kids. Unfortunately, the answer has nothing to do with what’s best for you. Sad.

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Gov Raimondo Hands out Another $7M in Tax Dollars In Lieu of Real Econ Development

From the Providence Business News.

The R.I. Commerce Corp. voted to approve more than $7 million in state relocation and redevelopment credits Monday to several corporations that plan to invest in or bring jobs to Rhode Island.

“These are three fine projects that are helping to advance our economy,” said R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor.

What is actually needed to advance the state’s economy, Mr. Secretary, is substantive improvements to the tax and regulatory climate to signal to out-of-state businesses (and the jobs they bring) that they can come here and prosper without having to go on BENDED KNEE to state officials for CORPORATE WELFARE.

What is even more disturbing is the revelation that taxpayers are, in fact, being forced to come out of pocket via these subsidies to compensate for the business climate and market conditions created by decades of costly, anti-business policies that the Raimondo is studiously choosing not to address.

The company has developed two other hotel properties in Rhode Island, including the Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Providence. Like those, this project needs state assistance in bridging the financial gap created by market conditions. In Boston, he said, the company has properties built at similar cost that fetch $300-a-night for rooms. In Providence, similar rooms would be booked at $170 a night.

“But for this supplement, this project would not happen,” Karam said.

Remarkably, at a recent stop on her “listening tour”, Governor Raimondo actually touted the fact that she had increased such taxpayer-funded tax credit and give-away programs as though it were an achievement of her administration!

Rhode Island needs someone at the State House to be the adult here. Minimally, these taxpayer-funded subsidies need to be shut down while we wait for the governor to come to her senses about the real action needed on economic development … or, if that is not going to happen, until the next governor is installed which, hopefully for the sake of the taxpayer’s wallet, will be in two and a half rather than six and a half years.

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UPDATED – Monetized Firefighter Sick Time is Straight Up Rip-Off of Taxpayer

Great, important and infuriating article in the Warwick Beacon a couple of weeks ago written by publisher John Howell. From city documents obtained by taxpayer advocate Rob Cote, it demonstrates that Warwick taxpayers are being compelled to needlessly pay for monetized, unused sick days.

An examination of payroll records and information provided by Fire Chief James McLaughlin show that virtually no paid sick leave is used by department personnel, and that at the end of the year department members get a bonus – in some cases more than $5,000 – for unused sick days.

The total cost to taxpayers for the calendar year ending Dec. 31, 2015, was $442,913.87.

The huge problem here is that the basis for this abuse – sick days – shouldn’t even exist but is a completely unnecessary addition to the firefighter contract because Rhode Island law, Title 45-19-1, effectively stipulates that firefighters and police officers (more specifically, “police officer, fire fighter, crash rescue crewperson, fire marshal, chief deputy fire marshal, or deputy fire marshal”) shall receive unlimited sick and injury days.

This is not a criticism of firefighters but of Warwick officials who have agreed to a contract which includes these completely unnecessary, utterly wasteful provisions funded by Warwick taxpayers. Ken Block, who had previously completed a statewide analysis of the high cost of Rhode Island fire departments, identifies in the article why elected officials have done so.

He reasons payment for unused sick time has simply become a means for elected officials seeking firefighter union support to bloat their pay without making it obvious to the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.

Two things.

1.) Warwick officials, you’re busted. This utterly wasteful practice is a rip-off of taxpayers and needs to end immediately.

2.) What other cities and towns are similarly abusing their taxpayers by including sick days in their first responder contracts? Remember, Rhode Island law (Title 45-19-1) makes sick days completely unnecessary. Accordingly, the presence in any police or firefighter contract of sick days – which can then be monetized and abused – is not out of necessity but due to the selfish motivation of that municipality’s elected officials.

UPDATE

After review of the law and contracts, Justin Katz contacted me to point out a couple of errors.

1. The RI law cited is not quite as blanket about on-duty sick and injury as indicated in my post and the Beacon article. Justin reports:

In order to get injured on duty (IOD) pay, personnel have to file affidavits that they received their injury or contracted their illness directly as a result of their work. Just catching the flu wouldn’t do it. There is justification for having some provision that allows emergency personnel to call in when they aren’t physically up for doing their job for some reason.

2. The Warwick police contract does, in fact, include provision for sick and injury days, though it is far more tightly capped than the fire contract.

The Warwick police contract currently in effect includes separate sections for sick time and injured on duty time, *as does the fire contract,* …

It doesn’t look like the police get to cash in their sick days. However, they do get 8 hours of “miscellaneous time” if they go six months without using sick days.

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Grant Inequality is Also by Community

Today’s must-read-as-always Political Scene in the Providence Journal does a good job breaking down the top recipients, both legislator and community-wise, of legislative grants this year. (It was community service, not legislative, grants, that were the subject of the very lame House hearings last week.) Because legislative grants are given out entirely at the whim of leadership, those legislators who are favored are presumably going to get a larger share of the grants. But the result of that selection process is also a disproportionate distribution of grant monies by city and town. Here’s what that looks like.

Of the $537,040 given out by the 10 lawmakers, $113,850 went to organizations in Mattiello’s home district of Cranston, $82,700 went to Providence groups, $42,000 went to East Providence groups, and $38,500 landed in Warren-based organizations.

Legislative grants need to go away, largely because they are unconstitutional. But they also need to be gone because they are obviously unfair. Why should one city or town get more than another? Democrats wring their hands about income inequality. It’s interesting that, when political considerations enter the picture, Democrat leadership on Smith Hill not only tolerates inequality but deliberately creates it via the grant process.

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ProJo’s Fire-And-Brimstone Editorial About Grant Hearings is Spot On

The Providence Journal’s all out, fire-and-brimstone editorial yesterday against the sham House hearings on grants is welcome and fully warranted.

The hearings came across as nothing but a dog-and-pony exhibition, an insult to the intelligence of most Rhode Islanders, a fraud, a farce.

The editorial not only calls for an immediate end to grants but goes on to point out that the line item veto would be a curb on such excesses. (My comment: ahem, yes, in the hands of a Governor interested in wielding it.)

The editorial, further, makes reference to federal authorities.

This is rank enough, but the system has evidently metastasized into funneling money directly to legislators and other allies working for dubious nonprofit groups. If crimes have been committed in this manner, we hope federal authorities bring an iron fist down on the perpetrators.

It is very difficult to believe that leadership is attempting to pass off these Potemkin hearings as the promised review and oversight of the very troubled grant program and that they won’t, in fact, be bringing in independent investigators. If that is the case, however (and I would be thrilled to be wrong here), legislative oversight is pointless and it is clearly time to bring in a phalanx of feds. Grants and every campaign account on Smith Hill: let them go top to bottom. The “stench”, as the editorial calls the miasma emanating from the grant program, will not clear until this happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s Really In Your Best Interests? Overreach in Obama’s Transgender Bathroom Directive

On this episode of, “What’s Really In Your Best Interests?” I discuss President Obama’s recent transgender bathroom directive. The administration’s directive regarding transgender access to bathrooms in public schools can only be viewed as a blatant threat and yet another assault against the cherished American cornerstones of federalism, local governance, individual rights, and transparent government. Rhode Islanders should speak out against this growing federal intrusion.

Regardless of how you feel about transgender access to facilities, the process by which this executive action will be implemented is nothing short of pure corruption.

If ever there was a time for school choice, to empower parents with the choice to escape schools that do not respect their personal values, that time is now. This increasing trend of arbitrary and unconstitutional government by activist and elitist executives, often a direct affront to the values of the very people they claim to represent – is dangerous to the cornerstones of our great American democracy.

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Agencies Are Our Servants and Should Behave as Such

Focusing on the experience of farmers, Michale Walsh illustrates how government-by-bureaucracy is entirely antithetical to the principle of a government for, by, and of the people:

Faceless bureaucrats with guns arriving on your doorstep one fine day in order to investigate a citizen who is not even under suspicion. The Constitution doesn’t matter to them, nor do legalistic protestations, nor simple human decency. No, armed with nothing more than their own impunity, agents from EPA or OSHA or any other federal agency with a SWAT team (which is most of them) can simply make demands on citizens in the name of “regulations.”

It’s a nifty, tautological trick, government agencies have pulled in the United States:  Somewhere along the process, we all get to vote on politicians.  In progressives’ minds, that makes the government the Voice of the People, and as our duly elected, appointed, or hired “representatives,” they determine what the will and interests of the People are.  If you resist when they come to enforce that will and protect those interests, well, then, you’re an Enemy of the People.

Want to resist by legal means?  That’s fine.  They’ve got the endless resources of the People — even people who haven’t been born, much less voted, yet.

And don’t think this is just a problem with giant federal agencies.  Even in the government comedy that is the State of Rhode Island, agencies write their own regulations, work to enforce them, and then stand as the judges when people challenge them.  Tax officials pick businesses to target and then forbid them from talking about the extortion (thus keeping us from knowing how common it is) while legislators pass new enabling bills into law without even reading them, partly on the strength of leaders’ leverage with small grants that sometimes end up the pockets of the legislators or their friends.

This is a metastacizing disease that will not going away until We the People cut it out, but in practical terms, we’re probably beyond the point at which that’s possible.  After all, start running campaigns against the inside interests, and you too become an Enemy of the People.

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The Heritage of Gaspee

May I indulge in a quick word about state representative from Warwick and Democrat Party chairman Joseph McNamara?  The cartoonish pretense of offense that he’s been expressing that anybody would dare criticize his fellow Democrats without exposing their donors to bullying from corrupt state officials and their activist allies is worthy of note, but what’s really been nagging at me is this, from a Katherine Gregg article:

“Unfortunately,” said McNamara, a Warwick state representative, “shadowy conservative groups like the Gaspee Project still get away with underhanded mailings like this with no reporting to the Board of Elections website. I find it disgusting, especially with the use of patriotic symbols like the HMS Gaspee,” McNamara said.

One wonders about McNamara’s sense of patriotism.  To be clear, I’m not challenging his patriotic feelings, but I wonder what they entail.  Frankly, it’s difficult not to conclude that they really are just that: feelings.  Presumably he has warm feelings about his family’s heritage, and he loves the country that’s allowed him to be a person of some small importance in his home state.  But really, what does he feel patriotic about?  I’d bet he’s never really thought about the message of the Gaspee burning or its relevance to modern times.

Consider the details.  Much of the aggression in those early days of our country had to do with high taxes, and high taxes are practically the defining value of Rhode Island Democrats.  The HMS Gaspee, specifically, was on an anti-smuggling mission, and smuggling is nothing but transporting goods for commerce without government approval.  Regulating economic activity might even be more important to McNamara’s comrades than taxing it.

Indeed, McNamara’s entire complaint against the wicked right-wing fliers is that they constitute free speech without government regulation.  In that sense, the Gaspee Project fliers are like smuggled goods, and McNamara wants to send out the ships to stop that suspicious activity.

Sorry, Joe.  Either you’re the bad guy or you have to reevaluate your affection for the incidents that defined the United States’s rebellious origin.  On further thought, you’re the bad guy either way.

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Karen MacBeth Will Step Away from Politics Altogether

… that was the startling announcement that State Representative Karen MacBeth (D then R) made on the Tara Granahan Show yesterday on WPRO.

Republican State Representative Karen MacBeth tells WPRO’s Tara Granahan that she has abandoned her short-lived race for Congress against sitting Congressman David Cicilline, and would also not seek reelection to her General Assembly seat.

Rep MacBeth was a straight shooter on Smith Hill (we need more like her). Thanks to her for trying to get to the bottom of why and how taxpayers came to be on the hook for $89 million in the 38 Studios debacle and especially for trying to get answers and accountability in the critical matter of the seven figure fees paid to the crony of former Speaker Gordon Fox, Michael Corso. (Your cue, Attorney General Kilmartin.)

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

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

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

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Labor Union Theft from Rhode Island Taxpayers

To build on Monique’s post earlier today, another mention of the front-page above-the-fold column by Mark Patinkin, from yesterday, is worthwhile.  It was an encouraging sight, in that it brought to readers’ attention the tip of an underground mass of taxpayer dollars that labor unions grab for themselves using state government.

As Patinkin explains, taxpayers are giving the union organization money to train people to take more money from taxpayers.  Unfortunately, Patinkin wasn’t able to find all of the Institute for Labor Studies and Research’s (ILSR’s) money from state government, so let me introduce him to the state’s transparency site.  Search 2015 for the institute, and you find $518,683 in state money from multiple agencies.  Leading the way is the Department of Education, which gave the ILSR $185,986 under the program, “administration of the comprehensive education,” mostly for “accelerating school performance,” but also (get this) for “fiscal integrity & efficiencies.”

Then there’s the $161,444 from the office of Public Higher Education, which is the community service grant described by Patinkin.  One detail Patinkin doesn’t explore is that Rhode Island technically has a single Board of Education, covering K-20, and who should be on the K-12 portion of the board but teacher union president Larry Purtill, who also happens to be listed as the secretary treasurer of ILSR, according to its 2014 filing with the IRS.

Next up, in 2015, was the Dept. of Labor and Training, which gave ILSR $158,239 under its “injured worker services” and “workforce development services” programs.  Of particular interest is a $17,075 grant from the Governor’s Workforce Board.  What makes this interesting is that George Nee, whom Patinkin names as the ILSR’s board chairman, is also on the the Governor’s Workforce Board.  Funny how that happens.  So far this year, Nee’s institute is up to $18,675 from Nee’s government board.

This is just the beginning of the connections that can be drawn between state officials and groups or individuals who receive taxpayer dollars, and as one unravels them, it becomes clearer and clearer that corruption like that of former Democrat Rep. Raymond Gallison is less an exception than it is the state government’s entire way of doing business.  At least Gallison had to be elected to gain and maintain power.

One can only hope columnists and reporters in the state won’t move away from this grimy thread once some other shiny object appears on the landscape.

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A Political Business Network That Puts Businesses First?

Increasingly, over the years, I’ve become disenchanted with and cynical about groups that are supposedly active in politics to support businesses and the political philosophy that allows them to thrive without micromanagement from government officials.  A sampling of reasons:

  • When legislators placed a representative of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce on a commission to study the reduction or elimination of the sales tax, his most notable contribution was the opinion that it would be “a crime to threaten” a government revenue stream.
  • When the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity proposed ways to reduce state spending by nearly a quarter-billion dollars (perhaps to invest in a sales tax cut or some other pro-growth policy), the RI Hospitality Association went to bat for big spending, mostly to maintain the annual six-figure sums the association receives from the state.
  • When it comes to the state government spending over $100 million to get a government-run health insurance broker off the ground, the Cranston Chamber of Commerce joined with socialists in looking forward to the ability of government agents to take over health care completely (which is becoming more obviously the motivation as ObamaCare and the insurance exchange prove to be costly and under-performing debacles).

As I’ve summed it up multiple times, Rhode Island’s public square doesn’t have groups that advocate for constituencies — in this case, business groups that pressure government for the benefit of members — but a network of insiders who represent the government to their members.  The “business voices,” and even most of our elected representatives, depend mostly on their government connections and unerringly put those connections before the well-being of the people they’re supposed to be representing.

Hopefully, cynicism can be healed with a group, like the Gaspee Business Network, that does exactly what we used to assume the chambers and other groups were doing.

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A Mini Lesson in Media Bias

News coverage creates a tilted narrative, even where it’s ostensibly supposed to be neutral.  If consumers were taught well how to infer an author’s point of view from the choices that he or she makes with language, Americans would have a clearer understanding of what’s happening in the world.

An Associate Press reprint in today’s Providence Journal illustrates the point very well.  The opening paragraph of the story is actually unusually clear:

In a setback for the Obama health care law, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the administration is unconstitutionally subsidizing medical bills for millions of people while ignoring congressional power over government spending.

But on such matters of technical legal and political concern, the great majority of people will skim the headline and maybe the “At a Glance” summary, rather than read the text.  Here’s the Projo’s headline: “Judge says Congress bypassed on spending.”  Note the passive voice.  “Bypassed” by whom?  Read quickly, the headline might actually make one think that Congress has done something wrong, in that it “bypassed” something it was supposed to do.

That error almost seems deliberately intended when one turns to the first summary bullet:

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled Thursday that the Affordable Care Act unconstitutionally subsidizes health care costs without the approval of Congress.

That sentence doesn’t make logical sense, in the context.  The Affordable Care Act can’t provide a subsidy against the approval of Congress, because if the act allowed for the subsidy, Congress would have approved of it by definition.  What’s actually happened is that the Obama Administration has violated the Affordable Care Act in providing the subsidies.

Tolerating this sort of spin from their news departments is a big part of newspapers’ lost credibility over the last couple of decades.  When readers decide not to tolerate it anymore, they just go elsewhere for information, and there’s no shortage of options, these days.

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Arrest of Providence Council Majority Leader

Oh, boy. Another one.

Providence City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson was arrested by state police Wednesday for allegedly embezzling more than $127,000 from a taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit he founded as well as misusing $12,000 in campaign contributions.

Note that he (allegedly) personally benefited from his public office in not one but two ways: via his campaign account and also from a taxpayer-funded non-profit that he controlled.

To focus just on the former for a moment, how many other elected officials are tapping into their campaign accounts to cover personal expenses? First Gordon Fox; now (allegedly) Kevin Jackson. How does anyone continue to make the case, with a straight face, that campaign finance accounts should not be made public, the way Massachusetts and other states do?

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Hassenfeld Poll

There are some interesting results in the Hassenfeld Institute poll that’s floating around Twitter (but somehow not yet mentioned on its Web site):

  • 50% of respondents think the state is headed in the wrong direction.
  • 52% would grade Rhode Island’s public schools at a C or worse, although that drops to 31% when parents are asked about the schools that their own children attend.
  • Respondents were pretty evenly split on the question of whether the state Dept. of Education has too much, too little, or just enough oversight, although 67% think there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing.
  • Nonetheless, 87% think it would be important for schools to have higher standards.
  • Although the phrasing and context are different, the poll found even stronger support (78% somewhat/very important) for school choice than did the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s poll, with the Friedman Foundation, a few years ago.

If there is an overall summary, I’d say that Rhode Islanders know the state needs a change, but they’re not sure what it should look like, even in the relatively narrow field of education.  At the most simplistic level, those who want to effect change have to do two things:  1) Cut through the distractions and noise of the powerful people and groups who benefit by keeping intact exactly the structures that are harming the state, and 2) make people believe that change can happen — not just little bits of obvious correction here and there, but big change.

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A Small “Yay” for Ethics Legislation

I suppose baby steps are better than nothing. However, if a few big strides are necessary in order to pull the brakes on a train headed for a demolished bridge, the tiny step is at best wasted energy and at worst a distraction from what’s necessary.

With Rhode Island’s paying-attention class finally having its wait-a-minute moment regarding former Democrat Representative Raymond Gallison (realizing that, hey, something we’ve all known about for years is wrong), legislative leaders feel compelled to sacrifice the unexpected loophole that came into being a few years ago when the state Supreme Court decided that the state constitution, as currently written, does not require legislators to be ethical.

So, are H8189 and S2953 “the Grinch himself cut the roast beast” or “I’ll fix it up there, and bring it back here“?

Although it would be a close judgment, I might be just as encouraged if the proposed constitutional amendment tried something new.  Perhaps legislators accused of violating the Code of Ethics should be required to perform a ritualistic dance symbolizing the good will and transparency of our tribal founding elders, and if the Ethics Commission finds the dance moving (or the dancer well connected and ideologically suitable), it would respond by beating the Drum of Absolution in a complicated rhythm.

Let’s remember a few things:

  • Gallison’s sweet deal predated the Supreme Court’s Irons ruling.
  • This is the same Ethics Commission that sees no problem with union members’ sitting as government officials and negotiating with their own unions, as long as it involves another local.
  • This is also the same Ethics Commission that doesn’t believe it’s possible for government officials to act unethically as long as all of the participants in an incident are acting in official government roles.

To be clear: The proposed constitutional amendment to make legislators subject to review by the Ethics Commission is a positive, and I’ll vote for it.  But let’s not pretend implementing it resolves any of Rhode Island’s problems with corruption, or with anything else.  Indeed, the story of this issue — from the absurd judicial ruling to the multi-year fight to clarify the law to the ridiculous incident that has precipitated the change — is evidence that something bigger needs to happen.

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A Clue for Christie

Count me among the conservatives who’ve had more reservations about than admiration for Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie for quite some time.  A recent comment of his gives a good indication of why.  In an article about Christie’s “risky bet on Trump is paying off”:

“How did I go from being an idiot 68 days ago to prescient 68 days later?” Christie asked mischievously last week.

I can’t speak for political professionals and people inside the patronage system, but outside that limited sphere, I don’t think anybody was saying Christie was an idiot.  A cynical sell-out, yes, but that’s a different thing.

The idea of prescience matters.  Christie’s negative observations of Donald Trump before he flipped to endorsing him might invalidate his self-description, now, but the key thing is what he’s claiming prescience about.  Good for Christie if he foresaw Trump’s victory, but that’s separate from whether Trump will be a good president.

I don’t think Christie’s unique in this respect.  It makes matters worse, though, that a world in which idiocy and prescience are valued mainly in picking people who’ll be able to help your political career is the world from which we pick our leaders.

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Legislative Grants: When’s Enough Enough?

Come on, Rhode Island. Isn’t this signal enough?

More than half of Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers responded to a Journal survey last week, including 44 of 75 House members, and 19 of 38 senators. Of those who responded with more than an automatic reply, 15 acknowledged some link to an organization — such as a Little League team — that received a grant.

To go where Katherine Gregg couldn’t with that Providence Journal article, of the 63 legislators in the General Assembly who were willing to respond to her inquiry, 15 (or 24%) were also willing to admit something that looks to many of us like corruption, straight up.  Of the 50 legislators who did not respond, we can only guess, but it would be reasonable to assume that their percentage is somewhat worse.  Then there’s the reality that something makes legislators pick these non-profits.  Keep digging, and I bet the number of connections climbs close to 100%.

This isn’t a close call; these things need to go.

Earlier today, someone of generally like mind expressed frustration about everything that goes on in our town, state, and nation that just shouldn’t.  After years of thinking about this stuff, I find myself returning to the conclusion that our system of government has been hopelessly compromised, that the solution ultimately lies with us, but that those who’ve compromised the system have also worked to make it nearly impossible to fix.

Just look at these grants.  How could legislators not know this is completely inappropriate, to the point that even those who strive to be ethical might not see it?  Well, for one thing, nobody’s called them on it.  It took the fall of Ray Gallison to open up a channel to start getting information about the corruption out to the public.  That’s on us, for failing to create an environment for consumer news that would support such investigations.

We’re already seeing those who work for good government fall into the same ol’ trap over this latest controversy — hoping for government officials to come up with some sort of solution to problems that those same government officials created.  But again: It’s on us.  We have to investigate and support those who do.  We have to run for office.  We have to vote.  The remedy for government excess isn’t more authority for government or more clever initiatives (like campaign finance reform) that corrupt politicians can manipulate to their advantage.  The remedy is for the people to shake up the ant farm.

The obvious solution to the legislative grant problem within government is to end the legislative grant program.  But that’s not going to happen, so it falls back to us to ramp up the amount of attention that we pay and the amount of effort that we put into changing things.  Unfortunately, that requires some people to make a whole lot of effort, and the problem with being against government corruption is that it’s much harder to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

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New Oversight Chair Dropping Investigation of 38 Studios; AG Says End is in Sight

Monday’s must-read, the Political Scene, in the Providence Journal includes the news that

Rep. Patricia Serpa, the newly appointed chair-woman of the House Oversight Committee, says the days of the panel digging into the lingering mysteries of the 38 Studios debacle are over.

“I am going to pivot. I don’t want to regurgitate any more information about 38 Studios or election lines and voting lines,” …

It is disturbing and bad for Rhode Island that Chairwoman Serpa, presumably at the request of Speaker Mattiello, doesn’t want to expose the events and money trail that put state taxpayers on the hook for $89 million (minus some modest settlements in the civil cases).

In related news, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin tells GoLocalProv that

… the end of the 38 Studios investigation is in sight.

“I believe the state police are close to a wrap up,” said Kilmartin, though he said he couldn’t provide a specific time frame. “And we will see how that investigation ends up.”

The $89 million question there is, did the Attorney General allow a comprehensive investigation of all important aspects of the 38 Studios, including where all of the money, especially the fees paid to Gordon Fox’s crony Michael Corso, ended up? Or did he keep the focus on a side issue or two to avoid getting the full picture of what led up to this debacle, a comprehensive look that might cause embarrassment to and even criminal charges against friends currently or formerly in power?

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“YouGottaBeKiddingMe” about Former Chief Marketing Officer’s Severance Pay

Thanks to the Providence Journal’s Ed Fitzpatrick for making the severance pay of Governor Raimondo’s former Chief Marketing Officer the subject of his “YouGottaBeKiddingMe” today.

… Betsy Wall, who stepped down amid the state’s “Cooler & Warmer” slogan fiasco and who didn’t know Gaspee Days from “Happy Days,” is going to get $67,500 in hard-earned taxpayer dollars as severance after a little more than three months on the job? You’re telling me that an “at-will” employee with no contract will receive that much money on top of the $39,173 she was paid through April Fool’s Day?

Nice! At Governor Raimondo’s direction, Betsy Wall will receive more in severance pay than she earned while she was employed by the state.

Note that rather than a blanket omerta, Wall’s termination agreement includes the cleverly phrased stipulation that all parties will refrain from making any “disparaging comments”. As much of the tourism campaign was a “hot mess”, to use one of Fitzpatrick’s terms, and clearly worthy of many disparaging remarks on all sides, this will prevent any uncomfortable truths – i.e., accountability – from coming out about the failed, $5 million campaign – at least from Wall or Raimondo’s staff. Fitzpatrick correctly alludes to the fact that the rest of us are not party to the agreement, however, and are certainly free to make disparaging remarks – as we have done and will continue to do about this and many other instances of tax dollars squandered by the Raimondo administration.

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Creating a Non-Partisan Image for Corruption

Something’s bugging me about Karen Lee Ziner’s generally helpful article, yesterday, listing some recently disgraced Rhode Island legislators.  Whatever Ziner’s intentions, if I were to set out to write an article that obscured the connection between Democrats and corruption on the list, I don’t know that I’d have done anything different.

The list contains 11 legislators.  Of those, 10 are Democrats, and one is Republican.  However, only five of the Democrats are identified as such.  Moreover, the lone Republican, former House Minority Leader Robert Watson is also unique on the list as being the only one whose scandal didn’t involve some sort of private or public corruption.  Watson got jammed up with the law over minor substance abuse issues (like DUI and marijuana possession).  That’s not nearly as relevant to a story about dishonest politicians as abusing influence or scamming for money.

In fairness, of course, Republicans in the Rhode Island legislature have been protected from corruption by the fact that they don’t have much power to speak of, and I wouldn’t expect them to remain pure after spending the better part of a century in unchallenged power, either.  Still, voters should make decisions based on the world as it currently exists, not an abstract principle that the parties would be the same under identical circumstances.

It’s not just that Democrat power in Rhode Island allows corruption.  The existence of opportunity will inevitably attract the corrupt to the power.  The best anti-corruption move would be to have a more-even government, with neither side being so entrenched that a few scandals couldn’t flip the advantage.  Not only would that divide up the power available for corruption, but it would give both sides incentive to police themselves and the ability to policy the other.

In other words, a list of corrupt politicians who are all Democrats should be a signal to the electorate that the General Assembly is dangerously imbalanced.  Apparently, though, Ziner and her editors don’t want that signal to be sent, so they made sure a Republican is on the list, and they omitted the party identification for half of the Democrats to leave the impression that they might be divided between parties.