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Owning a Government Shutdown to Own the Libs

For my once-in-a-while dabble in national politics, I’d like to offer a point related to a Los Angeles Times column that appeared in the Fall River Herald:

When Washington braces for a potential government shutdown, the usual ritual is that Republicans and Democrats will posture over who will get blamed.

President Donald Trump, however, made it clear Tuesday morning that he will be the one shutting down the government if Congress doesn’t provide money for the bigger, more expansive wall he has promised to build along the southern U.S. border.

Of course, we have to acknowledge that Donald Trump appears to make this sort of decision off the cuff, and it isn’t (let’s just say) at all clear that it’s part of some master strategy.  But, you know, these moves — when he blows up the etiquette  of Washington — sometimes work, and not only his base, but also many conservatives outside his base, like that he’s dispensing with the illusions.

The news media would have made sure that President Trump owned a shutdown anyway.  In the column quoted above, Jon Healey insists that previous shutdowns had to do with “big, important issues,” like the Dreamers and Obamacare.  One can dispute that Dreamers (certainly) were any more objectively important than a wall, but their issue was certainly more important to the mainstream media, which worked diligently to blame the shutdown on Congressional Republicans, rather than President Obama.

In short, the side that opposes the Democrats always “owns the shutdown.”  Whether Republicans are blocking new initiatives or pushing them, the reportage is unified in decrying their intransigence, while the Democrats merely want to keep the government working.

Having dispensed with the kabuki, Trump can attack the issues head on without getting caught up in the weaselly business of trying to avoid responsibility.  We’ll see if those of us who’ve urged that sort of attitude in the past were correct, but the willingness of a politician to dispense with the games is refreshing.

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Past the Break in Rhode Island

A foreboding thought came to me after my weekly conversation with John DePetro, this week.

The topics that we covered had a recurring theme of elected officials who seem not to care how their actions appear — from Gorbea’s obvious breach of transparency, to Kilmartin’s eight years of running interference for insiders, to Raimondo’s failure to hold anybody accountable for unacceptably low test scores in public schools.

Meanwhile, the same Providence Journal that is criticizing these officials in the strongest terms endorsed the full set of them.  I’ve wondered if different members of the editorial board assert more authority when it comes to endorsements during elections than they exercise when it comes to expressing policy views throughout the year.

Some people say that, even when there are other candidates in the races, there really is no viable choice.  I don’t agree with that; after all, gambling on somebody who has to learn on the job has the benefit of sending a signal to all elected officials that they have to care how their actions appear because voters will replace them, with unknowns if necessary.

Whatever the case, one can’t deny that most statewide races are simply locked up by the nominated Democrat, who can only be threatened in a primary (whether by union stand-ins or more-radical progressives).  The sobering thought one has is that Raimondo’s stronger-than-expected victory may be a signal that this hegemony has now captured the governor’s office.

If the governor’s office is no longer threatened by a competitive political race, we’re done.  The lunatics run the asylum.  Competition is the most effective and incorruptible way to restrain elected officials, and if they don’t face that restraint, they really don’t have to care what we all think.

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The Ambiguous Middle in the General Assembly

I’m not sure if the Providence Journal’s Political Scene crew is right to summarize the General Assembly’s left-right divide based solely on abortion and gun rights, but the reported numbers do raise an interesting question: Are the relatively conservative legislative leaders on the edge of a progressive precipice, or are the legislators whose views aren’t explicitly known more conservative than they want to show in floor votes, thereby exposing themselves to progressive attack?

Cranston Republican Steven Frias seems to think the former:

Frias said his own analysis of the ratings suggests that “Mattiello is in the minority among House Democrats on abortion and guns, which helps explain why [he] has dropped the ‘firewall’ rhetoric.”

“Mattiello’s dilemma is whether to allow a floor vote where representatives will be allowed to vote their conscience on legislation related to abortion and guns. Regardless of what he decides, someone will feel duped,″ either the “House liberals … [or] the cultural conservatives who backed [him] for reelection thinking he would be the ‘firewall’ on abortion and guns.”

Frias’ argument: “If Mattiello betrays his culturally conservative constituents it would be a signal to cultural conservatives that they cannot rely on the Democratic House leadership and they should vote Republican in General Assembly races.”

A corresponding dilemma faces quiet conservatives. As long as legislators are allowed to remain fuzzy on these issues, relatively conservative constituents will continue to rely on the good graces of “firewalls” like Mattiello. An unambiguous understanding of the danger would be clarifying as people make their decisions as voters, volunteers, and donors.

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Center Recommends Constitutional Amendment to Codify Legislative Process Reforms

The legislative sausage-making process in Rhode Island is in dire need of reform. Those reforms that should be codified through a constitutional amendment, so that Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership. Now is the time to demand better government.

Our state needs less control by leadership over what legislation will advance, with more power provided to legislative committees.

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Bruce Waidler: S.K. School Committee – Serious Questions of Transparency & Conflict of Interest

On Tuesday, November 27, 2018, I attended the South Kingstown School Committee meeting. The recently elected Vice Chair, Sarah Markey, is also the Assistant Executive Director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI). The vast majority of the employees working in the South Kingstown School Department are represented by this labor union.

Last year, Markey attempted to get appointed to a vacant school committee position.

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A Great Year for Worker Freedom – Help Spread the Word

This year was a GREAT year for worker freedom across the country, and here in the Ocean State. Early in the summer, the SCOTUS decision in the historic Janus case determined that state and local governments are forbidden from forcing their employees to join unions as a condition of employment. The ruling means union leaders can no longer automatically plunder the pocketbooks of public employees to fund the unions’ political agendas.

In August, we launched our MyPayMySayRI.com campaign to educate public servants about their restored First Amendment rights.

But the insiders want to keep workers in the dark, and in the unions… at any cost.

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School Choice: An Opportunity for Minorities, Republicans, and Conservatives

Some folks questioned whether minority school choice families put Republican Ron DeSantis over the top in the race for Florida governor.  Here’s the numerical evidence:

Of the roughly 650,000 black women who voted in Florida, 18% chose Mr. DeSantis, according to CNN’s exit poll of 3,108 voters. This exceeded their support for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott (9%), Mr. DeSantis’s performance among black men (8%) and the GOP’s national average among black women (7%). …

What explains Mr. DeSantis’ surprising support from African-American women? Two words: school choice.

More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in the Step Up For Students program, which grants tax-credit funded scholarships to attend private schools. Even more students are currently enrolled in the state’s 650 charter schools.

Most Step Up students are minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats. Yet many of these “school-choice moms” vote for gubernatorial candidates committed to protecting their ability to choose where their child goes to school.

The school choice wave more than a decade ago created a challenge for Democrats, who are dependent upon support from government labor unions, specifically teacher unions.  It’s an area in which free-market reforms actually create something like a government benefit through the loosening of government funds already (for the most part) being spent.  This opens a window of opportunity.

This creates an opportunity for Republicans to open up new cuts of the electorate and, if they play their cards right, to teach some lessons about their policy principles.

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A Little Sleight of Hand from Gorbea

It can be interesting what politicians believe to be valid explanations.  I’m thinking of this, from a press release put out by Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea:

The argument that the omission of birth day and month information could encumber a third-party analysis of the voter registration database is unfounded. In fact, less than 0.5% of the roughly 790,000 voter records share the same full name and year of birth.

One almost has to admire how slyly this misses the point. That’s 0.5% of voters in RI alone.  How many Rhode Island voters share a name and birth year with other voters across the country.  That’s a key question.

Even putting that aside, though, the Providence Journal points out that this percentage means there are around 4,000 Rhode Islanders who have the same name and birth year.  Anybody from Rhode Island or out of state who would like to check on those 4,000 folks would have to travel to the Secretary of State’s office and sit at a special terminal with who-knows-what actual functionality.  (Will it be able to print or save files to thumb drives?)  Surely Gorbea understands that every step that people are required to take means significantly fewer will do them.  This applies to an extra click on the Internet, let alone traveling to a special computer somewhere.

If her goal were really to protect voters from identity theft, Gorbea had much better ways of using the “extra effort” standard.  Right now, people have to request this information.  That alone will scare off many potential scammers.  Legislation could have further made people liable if it could be shown that their use of the information facilitated identity theft, although that might face constitutional challenge.

Most of all — it’s worth repeating — if Gorbea took this action in the public interest, she wouldn’t have done it quietly, but would have proclaimed it widely and visibly as a way in which she was protecting Rhode Islanders.

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The Dogs That Aren’t Barking

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes cracks the case with the observation that a dog didn’t bark during the commission of a crime.  From this, he infers that the animal knew the criminal.  Perhaps that explains a phenomenon that Rick DeBlois notes in a letter to the editor:

… Rhode Islanders complain about high taxes, incompetent leadership, back-door deals, cronyism, nepotism, and all the mobsters up on Smith Hill. We complain about poor roads, poor schools and a myriad of other issues that are wrong with our state.

But when the time comes to make a change, they reelect the same old gang of incompetent fools who got us here in the first place.

To be sure, part of the problem is that the people complaining turn on each other, a conundrum now personified in the person of Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan.  She spent years building up an admirable brand as a politician who responds to Rhode Islanders’ complaints and presses for change, but when primary voters didn’t pick her to be their candidate, she targeted the only alternative candidate with a chance to win.

The bigger, more-systematic problem, however, is all the dogs that aren’t barking… the voters who aren’t complaining.  These are folks who don’t want anything to change because they’re getting something out of the system as it is, whether it’s a do-nothing government job, a government union perch with inflated compensation, or some kind of handout (from welfare to corporate cronyism).  These voters know their masters.

Another layer of voters may sometimes growl a little, but they are easily distracted.  The insiders throw them some progressive causes, some bits of identity politics, or some Trump hatred, and they happily gnaw on those meatless bones while the crime against our state persists.

It’s a fascinating state of affairs to investigate, although one needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.  Rather, where that character’s genius is truly needed is in coming up with a way to unravel the trap, because the complaints (and the bites) will multiply exponentially when necessary reforms begin to clear the fatal excesses away.

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School Choice and Elections

A pair of items on today’s Wall Street Journal opinion pages connect the issue of school choice with the election last week.  First a column by Jason Riley:

… most policies that effect our daily lives are generated at the state and local level, not in Washington. Nowhere is this more evident than education, where Republicans governors and state legislatures have advanced all manner of school-choice options over the past decade, to the benefit of low-income families. More than three million children now attend charter schools, and private-school choice, including voucher programs, has spread to 20 states and the District of Columbia. Education reformers are concerned that Democratic state-level gains in the midterms could now jeopardize decades of real progress.

I’m not so sure about Riley’s predictions.  As a general matter, the biggest push for school choice (mainly charter schools and voucher-like programs) came when Republicans held the White House, but before the shift toward the GOP at the state level, nationwide.  When a Democrat took the White House but the Democrats lost ground among the state, that momentum seems to have slowed.  So… we’ll see.

What’s interesting, though, is to combine Riley’s mention of school choice as a political issue across the country with an unsigned editorial on the facing page:

It’s impossible to know for certain what motivates voters, but [Republicans Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida] appear to have won more minority votes because of their support for school choice. A survey last month by Harvard’s Education Next journal showed 56% of blacks and 62% of Hispanics favored private-school vouchers for low-income families.

And what do you know? According to exit polls, Mr. Ducey received 44% of the Latino vote, which is significantly more than the 30% that Martha McSally tallied in her Senate bid. In Florida, 44% of Latinos and 14% of blacks backed Mr. DeSantis compared to 38% and 12% for Gov. Rick Scott four years earlier.

Liberating kids trapped in failing public schools is a matter of moral principle, but it’s nice to discover that doing the right thing can also pay off politically.

Somehow the infamous statement of former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden that Republicans would put black Americans “back in chains” comes to mind.  The opposite is the truth, and the school choice issue illustrates the point.

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What If the Press Is Deserving of Mistrust?

A line in an op-ed by former Providence Journal columnist Edward Fitzpatrick has stuck in my head for the past few days:

There are near-daily additions to a dangerous “enemy-of-the-people” line of attack [against the mainstream media], which is chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.

“Chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.”  I wonder what Fitzpatrick thinks of the press’s role in demonizing President George W. Bush (including Dan Rather’s infamous Memogate), fawning over President Barack Obama, belittling the Tea Party, demonizing Republican Presidential Candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney (but only when they were running against Obama), and playing their part in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the current (legitimately elected) president.

Another line ought to have stuck in Fitzpatrick’s head, but he seems not even to have picked up on its true import (emphasis added):

Here in the home of the First Amendment, the last thing we should ever see is a U.S. president praising a politician who was convicted of assaulting a reporter. But that’s exactly what happened on Oct. 18, when Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, for body-slamming a reporter in 2017. Trump said anyone who did such a thing was “my kind of guy.” Worse yet, the crowd cheered.

Now, Gianforte’s actions were wrong, and Trump’s lauding of them was callous, but:  “the crowd cheered.”  I’d suggest that the crowd was primed to cheer long before President Trump began using their attitude toward the media for his own advantage.  Those folks have long experience with the plain reality that, when it comes to any issue of importance to elite sensibilities or keeping liberal Democrats in power, the press is not above trying to use its cornerstone to shift democracy.

President Trump is too blunt and vehement in pushing back against the press, but a big contributor to his success has been the frustration of “the crowd” that nobody else would or could.  Perhaps rather than presenting that crowd as mindless drones manipulated by the president, Fitzpatrick and his peers should ask why the mainstream media lost their trust and what journalists and their employers could do to earn it back.

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What the Newspapers Emphasize

Just for fun, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Sakonnet Times’ coverage of the local election results.  Readers may recall that the paper decided that the first town budget fight that my friends and I lost after four straight victories was the only one worth reporting on the front page.  Moreover, the headline seemed to present me (like my most-aggressive opponents do) as some interloping enemy of the community:  “Voters favor Town vs. Katz.”

How will the paper cover our local electoral victory, which saw the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) gain control over the town council and the budget committee and led a rejection of ballot questions that would have limited voter control over the budget?  In Portsmouth, the Sakonnet Times‘ sister publication, the Portsmouth Times, proclaimed at the top:  “A big night for Democrats.”  Another East Bay RI paper, the Bristol Phoenix, went with, “Bristol voters choose new faces… and reward old favorites,” the majority of whom are Democrats.  In East Providence, Democrat Mayor-Elect Bob DaSilva got a triumphant photo under the headline, “Victory!”

The Sakonnet Times?  Well, nothing political.  To be fair, even though the Tiverton paper has the same publication date as the others, it apparently goes to press on Tuesday, before election results would be available.  Still, I haven’t heard from the paper, and neither has anybody else from TTA, to my knowledge.  An online article is mainly a short recitation of the numbers as they were earlier reported, although it does state that TTA “appears to have captured a majority.”

We’ll see what we see with next week’s edition.  Will the bold letters across the top of the paper read, “Tiverton Favors TTA”?  Maybe, “A big night for TTA.”  Or, “Taxpayers’ strong campaign pays off.”

I’d settle for “Victory!,” but I expect something much different.  Maybe the editors will go with the old standby of crediting “angry voters” for the results.  Or maybe the paper will decide that the election is already old news and bury the brief article somewhere beyond the front page, as it has done with the taxpayer budget victories.

Watchers of local news and politics can place their bets.

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The Inverse Relationship of Voter Interests and Voter Interest

Even at the state level, in Rhode Island, there isn’t but so much debate about major issues, like massive new debt proposals on the ballot.  At the local level, it’s even worse.  Trying to remedy some of this in my town, I’ve been writing a Daily Tiverton Truth Flash (well, almost daily) on Tiverton Fact Check for about a week, and the related Facebook page has had some great exchanges, but even this feels insufficient, not the least because there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable from the opposing side.

This is indicative of a broad problem in our representative democracy.  Our government is (or is supposed to be) structured so that the most important decisions affecting people’s lives are made at the most-local level possible.  But involvement in local government is no longer the important source of personal entertainment that it used to be, and mass media means that the most money and promotion will be devoted to national topics.  One of the Daily Tiverton Truth Flash posts took up this very problem:

… the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs [financial town referendums] saw turnout of just over 20%.

However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.

This is a problem we don’t see many people trying to solve… because of the very same lack of interest.  Local government is involved in so many things that it takes a lot of work to keep up, and special interests, like labor unions, have incentive to make too much involvement painful for anybody who isn’t advocating on their behalf.

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What to Expect from the PARCC Scores

The other day, I put a spotlight on the suspicious delay in the state’s release of results from public schools’ standardized PARCC tests.  In the days since, the two challengers facing incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo have picked up that theme and drawn a response from the state Department of Education (RIDE).  If anything, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s explanation only reinforces the suspicion:

“This is the first year of the new test,” Wagner said. “We’ve never released them before. People don’t know what it is.”

“Colloquially, it’s a harder test,” he said of the RICAS. “Massachusetts has a more rigorous standard. We have to figure out how to explain [to Rhode Island parents] the comparison with Massachusetts. We have to figure out how we help parents to understand the change in their child’s test scores.”

Wagner said that with the new tests, Rhode Island students, in order to reach proficiency, have to get more questions right than they did on the previous tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Wagner also said that student scores typically drop with any new test, which was the case when Rhode Island adopted PARCC several years ago.

In short, the state expects there to be score-shock from parents and the public because the harder test is producing results even worse than the earlier version, which was already producing shockingly poor results by some lights.  The only question, now, is the motivation for the delay:  Is it to figure out how to explain the setback in a way that will tamp down outrage, or is it to keep that outrage from affecting the election?

To formulate an answer, readers should ask themselves a somewhat different question:  If the results came in surprisingly fantastic, would RIDE have held back the good news until after the election?  Of course not.

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A Voice of “No” on Debt

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has released a statement against all three ballot questions for more debt:

Broadly, Rhode Island is relying too heavily on debt to cover its bills. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University puts Rhode Island’s long-term liabilities at 90% of the state’s assets, which is higher than the average state. Truth in Accounting’s State Data Lab gives Rhode Island a D for finances, with $8,288,881,000 in bonds and other liabilities, plus another $4,316,527,000 in pension and other retirement liabilities. A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) report finds Rhode Island already among the worst states when it comes to debt per capita and debt per income.

More debt is not the answer to the Ocean State’s problems; it is a major problem in itself. Adding $589,462,045 in principal and interest by passing the three ballot questions will make it worse.

The State of Rhode Island and its municipalities must be more prudent with the tax dollars they already collect — for example, prioritizing school-building maintenance over more frivolous projects.

Every election brings this same issue.  It’s just too easy for people to tally up the promised benefits and not consider the costs.  Meanwhile, the special interests — from the construction unions to the environmentalist groups — have huge incentive to advocate for the debt. (Contrast that, by the way, with the dangers of advocating for a bigger piece of existing spending, which might go up against other special interests who want to keep what they’ve got.)

This is another area where the public needs more education on the issues and all too few people have any incentive to provide it.

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Moderate Democrats’ Tepid Response to Their Biggest Threat

The most surprising thing about this article, which mentions “a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay,” is how limited the actions it describes are:

Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is joining a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay, endorsing an independent candidate over an incumbent Democratic House member, while in a separate race a retiring member of House leadership has backed a Libertarian over the Democratic nominee.

Progressives are working to undermine every policy that moderate Democrats profess to believe as well as to seize power.  Any observer can see that they struggle to play along with the comity game, which can be a good thing when they’re a small minority but, when they gain critical mass, will explode into a demand for 100% conformity.

People who are more-moderate in their beliefs should be pushing back against progressives across the state, not just in a couple of races in the East Bay.

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A Curious Delay in Test Scores

Wouldn’t it be good for Rhode Islanders to know how our education system is faring prior to next week’s election?  Apparently, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo would prefer that you wait until after for information:

Last year, the Department of Education released its PARCC scores in August. This year, the scores on the new test won’t be released until late November, after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Of course, they’ve got the excuse that “the department needs more time to pull together the data” because it’s a new variation of the test, but the intervening election makes the claim suspicious.  One wonders how many discouraging facts are in the queue for release after the political contests have been decided.

We can’t have accountability in public education if government times information to affect political outcomes.

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