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The IRS, Media, Democrat Nexus

Eliana Johnson phrases her recent National Review Online article as if it nudges the controversy over the IRS’s Tea Party targeting in another direction, but I think it fills out the picture in exactly the way that most Tea Party types would expect.  Consider:

The targeting of tea-party groups traces back to February of 2010 when a low-level employee in the IRS’s Cincinnati office flagged a single file for his superior. In an e-mail written on February 25, 2010, Jack Koester, a revenue agent, told his boss, John Shafer, that “recent media attention” made the application at hand a “high-profile” case. In doing so, he was following the Internal Revenue Manual’s directive to agency personnel to elevate to senior managers cases that fall into several categories, including those “that are newsworthy, or that have the potential to become newsworthy.”

In a comprehensive analysis, Step #1 wasn’t the low-level employee’s flagging of the application.  Rather, it was the news media’s handling the Tea Party movement as a suspicious, controversial development.

Next, the flagged file worked its way up the ladder until it got to the political operatives at the top of the IRS.  In D.C., the issue took another step:

Once in Washington, the applications landed with a group of attorneys known in the IRS as tax-law specialists. The Internal Revenue Manual directs tax-law specialists to create what is known as a “sensitive-case report” if, among other possible criteria, the application “is likely to attract media or Congressional attention.”

Such judgement is subjective, of course, but one suspects that any individual Tea Party group’s application would have fallen well short of national media or Congressional attention.  Attention to a movement is quite different than, say, attention that might be paid to a specific charity created by a political family that has the potential to be used for laundering political donations.

That’s when the politics came into it:

Disgraced IRS official Lois Lerner didn’t become involved with the tea-party cases until May 13, 2010, when she received the sensitive-case report created by tax-law specialists in Washington. Then, in early 2011, Lerner ordered that the cases go through a “multi-tiered review” process, called the tea-party cases “very dangerous,” and reiterated, “Cincy should probably NOT have these cases.”

It may not be the case that the Obama Administration had the idea, one day, to disrupt the development of the Tea Party movement with the IRS.  But when a biased news media had made backlash against President Obama’s policies a matter of national controversy, and when a Democrat-heavy bureaucracy had interpreted some individual manifestations of that backlash as “sensitive cases,” the idea arrived on the administration’s doorstep with ribbons and bows.

The partisan Democrats at the top of the chain (perhaps including the President) could have declined the opportunity in the name of freedom and the rule of law, but they didn’t.

Withstanding the Whispers

Musing about her experiences as conservativish libertarian (or maybe she’s a libertarianish conservative) in the world of sci-fi publishing, Sarah Hoyt touches on the insidious power of whisper campaigns:

Whisper campaigns are scary effective, because they can get in behind your rational thought. If someone told you to your face that I was a white supremacist and you’d met me and (particularly) my kids, you’d probably pee yourself laughing. BUT if the same info came to you whispered, as “Well, you know, her opinions on race are just nuts” or worse “of course, I disagree with her thing on race” – incredibly effective because it leaves you to make up in your own head how bad my opinions must be for someone to say just that.

There is also the corresponding difficulty of standing up to them:

It’s easier to cow most humans (social animals) with social ostracism than with death threats. There’s something heroic in standing up against a death threat while merely standing up against losing your job because of a whisper campaign calling you a poopy head looks slightly silly. Worse, because it’s a whisper campaign you’re never absolutely sure it’s not all in your head.

My experience in the whisper mill of Tiverton politics leads me to think Hoyt somewhat understates the problem.  Standing up to whisper campaigns isn’t merely difficult because the sense of something’s being juvenile too easily transfers from the whisperers to the self-defender.  Even if the subject matter is quite adult and serious, using means of communication that are likely to reach large numbers of people can seem defensive, especially if none of the whispers have been uttered loudly enough to hear in the public sphere.  Depending what the floating accusations are, the fact of a prominent response could even reinforce them.

Standing up, then, means continuing to do whatever it is that’s evoking the attacks while also continuing to go about your life, daring to live as if you aren’t a wicked, ostracized outsider.

Campaign Finance and Petty Tyranny

Let’s get one thing straight.

A group of town residents gets together to persuade their neighbors to vote for lower taxes at the local level.  They spend hours generating information to persuade and hours walking streets talking with people in the community and delivering literature.  They ask some friends for help covering the costs of things like printing and postage.

If you think this group of people ought to have to register with some bureaucrat in the state government and file reports about donations and expenditures, you do not believe in freedom of speech or freedom, generally.  You believe in tyranny, even if it’s only petty for the time being.  You believe in making it more difficult for the average citizen to affect his or her government and disadvantaging them in their fight against special interests and government insiders and ensuring that people on the government payroll (one way or another) are able to undermine any advantage that citizens might find.

It really is that simple.  You cannot believe in government of, by, and for the people and also believe that some government agent (making north of $75,000 per year, plus benefits, with pension promised) should be breathing down the necks of people who are trying to get control of their labor-union-dominated municipalities.

I bring this up because I received an email from Board of Elections Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton saying that “it has come to the attention of this office” that the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) “has been expending funds to support a position in the upcoming Tiverton Financial Town Referendum.”  I am not a board member of the TTA, so I did not respond.

However, I did opine on Twitter: “Received a friendly reminder from BOE about filing for local budget advocacy. Doesn’t apply, here, but even so, it’s absurdly undemocratic.”

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Thornton emailed again asking for “clarification” of the meaning of my tweet.  I clarified as follows:

I wasn’t aware that the Board of Elections was monitoring my Twitter feed.  Have you friended me on Facebook, yet?  I’m on LinkedIn and Pinterest, too, by the way, although I don’t think my resume or pictures of things I’ve seen around Rhode Island are relevant, here.

I’m happy to affirm officially that I believe state-level campaign finance laws and regulations imposed on grassroots groups attempting to affect local ballot questions in their own communities are offensive and probably unconstitutional.

That said, I am not a board member of TTA and don’t know why you included me in your original email.  Strictly speaking, TTA has done no advocacy in this campaign, and certainly not enough to come anywhere near the threshold.

For my own advocacy, I hadn’t yet crossed the $1,000 threshold until (I think) today.  Although I find it obscene that I have to answer to the state for these purposes, I will file whatever documents are necessary.

Whether it’s me or the group opposing me, this is absurd.  Campaign finance is not some benign, feel-good civic altruism. It’s the camel’s nose of tyranny.

The Budget Fight in Tiverton

For those who take a keen interest in Tiverton politics, local politics in general, or seeing a town employee shout at me and threaten to “get in my face,” I’ve put up a number of posts on Tiverton Fact Check in recent weeks:

  • An explanation of the 0.9% budget (Budget #2) that I submitted.
  • Video clips of outbursts from Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik’s (a Cumberland resident and Republican) directed toward residents, including me.
  • A video clip of my explanation of the budget.
  • A review of misleading statements from town officials and activists at a one-sided infomercial that they produced for public-access television.
  • My letter to the editor describing the positive vision for Budget #2.
  • Some additional points to dispel the fear that the school committee will cancel plans to go to full-day kindergarten if they don’t get $126,000 that they don’t need.
  • A review of a falsehood promoted by Tiverton 1st coordinator Brian Medeiros that one of Tiverton’s many massive tax increases in recent years came because the town didn’t have money in its reserves to soften the blow of a reduced state reimbursement for the now-forgotten car-tax phase out.
  • An analysis of the misleading comparison of Portsmouth’s larger reserve fund to Tiverton’s (still very large) one.
  • An explanation of the utter falsehood pushed by Tiverton 1st in a mailer that went out to some residents.

The History of Rhode Island Crony Deals

Steven Frias had another excellent essay in the Providence Journal, yesterday:

Using funds raised through a refinancing of state debt, Raimondo proposes spending about $35 million, in total, for a First Wave Closing Fund, a Small Business Assistance Program and a I-195 Redevelopment Fund. The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission would have broad discretion over how these funds are be spent and over which businesses benefit. 

Supporters of Raimondo called these programs “bold” and “game-changing.” However, Rhode Island politicians have used various government financing programs to benefit select businesses for more than a half-century, with little success at reversing Rhode Island’s decline. History shows that the state’s efforts to select businesses for help have been, at best, ineffectual at improving the economy in the long-term, and at worst, disastrous for taxpayers.

I’ve been thinking that it would be useful to have an online museum exhibit, of sorts, that presents timelines of various controversies, themes, and trends, in Rhode Island.  Unfortunately, most of the people I know who would undertake such a project are busy trying to support their families while doing some work to try to save the state for itself.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to see an academic taking it on, because it would inevitably make big government look bad, which academics aren’t allowed to do.

Riots, Regimentation and Rhetoric


I am afraid that the third paragraph from the bottom of Wednesday’s E.J. Dionne column on the riots in Baltimore all-too-accurately reflects the state of elite thinking in America, and not in a good way…

[William Julius Wilson] offered a central truth: “Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and temporal aspects of daily life. It determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent.”

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking, where the idea that people who agree upon some bigger meanings in life can work together to build something is replaced by an idea that people cannot find meaning until they’ve first been regimented, seems to have become the dominant philosophy of a wide swath of a “respectable” political elite who, for various reasons, are unable to articulate anything beyond a few economic platitudes when discussing what a society should aspire to (e.g. “Let’s get Rhode Island back to work“), and who assume everything else takes care of itself, if government can be made to function as the comprehensive human-resources bureaucracy for everyone.

Or am I reading to much into E.J. Dionne seeing something profound in William Julius Wilson’s statement above?

Electing a New Electorate

In the popular imagination, political coups involve military action, long knives in the night, or some other form of violence, but the Obama Administration and the Democrat Party are arguably working to do the same thing by flooding the electorate with ineligible voters:

Non-citizens are voting in American elections, and the federal government refuses to do anything to stop it.

Worse, the current administration seems to be doing everything they can to prevent the states from trying to stop it. First, they sued states that asked people to present ID before voting. Now, the administration will not let states even ask people to establish they are citizens when they register to vote. …

… Noncitizens are offered the voter registration forms all over the country and are filling them out, and they are being added to the rollsregardless of which [citizenship] box they check.

Add it to the growing evidence of dawning fascism.

Taxing the Privilege of Owning Property Might Have to Wait

I’m slow to mention this, so readers have likely seen it, but it’s worth marking down Ian Donnis’s RIPR post for the record:

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello wants to eliminate the “Taylor Swift tax”  — Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed statewide property tax on vacation homes worth more than $1 million.

“I’m hoping that the revenues are there to eliminate that,” Mattiello said during a taping Thursday of Rhode Island Public Radio’s Political Roundtable. “You could look to see that eliminated. I agree with the public sentiment that you don’t open the door to a new tax, because it’s just going to expand in the future, so that’s something that I’m really looking to eliminate.”

Mattiello added, “I don’t want to speak for her, but I believe the governor concurs with that at this point, and we’re doing that collaboratively.”

Of course, before the governor announced her budget, we knew that the state’s revenue was running higher than the estimates that she was required to use for her budget.  It was therefore predictable that there would be items that would be easy to pick off.

Perhaps the policy and politics folks in the governor’s office figured they might as well use that fact in order to make budget feints, shoring up progressive support by going after The Rich and letting Mattiello take the heat (and opposing rewards) for removing the absurd policy.

If that was the plan, though, I have to wonder whether this particular one wasn’t a bit of a fumble.  The association with a pop star blew the proposed tax up from a local story to a national one, adding to the narrative that holds Rhode Island to be anti-business and generally anti-success.  Even just locally, though, the proposal might have cost Raimondo the last benefit of the doubt that more-conservative Rhode Islanders might still have been giving the former general treasurer for attacking pension reform.

(Naturally, I still prefer to believe that it was the parody song that did it.)

Press Conference To Oppose Taxpayer Funded Stadium Tomorrow at 3:45 pm; Meanwhile, PawSox Graciously Offer to Buy the Land

As you may have heard, tomorrow at 4:00 pm, the Commerce Corporation (formerly the EDC) will meet to hear a proposal from the PawSox for locating a baseball stadium in Providence — and what they want from state and Providence taxpayers to do so.

Almost simultaneously, all of the organizations and individuals* opposing the PawSox proposal will be holding a press conference — right outside of the building where the Commerce Corporation will be meeting with the PawSox. In the event you are able, please stop by. It will kick off at around 3:45 pm. Below is the address of the Commerce Corporation, where the meeting will be taking place inside and the press conference opposing will be taking place outside.

315 Iron Horse Way
Providence, RI 02908

Helpful tip: should you need directions from Mapquest or Google, as I did, be sure to enter “555 Valley Street, Providence” instead.

So the latest development is that the PawSox have offered to purchase from the state the prime, waterfront land upon which they propose to build, largely if not exclusively at taxpayer expense, a baseball stadium.

They presumably still want $4 million/year from state taxpayers. (They have, remarkably and not very credibly, actually increased their estimate of offsetting tax revenue to the state from $2 million to $2.4 million/year. Let’s remember that, while the tax revenue from the stadium is a pure guess … er, projection, the $4 million/year from the taxpayers to the owners of the PawSox would be a firm obligation.) And they’d presumably still like to be relieved of the obligation to pay property taxes, an obligation that Providence Council President Aponte quickly tried to shift to state taxpayers.

Even WITH the PawSox offer to purchase the land, these constitute remarkably aggressive terms for a use whose seasonal nature prima facie limits its potential for economic activity.

In a way, the PawSox proposal is worse than 38 Studios. As WPRO’s John Loughlin pointed out, 38 Studios was a Hail Mary pass. But a Hail Mary pass has some chance, however remote, of succeeding. With this stadium, EVERYONE, including our elected officials, KNOWS UP FRONT that it would be a financial loser for taxpayers.

We all very much want the Pawtucket Red Sox to stay in Rhode Island, if not Pawtucket. But the price has turned out to be very high, indeed. No one has made a remotely rational case as to why, in the face of red budget ink as far as the eye can see, our elected officials, on behalf of state taxpayers, should take on yet another economic development loss leader like the Convention Center Authority.

We cannot easily divest ourselves of that $15 million/year net loss. But for heavens sake, we also don’t need to knowingly add another $2 – $4 million/year into that budget column.

Tiverton Casino, 2 of 20 Things to Know

Ian Donnis’s weekly TGIF column highlights Twin River’s plans for a casino in Tiverton twice, once from the state’s perspective, and once from the town’s:

The parent company of Twin River may have pulled an ace when it unveiled a plan Monday to transfer gambling from Newport Grand and expand it at a new site on 45 undeveloped acres in northern Tiverton, a dice throw from the Massachusetts border. With Newport remaining unwilling to add table games, a so-called convenience casino in Tiverton may be the most pragmatic option for protecting Rhode Island’s third-largest source of state revenue.

The local perspective comes via a “dispatch” from me, which Ian juxtaposes with John Loughlin’s comments.

I’d only add this, after another day of conversations: The casino proposal appears to be much less controversial, locally, than the Tiverton Glen “multi-use development” proposed a few miles south on the highway.

Union Firefighter Intimidation Tactics in Warwick

As reported by John Howell at the Warwick Beacon:

CVS Health has found no wrongdoing on the part of one of its employees, former Ward 1 councilman and former chairman of the Warwick School Committee Robert Cushman, in response to demands by the president of the Warwick Firefighters Union.

The union’s president, William Lloyd, threatened a statewide – followed by a national – boycott of the pharmacy chain because of Cushman, a full-time business analyst with the company.

Cushman has been critical of the firefighter and police pension liabilities faced by the city. Firefighters have questioned Cushman’s credentials.

In an email Tuesday, CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis released the following statement: “After investigating this matter, we determined that Mr. Cushman did not claim to be representing CVS Health or speaking on behalf of the Company when he exercised his rights as a private citizen at a public meeting in his hometown.”

The email continues: “As such, we have no position on his comments. We believe the IAFF Local 2748’s call for a boycott of CVS/pharmacy is misplaced and not warranted. We have a strong track record of supporting emergency responders, and we appreciate all they do to protect our communities.”

Cushman said CVS executives brought Lloyd’s email to his attention more than a month ago. He said the company questioned him, and reviewed tapes of a presentation he made to the City Council in December. Cushman said he was later shown a copy of the CVS reply, which according to DeAngelis closely followed the statement released to the Beacon.

DeAngelis did not feel it proper to release Lloyd’s email to the paper. Cushman did not have a copy.

In an interview yesterday, Lloyd said the letter that was addressed to DeAngelis never called for Cushman’s dismissal, but that because Cushman is an employee “we would not be using CVS anymore.”

“I never made a threat against his job,” Lloyd said. “I never said anything about getting Bob Cushman fired.”

Lloyd said a boycott was not a singular decision, and that the union unanimously voted for it.

“A vote taken by all members, it wasn’t me just spouting off,” he said.

Nevertheless, message sent, no?

Terry Gorman - RIILE

Terry Gorman: Sympathetic Providence Journal Article Encourages Illegal Immigration to Rhode Island

[Terry Gorman of RIILE sent the following e-mail to Providence Journal reporter Karen Lee Ziner in response to her front page article of Saturday. It has been lightly edited for style.]

Regarding your April 18 article in the Providence Journal, “Fight over Obama’s orders“, so much for “HIDING IN THE SHADOWS“. Two women here Illegally delivering 5 children that by current law are U S Citizens. Free pre-natal care, childbirth, post-partum care and long term family planning for two years (evidently not working) all at the expense of taxpayers. Just how much does this group cost US taxpayers and how is it justified in these lean times?

I think this article will only serve to ENCOURAGE many more pregnant illegal alien women to flock to Rhode Island. Why wouldn’t they come if they can arrive Illegally, have as many children as they wish, work Illegally or just not work, receive workers compensation, get free care for a child’s autism, receive subsidies for the new U S citizen children in the form of welfare, SNAP etc., now that it’s been basically ADVERTISED on the front page of a major newspaper? Thanks.

Magaziner’s Uninformative Op-Ed

Politics is a game of persuasion… if we’re putting it nicely.  “Deception” would probably be more accurate.

But even within that jaded paradigm, I have to marvel at how uninformative state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal is.  Even putting aside questions about the green theology, the op-ed doesn’t really explain what the treasurer wants to do.

We’ve got a name change of the RI Clean Water Finance Agency, and we’ve got a couple of green-industry ideas, but shouldn’t the treasurer of the state focus on explaining what the bank would mean, functionally, and how much it would cost?  Presumably, an op-ed is meant to be the policy folks’ medium for explaining their proposal to the broader public.  If the treasurer of the state is offering mainly assertions about the wonders of his idea, who’s going to translate the nuts and bolts for the masses?

Our civic culture is really much-deteriorated around here.

Lincoln Chafee’s sense of modern politics could indicate the U.S. has caught RI’s civic illness

A shock went through the collective psyche of Rhode Island when former governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he had formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the Democrat nomination for President of the United States in 2016.  As governor, Chafee’s public support became so thin that he announced in September 2013 that he would not seek reelection to his office, which didn’t expire until January 2015.

Stepping back from the local incredulity, however, it’s an open question whether Chafee’s got a political sense that his critics lack.  Maybe things like experience and evidence don’t matter as much as they once did.

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

A Two Million Plus Dollar a Year Loser of a Stadium: What Does the Governor See that Almost No One Else Does?

Two million dollars per year because that is the projected annual loss for state taxpayers in the just-unveiled proposal by the new owners of the Paw Sox for construction of a baseball stadium in Providence. It’s worth repeating: the numbers offered by the Paw Sox owners THEMSELVES have state taxpayers losing two million dollars per year.

“Plus” – and the plus could be quite a large figure – because the president of the Providence City Council has told WPRI’s Dan McGowan that Providence would be looking to state taxpayers to pick up the property taxes that the owners of the Paw Sox have requested to be relieved of. This suggestion would be a laff riot, especially in light of the state’s multi-hundred million dollar structural deficit, except that the council president seemed quite serious about it.

Earlier today, John Marion tweeted out,

Received a call from someone looking to know if there is an organization actively opposing the PawSox stadium deal. Anyone know if there is?

Most of the reaction I’ve seen and heard can be described as “actively opposing” the stadium (also: vigorously opposing, seriously concerned about and downright appalled by), though a single-purpose opposition organization – presumably what Marion’s caller meant – has not yet popped up. Even Bob Plain over at RI Future, never shy about spending tax dollars, has expressed skepticism about the proposal.

In fact, it would be far quicker to list those who support the Paw Sox proposal. This list so far consists of the building trades unions – not a shock as the Paw Sox owners have promised that the proposed stadium would be built with union labor.

Enter Governor Raimondo, who spoke to NBC 10’s Bill Rappleye today.

“I also think this has the potential to create a lot of jobs – immediately construction jobs,” Raimondo said. “It brings people into the city and could catalyze other economic development in the area, which has been done in other cities. If we do it right, I think it could be a good piece of our economic puzzle.”

The Convention Center Authority, 38 Studios and others – the very last thing that state taxpayers can afford is yet another costly economic development loss leader. But by the Paw Sox owners own calculations, that’s exactly where we would be headed with a minor league baseball stadium in Providence. We would respectfully ask to see your numbers, Governor Raimondo. How exactly would a brand new $2+ million hole in the budget make a good contribution to the state’s “economic puzzle”?

The Chafee Indictment of Our Political System

Given the title ,”Why Chafee for President actually makes sense,” I wanted to be able to lay into Ted Nesi’s essay, but I really can’t.  It’s smart and well reasoned.  But for all that, it’s a discouraging statement on the state of our political system.

Here’s a guy who had no real success as a U.S. Senator and was arguably a disaster as governor.  His go-to talking point is that unemployment dropped during his term as governor, but that’s only the case because people’s hopelessness drove them out of the workforce.  By all appearances, he opted not to run for a second term because he realized he had no chance whatsoever and might very well be heavily chastened by the vote totals.

As Ted suggests, though, he’s rich; he’s got an outsized ego; this will get him some attention; and he’s got nothing else to do, right now.  Here’s the depressing part:

During his time as governor, Chafee’s aides would marvel at the warm response he’d receive when he traveled out of state, a marked contrast with his 30%ish approval ratings at home. Many Democrats still appreciate his votes as a GOP senator against the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts, as well as his repeated argument that the Republican Party is no longer open to pro-environment, pro-choice, dovish moderates like himself. Most Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters have never heard of 38 Studios – and Chafee has no reason to tell them about it. (Although, Chafee being Chafee, he probably will anyway.) His authenticity and quirkiness could play well in the retail politics atmosphere of those early states, particularly with Clinton skeptics searching for an alternative.

Political statements are fine… valuable, even.  If subgroups of the major parties can have an effect on important races, then that’s a positive feature of our political system.  But going with Chafee would be worse than going with somebody who is either completely unknown or who has name recognition, but hasn’t really done anything.  He’s demonstrably not a competent executive or a good leader of large, diverse populations.

The statement isn’t even, “Hey, let’s give this guy a shot.”  It’s more like, “What’s governing have to do with elections?”

Freedom of Religion in Indiana and Rhode Island

At the national level, Americans are being led to ignore any number of critical and pressing issues through a media-and-activist-driven condemnation of a religious freedom statute just passed into law in Indiana.  The hysteria has reached the point that companies that freely do business in communist China are boycotting Indiana, and Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut has implemented a travel ban to Indiana, despite the fact that his own state is on the list of those with such laws.

Rhode Island is also on the list, on the strength of Rhode Island law 42-80.1, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993.  Arguably, Rhode Island’s law is stronger than Indiana’s.  Here’s the operative language in Indiana’s statute:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

(b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person:

(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Here’s Rhode Island’s language, for comparison:

(a) Except as provided for in subsection (b), a governmental authority may not restrict a person’s free exercise of religion.

(b) A governmental authority may restrict a person’s free exercise of religion only if:

(1) The restriction is in the form of a rule of general applicability, and does not intentionally discriminate against religion, or among religions; and

(2) The governmental authority proves that application of the restriction to the person is essential to further a compelling governmental interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

In Indiana, religious people only have protection if the government’s restriction is “substantial,” and the government can impose even “substantial” burdens if it can “demonstrate” that it will “further[] a compelling governmental interest.”  In Rhode Island, the government is not allowed to restrict the “free exercise of religion” at all, substantially or otherwise, unless it can “prove” that the restriction is “essential to further[ing] a compelling governmental interest.”

These may be shades of nuance, but given that the language is similar, with slightly more edge in Rhode Island:  Is anybody aware of any Rhode Island cases in the last 22 years in which (A) this law has been cited and (B) in which it has won a case in a way that could reasonably be seen as permitting discrimination?

Marketplace Fairness or a Tax Trap?

Beware the word “fairness” when elected officials propose new laws.  Be doubly wary of the word when it appears in the name of an act, as it does in the case of the recent second attempt to pass the “Marketplace Fairness Act” through the U.S. Congress, to allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet (“remote”) retail.

The first attempt, in 2013, made it through the Senate, but not the House. All four members of Rhode Island’s federal delegation jumped on the bandwagon ascosponsors, but of the four, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, may have done the most to give the game away.

In his related press release, Whitehouse emphasized that unfairness in retail pricing isn’t really an issue for Rhode Island, because consumers are supposed to pay the state’s 7 percent sales tax–rebranded as a “use tax”–no matter where they buy something.  (Other states’ taxes, if collected, count toward the total.)

To the extent that the pricing difference is unfair, it’s because Whitehouse considers Rhode Islanders to be scofflaws who use online purchases as a means of skirting tax laws.  That, obviously, is unfair to the government officials who would like to have more money to spend.

A series of related Rhode Island statutes reinforces Whitehouse’s emphasis on tax collections.

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

UPDATED: Governor’ Raimondo’s $13.6 Million Refinance

Give this to our super smaht, financially savvy new governor: She knows how to pack a budget with things that require detailed review and analysis if the public is going to have any real sense of whether it’s a good or bad package, on the whole.

Jennifer Bogdan does the good work of digging into the big refinance part of Governor Raimondo’s proposal in today’s Providence Journal:

Roughly $64.5 million in Raimondo’s 2016 fiscal year budget would come from a refinancing effort. Another $20 million would flow in fiscal year 2017. The bonds in question have an average interest rate of 4.9 percent, but if refinanced the interest rate is expected to be lower than 2.34 percent. She calls the refinancing conservative and says it would be irresponsible not to consider a money-saving measure for the state.

By “money-saving,” what the governor means is that she’s using the restructuring to borrow around $84 million in the first two years.  In the third year, the state will actually have to pay about $10 million more in debt service, and the years will change between costing more and costing less over the refinancing period.  As shown in a table included with Bogdan’s article, when the state reaches the end, in 2032, it will have actually paid $13.6 million more in debt service.

That’s where the governor deploys an accounting trick to make the analysis a bit murkier.  In the words of Budget Officer Thomas Mullaney, “The key here is that we would not enter into this transaction if the state would not ultimately come out ahead.”

He’s referring to the fact that if you look at the present value of the changes in payments up and down over the sixteen years — in other words, adjust them for inflation to what they would be in today’s dollars — the real value of the changes is actually $225,238 less in debt service.

Like so many of the “bold and innovative” moves in the governor’s budget, that’s misleading.  For one thing, the assumed inflation rate is critical.  A rough spreadsheet suggests it’s 2.97%.  In that case, it would erase these so-called savings if inflation turns out to be 2.91%.  Below that, we’ll be well into negative territory.*

For another thing, the state isn’t going to treat the refinance like a restricted fund.  The state will spend the savings in the years that there are savings and will have to come up with the money in years that there are costs.  The money is going to have to come from somewhere to pay the extra debt service, and that somewhere will very probably have been worth more to the economy than simply inflation.  (Hey, maybe the governor should invest the savings along with the state pension fund, which the state assumes makes 7.5% profit every year.)

Simply refinancing from 4.9% to 2.34% interest for the same number of years would have saved a great deal of money that could have been left in the hands of Rhode Islanders.  Whatever the governor’s room full of smaht people do for economic development, they have to do better not only than the cost of the refinance, but also the economic activity of people acting without the government’s meddling.

UPDATE (03/27/15 8:37 p.m.): According to the governor’s office, the estimated rate of inflation is 2.44%, which my math leads me to believe would produce a $2 million cost to the refinancing, in current dollars.  I’ve asked for more insight into the governor’s math, but if anybody has an idea, I’d be interested to hear it.  There also must be something incorrect in the information out of the governor’s office.  They’re saying the refinancing is of $160 million of debt, but the Projo’s numbers have the state paying nearly that amount every year.

* Posting this of a Friday afternoon, I got my signs reversed.  I’ve fixed the relevant text.