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Montanaro Investigation… Well, That Was Quick

I mentioned, yesterday, that John DePetro had different expectations for the likely outcome of the State Police investigation of state employee and labor-union prince Frank Montanaro, Jr., and his receipt of a college-tuition benefit to which he was dubiously entitled.  Existence of the investigation came to light early this week, with the subject having been interviewed on Friday.

Well, Tim White and Ted Nesi published this yesterday afternoon:

Just a day after confirming the investigation, the Rhode Island State Police said Tuesday they have completed their examination of a top State House staffer who got about $50,000 in free tuition, and forwarded their findings to the attorney general.

What might a quick resolution of the investigation mean?  It would seem that a law was either obviously broken or the State Police have passed along the nothing-to-see-here conclusion that I predicted.

We’ll see.

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UPDATED: Taxpayer Group Sweeps Tiverton Charter Review Commission

In the balance of elections, Tiverton’s charter review commission is relatively obscure, but its importance this year is evidenced by the facts that 24 candidates ran for the nine available seats and the election brought around 150 more people to the polls than voted in Newport’s simultaneous Democrat primary for the state Senate seat vacated by former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

The conclusion of Tiverton’s campaign, yesterday, saw the candidates endorsed by the Tiverton Taxpayers Association PAC sweep all nine available offices.  The commission will spend a year reviewing the town’s Home Rule Charter (essentially the local constitution) and gathering feedback from residents and town officials, ultimately recommending changes that the Town Council should (and typically will) put on the November 2018 ballot.  The election outcome has huge significance on the policy side and the political side.

On the policy side, the TTA candidates ran with a promise not to substantially modify the financial town referendum (FTR) method of setting a budget, which has produced tax increases under 1% for the last four years.  The candidates also pledged to ensure that millions of dollars in revenue expected from the new Twin River casino currently under construction in town will be put through the regular budgeting process, rather than sectioned off beyond the reach of taxpayers’ annual vote.

On the politics side, the election marks a translation of TTA’s budget-election success into a more-traditional campaign for office, with an outcome more decisive than the group’s partial victory securing a large minority of Budget Committee seats in November (including one currently occupied by this writer).

The next challenge for the taxpayer group will be similar achievements during the regular election cycle, rather than special elections and spring referenda.  The prospects are brightened by the fact that five of the nine winning candidates have not held public office in Tiverton before, and at least two of the five have shown an interest in political activity beyond the commission, with Richard Rom and Justin LaCroix having run for state senate and representative seats last year, ultimately unsuccessfully.  In yesterday’s election, LaCroix was the highest vote-getter, with nearly 50% of the vote in the 24-person race.

Addendum (2:42 p.m., 7/19/17):

RI Future’s Steve Ahlquist makes the reasonable point that this post should mention my involvement with the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, with which I hold and have held various “official” positions, although the simpler truth of the matter is that I’m one of a handful of “core” members.  The omission was in no way intended to mislead, but was premised on the expectation that most readers would know of my deep involvement with the group or, at the very least, that I’m sympathetic with it, whatever my involvement.

In that regard, such a “disclosure” would be similar to requiring Providence Journal reporters to mention their union affiliation any time they report on related labor unions.  Of course, I’ve faulted them from time to time for not doing so, so given the specific nature of this post, I should have mentioned the affiliation.

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State Police and Other Mechanisms for Responsive Government

During my weekly call today to the John DePetro Show on 1540 AM WADK, John and I disagreed, a little, on the news that, at Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s request, the State Police are investigating the process by which Frank Montanaro, Jr., got around $50,000 in free public-higher-education tuition as a benefit for a job that he no longer held with Rhode Island College.

The disagreement, minor as it was, involved John’s expectation that there’s legal fire behind the smoke of this issue and my skepticism that the State Police will find and pursue anything that’s actually a legal problem for Montanaro.  John mentioned other legislators who’ve been nailed on legal challenges, but with some of the more-notable cases (Fox & Gallison), federal officials were involved, not just the state.

I guess I’ve just reduced my expectations for the State Police in recent years, based on various seemingly political decisions they’ve made.  Maybe that’s fair, or maybe it’s not, but it’s my feeling.

A key point that I didn’t manage to make adequately on the radio is that Rhode Island has a dire need to start enforcing rules that aren’t quite laws.  The moment Montanaro was found to have filed false reports in pursuit of his benefit, he ought to have been gone, whether or not it proved to be illegal.  And to ensure that reform, we need something other than the State Police.

If the State Police come out and say that they found no evidence of criminal activity — however bad the whole thing might stink — that counts as absolution for crooked behavior.  What we need is some other authority, like an inspector general or something, who can bridge that gap, both recommending legal prosecution and providing credible analysis that a particular deal did not seem to jibe with the spirit of a personnel policy.

A lot of corruption can go on between completely legit government activities and clearly illegal behavior.  Our government officials have proven unwilling to enforce that gray area on the side of justice, so we need something more.

In the meantime, I’ll remain skeptical.

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Raimondo Transparency: Ain’t Your Business

Rhode Island House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) asked the administration of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo for some information about a public relations firm’s activities placing stories about Rhode Island in out-of-town publications at taxpayer expense.  Here’s the response:

Our office completed a review of the requested materials. There is one document responsive to your request but is being withheld, as it is not deemed public. This document is an internal e-mail thread reflecting work product of the Governor’s staff.

The next paragraph laughably invites the person requesting the information to appeal the decision to Raimondo Chief of Staff Brett Smiley, a left-wing activist.

Given the notable, noteworthy, and much-noted appearances of our governor in out-of-state publications that were explicitly promoting her, not Rhode Island, one would think her administration would be eager to prove that it isn’t buying that coverage with taxpayer dollars.  The lack of transparency will inevitably make Rhode Islanders suspicious that this may be exactly what the governor is doing.

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Campaigning on Your Dime; Dud of a Press Conference

In case anybody missed it, I’d like to highlight the following item from this week’s Political Scene in the Providence Journal:

Gov. Gina Raimondo has a new $61,751 staffer: RISD grad Jon Gourlay. His newly created job title: “Creative Manager — Governor’s Communications Office.” His actual role: producing web videos for Governor Raimondo, who is expected to run for reelection next year.

To some extent, her spokesman, Mike Raia, has a point when he says, “The way people get their information has changed, and elected leaders need to generate creative content to break through on social media and other digital and curated platforms.”  The content of the videos will be the decisive tell, though.

If Rhode Islanders get short instructional videos about interacting with government or more-catchy-than-usual public service announcements, the governor’s office will have an argument.  However, if we get more self-promotional trash like this, then the “21st century constituency” stuff will have proven to be just spin.

I know which way I’d bet, especially given what appears to have been a dud of a press conference from the governor, yesterday.  Is Raimondo so thoroughly without political chips that she’s got nothing but words to salvage a budget containing her single biggest emphasis of the past year?  She just doesn’t seem to get how to govern or use leverage and communications to bring about real action, so why would her new employee’s videos be dedicated to that purpose?*

* Before she actually became governor, Raimondo’s success with pension reform would have seemed to suggest otherwise, based on the “Truth in Numbers” campaign.  As time goes on, though, that issue is looking more like a one-hit-wonder achievement, perhaps founded more on the promise that her mild reform would make the mammoth problem of pension funding go away.  The clock is ticking toward the date at which the fallacy will be proven.

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An Image of Rhode Island

Isn’t that just so Rhode Island… the minute you finish building something, the blue sign with political promotion appears.

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I guess I have to put up with it out of gratitude that the town and state governments still allow me to build small structures on my own property.

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Lucky Independence from the General Assembly

Even if I didn’t work there, I’d endorse the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s call for the General Assembly to stay out of the State House:

As America prepares to celebrate its independence, and in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and incomes of Ocean State families and businesses, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity recommends Rhode Island remain independent from further legislative tyranny. The Center today urges the state’s ruling class to officially close the General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session, keeping Representatives and Senators away from the State House so that they cannot inflict more damage this year.

Recent history clearly shows that the people of RI lose when the General Assembly is in session. Once again this year, the preliminary General Assembly Freedom Index shows that the vast majority of bills rated by the Center serve to decrease freedoms and limit the opportunity for prosperity for the majority, non-special-interest faction, of our state’s population.

I think the General Assembly should take a whole year off so legislators can work out their differences without having to worry about any actual legislation.

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Naturally, the Politicians Use “Good Government” to Lock In Their Own Positions

This legislative session in Rhode Island is turning into a real assault on Rhode Islanders.  Here comes legislation making it more difficult to challenge political incumbents… now amended to avoid any further difficulty for those incumbents:

In the version of the bill passed out of committee, the [ballot] block on candidates with overdue fines remains, but random campaign account audits were replaced by audits on candidates who have failed to file at least two finance reports with the Board of Elections, or those who owe more than $1,000 in fines.

So, they’re still going after the grassroots little guy or gal who gets tripped up in the election regulations, but they’re letting themselves off the hook completely.  They have no right.  As has become increasingly clear, Rhode Island isn’t really a representative democracy.  It’s a kleptocracy.

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“Collusion” Among Newspapers, Researchers, and “the Resistance”

This is perhaps a minor thing, and it’s certainly a little outside of my usual scope, here, but being a language guy, I found it to encapsulate the bias that many of us see in the news media.  This is from text by the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker that appears as a brief sidebar in today’s Providence Journal.  The Projo gave it the online headline, “White House blames Obama for failing to stop Russia collusion“:

The White House blamed the Obama administration Sunday for failing to tackle possible Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election, sticking with a new strategy to fault President Donald Trump’s predecessor for an issue currently facing the president himself as part of a widening FBI probe.

Either Parker and the Projo’s online headline writer are attempting to deceive readers or they don’t know what “collusion” means.  They use the word to mean, broadly, Russian interference or meddling in the election, but it actually requires some sort of agreement, in this case between somebody in the Trump campaign and the Russian government.  Even with all of the illegal leaks newspapers have published in the last however-many months, we’ve seen no evidence of collusion, and yet journalists are using that mere allegation as the characterization of the whole “widening FBI probe.”

This sort of peep-hole into the thinking and decisions of people who claim to be objective investigators gives an example of why so many of us are suspicious of all such claims.  Consider the legislation that looks likely to become law this year to shield researchers in state institutions of higher education from public records requests.

Maybe there’s an argument to be made for the transparency exception on more procedural grounds — if serious scientists are avoiding employment in state institutions because having to divulge “preliminary drafts, notes and working papers” hobbles them in professional competition with other researchers, but that’s not how it’s being presented.  It’s being presented as a mechanism for hiding the work on the hotly contested issue of climate change on behalf of a governing elite that has given the people no justification for trust.

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Not Just Spending, but That Upon Which It Is Spent

Reading about Illinois’s budget problems a little earlier today, an association nagged at the corner of my mind, and I remembered something from Table 5 of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) report comparing the states.  Specifically, in fiscal year 2015, Illinois was near the top of the list when it came to the percentage of its budget spent on “other” expenditures — that is, things other than elementary & secondary education, higher education, public assistance, Medicaid, corrections, and transportation.

The states higher than Illinois seem generally to have unique circumstances (Wyoming, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii), and with 43.7% of the budget going to “other” expenditures, Illinois is way up there.  What’s apt to catch a Rhode Islander’s attention is that our state is only two ranks behind Illinois (after Nevada), with 42.1%.

That, if you’re wondering, is the highest in New England.  The percentages across New England are interesting, particularly in the degree to which they scuttle some clichés.

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Two conspicuous myth busters are Massachusetts’s relatively low spending on education and Rhode Island’s relatively high spending on higher education.  Also conspicuous is Rhode Island’s low spending on transportation.

Overall, though, notice that, with the exception of higher education, Rhode Island is typically in the bottom tier for all categories, to the benefit of “other.”

What is this “other”?  And why do we need so much of it?

Of course, we need to keep in mind that these percentages might be a little misleading, inasmuch as the amount of total spending will make a big difference.  Nonetheless, the results are interesting.

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Lord Stephen Archambault Threatens Peasant Terry Gorman

Earlier today, Tara Granahan tweeted criticism of behavior by Democrat Senator Stephen Archambault (Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) during the June 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Judiciary concerning drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.  Here’s the moment in question:

Out-of-state guests with whom the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has interacted when they’ve come to our state to testify on legislation have commented about the terrible behavior of legislators, with very similar circumstances to those to which Gorman objected.  The legislators — clearly treating hearings as a way to go through the motions and let people believe we still have a representative democracy — lapse into joking around with each other.  Even if they aren’t laughing at the people offering testimony, the signal of disrespect is huge.

The shocking part of this video, though, is Archambault’s chastising Gorman as if the senator is some sort of feudal lord putting a peasant in his place.  Archambault insists that “whatever I’m saying back here is my business.”  Well, no, Lord Steve.  You’re “back there” as a representative of Rhode Islanders in your district.  Gorman isn’t coming into your space under your good-hearted sufferance.  You’re privileged to be there on behalf of others.

But Senator Archambault pushes folly to offense when he repeatedly insists, “Don’t ever do that again.  Ever.”  Or what?

If we didn’t live in such a corrupt, one-party state, the committee chairwoman, Democrat Erin Lynch Prata (Warwick, Cranston) would have insisted that Archambault stand down and apologized to Mr. Gorman.  But we do live in such a state, which means we must constantly be reminded that they don’t work for us; we work for them.  We don’t bestow privileges upon them; they bestow them upon us.

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