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The Political Class Plans To Harm Rhode Island In 2020

The more freedoms we have, the more prosperity we will enjoy. The constitutional government of our great nation was formed to preserve our freedoms. But in the Ocean State, we reduce freedoms … and we suffer the consequences.

As the 2020 General Assembly Session begins, and we are once again looking at even more of status quo (or worse) based on the policy agenda from the political class, when will Rhode Islanders say enough is enough?

Instead of focusing on the real issues harming the business climate of our state… the insiders are looking to restrict the rights of citizens by stopping the use of plastic straws and bags. Give me a break.

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TCI Gas Tax Unnecessary; RI Already Won the War on Carbon

As you probably know, Governor Gina Raimondo is proposing that Rhode Island sign on to TCI (Transportation and Climate Initiative), a regional carbon cap-and-tax program on transportation that would involve, among other things, Rhode Islanders paying an additional tax on gas and diesel of seventeen – twenty four cents+ per gallon. A couple of Justin Katz’ excellent posts about TCI are here and here

Let’s discuss the stated purpose of TCI. According to the governor, it is to save the planet by getting Rhode Islanders to give up their cars. This is not an exaggeration; below is what the governor says about TCI in this December interview with WPRI’s Kim Kalunian (starting at minute 03:15).

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Opioid Solutions When the Government Refuses to Address Problems

In his recent essay on this site, Dr. Stephen Skoly described the consequences of legislation seeking to regulate prescription opioids, but he stopped short of broad conclusions about the politics involved.  As it happens, one such conclusion fit in well with the other topics that John DePetro and I discussed on December 30.

We can, of course, debate whether a new $5 million fee for opioid manufacturers and wholesalers is actually about solving a social problem, rather than finding a new source of revenue.  But taking the politicians at their word for their motivation, one can at least say that such policies infantilize the people, as if our legislators and governor are the only adults in the state and therefore must protect patients from their irresponsible selves and from greedy doctors.

Something milder and, in its way, worse is probably going on, as well.  The theme that John and I happened upon in our segment was that government officials in Rhode Island shy away from addressing actual problems.  They look for all sorts of ways to get at them without actually naming and attacking the root causes.

When it comes to a failing education system, they seek work-arounds and small tweaks like, like shifting authority toward principals, rather than draw attention to the labor-union structure that makes the system all about the remuneration of adults rather than the education of children.  When it comes to teenage fights at a mall, the focus goes to things like community programs to give kids something to do, rather than unraveling the progressive assumptions that lead to gang-friendly policing and suspension-unfriendly school regulations (not to mention identity-group entitlement).

Just so, going after fentanyl and heroin on the criminal market would manifest in urban areas and among minorities.  Many people in those communities would be grateful for the improved environment, but the enforcement and incarceration statistics would look bad and draw the attention of groups like the ACLU.  So instead, government tries to find a solution from the other side, making things more difficult (literally more painful) for law-abiding citizens, in the hopes that they can limit the market for the drugs and make the dealers go away for lack of profit.

If that approach also produces a $5 million fee for government, so much the better.

By capitulating to progressive-union pressure, and despite disingenuous claims that no broad-based taxes were imposed, Ocean Staters will once again bear increased burdens to pay for new taxes and regulations, more spending, and more union giveaways. Lawmakers chose to appease, rather than resist, the progressives’ job-killing, big-spending agenda.

Tightening Screws on Freelancers

If you follow national economic or political news, you’ve probably caught wind of California’s new law — which takes effect this Wednesday — making it more likely that companies will have to treat freelancers as employees for the purposes of employment regulations like the minimum wage and benefits.

One reason this California law has generated so much conversation is that it affects freelance writers.  In this regard, the left-wing website Vox has provided the perfect lesson on progressive rhetoric.  A September 11, 2019, essay on that site by Alexia Fernandez Campbell places the issue as a win for labor unions and proclaims the headline, “Gig workers’ win in California is a victory for workers everywhere.”  Fast-forward a few months, to December 17, and an article in the Los Angeles Times informs readers, “Vox Media cuts hundreds of freelance journalists as AB 5 changes loom.”  Those 200 people will be replaced by “20 new part-time and full-time staffers.”

A CNBC article puts things a bit more broadly with the headline, “California’s new employment law has boomeranged and is starting to crush freelancers”:

“I don’t believe legislators realized the impact this had,” says Gene Zaino, founder and executive chairman of MBO Partners, which studies the freelance economy and provides back-office services to freelancers. “This was really designed to create a safety net for people that needed it. Legislators didn’t realize at the same time, they impacted millions of people in thousands of businesses that are using freelancers, even though that was not their intent. A lot of businesses are paralyzed, in terms of ‘everyone needs to be on payroll.'”

Oh, the legislators realized it.  They just don’t care.  They’ve got their eyes on other prizes than the likes of Mr. Zaino — powerful labor unions and constituencies who think progressive legislators are going to give them more handouts.  And progressives realized it, too, but those gig jobs don’t fit their vision and therefore shouldn’t exist because they are institutionalized oppression (or something).

Even those of us who don’t rely on the gig economy should take notice… in a “first they came for the freelancers” sort of way.  Progressives are intent on remaking the world according to their erroneous understanding of how the economy ought to work.  That will mean you have a decreasing ability to decide what works for you in your life and just have to settle for the deal that government provides for you.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: RI’s Avoidance of Real Problems

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for December 30, included talk about:

  • Elorza’s interest in being governor
  • Causes and effects of Providence Mall brawls
  • Disappointment in Raimondo’s failure to succeed
  • Stephen Skoly’s warning about opioid nannyism

Open post for full audio.

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Raimondo’s Strange Excuse for Marijuana

Sometimes the explanations that politicians give for their support for a particular policy make you go, “Wait… what?”  Such was the case with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s response in a recent Providence Journal interview:

The setting: a roundtable discussion with students in one of Rhode Island’s poorest cities, a week after she had signed an executive order temporarily banning the sale of flavored vaping products.

“And the kids said vaping is expensive. ‘We use that as a treat for party nights …. Marijuana is the day-to-day thing.’”

“Like, wow,” Raimondo remembered thinking and maybe saying. “How do you obtain that? And they’re like, ‘Attleboro is 10 minutes away, if you haven’t noticed.’ So we are kidding ourselves if we think we don’t [already] have recreational marijuana [in Rhode Island]. Talk to the state police. They see it on the roads.” …

Yes, for the second year in a row, she intends to propose legalizing the adult use of marijuana — and not, she said, just because of the millions of dollars in new revenue it could provide the state (at least $9.4 million a year, the state estimates) but because she sees unregulated access to the drug as a “safety issue.”

Umm… if the point of the story is that the kids are buying marijuana in a state where it’s legal, then it isn’t “unregulated access to the drug.”  It might be regulated badly, but legalizing the drug in Rhode Island will only mean that the kids have regulated access that is more convenient.

This isn’t an argument against legalization, but since the governor isn’t making a rights-based argument, and since her rationale for regulation is foolish, that leaves us with “thou dost protest too much” and the conclusion that, yes, she’s after the money.  (Whether that money is cash for the state government or donations from vested donors I leave for the reader to decide.)

This time of year, my usual analogy is even more apropos.  Our culture has repeatedly warned us about people who make fortunes in the private sector and then take over government to make illicit businesses legal and prominent, as with the alternative Pottersville reality in It’s a Wonderful Life.  But that can happen in the other direction, too, with government making previously illegal industries for profit, and we should all be wary of it.

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Rhode Island motorists could find new gasoline taxes in their stockings

This Christmas season, Gov. Gina Raimondo could be the Grinch who stole affordable gasoline. If the Raimondo administration gets its way and bypasses the General Assembly to sign on to a new regional carbon-tax scheme, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), Rhode Island motorists will find a plan to increase gasoline taxes in their stockings this year.

TCI is a cap-and-trade tax on gasoline proposed by environmental extremists who purposely want gasoline to become so expensive — estimated at an extra 24 cents per gallon — that you will be financially forced to walk or bike to work and around town.

Like all far-left contrivances to reduce carbon emissions, TCI, a green-new-deal-type gas tax, will harm economic growth and will take money out of your pocket. Rhode Island already suffers from an Ocean State Exodus, where far too many of our children and loved ones, business investors, and neighbors are leaving for lower-cost living in other states. The TCI tax would be one more piece of coal that will drive people out of state (pun intended).

Most Rhode Islanders want a balanced approach, where there are multiple choices for abundant and affordable energy. But green-Grinches in government want to limit your options, and will force you to pay expensive new taxes if you make the wrong choice.

Only the General Assembly can raise taxes. Fortunately, the governor cannot unilaterally impose a new tax on gasoline without legislative approval. But the governor has purposely tried to keep this TCI tax under the radar. Her team has been working stealthily with unelected bureaucrats at TCI to advance the imposition of gas taxes among 12 Northeast states.

Did you know that the really high electricity prices we pay, among the highest in the country, are partly because of a different regional cap-and-trade program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)? RGGI imposes tax-like fees on electricity power plants, which, of course, get passed on to you. Unfortunately, RGGI has been a complete failure; it has significantly increased the cost of electricity but has resulted in no added emissions reductions!

And now they want to try the same failed idea on gasoline with a TCI gas tax. Like RGGI, TCI is designed to increase the cost of fossil-based fuel so much, that families like yours — and businesses where you work — will be forced to use less of it.

Part of the RGGI and TCI schemes is that the extra money you pay at the gas pumps and on your electric bill is supposed to be spent by participating states on energy projects that are favored by greenie Grinches. Rhode Islanders understand that it is patently unfair for government subsidies to be handed-out to benefit a specific industry or company … at the expense of everyone else.

History has proven that too many government regulations and taxes on energy mean that the beneficial use of America’s rich natural resources might be put out of reach for many. Worse, such government imposed taxes as the RGGI tax and the TCI tax are regressive; they disproportionately harm low-income families who already struggle to pay heating bills and gasoline costs.

Also, many businesses, similarly burdened with higher energy costs, will be forced to reduce employee work hours, cut jobs, or even shut down and move to another state.

The secrecy must end now. The governor should have been more transparent about an issue that will cause economic hardship for many. I call on Ms. Raimondo to reject the TCI tax plan, expected out on Dec. 17; and I call on Senate and House leadership to ensure there is a robust public debate about whether you and I should pay higher gasoline taxes.

RGGI has failed miserably … and TCI is also doomed for failure. Why should any Grinch force any of us to pay unnecessarily higher gasoline taxes if it will not result in any environmental benefit?

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The TCI Tax Looms

Over the coming months, Rhode Islanders will be hearing about the implementation of the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), a cap-and-trade scheme for the northeastern states to impose a new tax on gasoline.  A brief that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity released last week gives some of the details, including a quick look at TCI’s predecessor scheme, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is directed at energy production, whereas TCI focuses on gasoline:

[Then-Governor Donald Carcieri’s] assurances that his policies would not severely hurt Rhode Islanders have proven unreliable. As he made his announcement, Rhode Island was enjoying the second-lowest cost per kiloWatthour for ultimate customers’ electricity in New England, at $13.08. By January 2019, this average price had increased to $20.12, by far the highest in the region. This 54% increase compares with an 18% increase nationwide over the same period (to just $10.47 per kWh) and 17% in New England overall (to $18.22 per kWh).

Despite enduring an increased cost for energy, RGGI states have experienced “no added emissions reductions or associated health benefits from the RGGI program,” when compared with different states that have otherwise similar energy policies, according to David Stevenson, Director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware.

It looks probable that these programs harm the economy and fail to achieve their stated objectives.  Why would the governor charge forward with another one?

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Governor’s Back Door TCI Tax Would Cost You At The Pump

The prices for gasoline could soon rise dramatically for your family if the Raimondo administration undercuts the authority of the General Assembly, and moves forward with its plan to sign-on to a new stealth carbon-tax scheme – the TCI Tax… a move that would necessarily increase costs on families and business at the pump, and that also could lead to Constitutional legal challenges.

This tax – a green-new-deal type government mandate – is also a regressive fuel tax that will disproportionately harm low-income families, who will struggle much more than the wealthy to pay the higher gasoline prices.

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The Way to Address Workplace Injustice

Here’s a great story out of Rhode Island, oddly first spotted, at least that I’ve seen, by a news station in Minnesota:

A new business in North Smithfield, Rhode Island is spreading awareness of hiring people with disabilities.

Michael Coyne opened his coffee shop, Red, White & Brew, after struggling to find a job, which he believed was due to his disability.

He has autism, and when he couldn’t find anyone who would hire him, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

When a business underpays its staff or discriminates, that is an opportunity for others to compete and take advantage of those destructive decisions.  Yet, every time the state of Rhode Island imposes new taxes, licenses, and regulations, it makes it more difficult for people like Mr. Coyne to rise up and do so.

We shouldn’t have the attitude that there are workers and there are owners, or that businesses have a paternalistic duty to take care of their employees.  Instead, we should understand that we’re all human beings, equal in the eyes of God, who make agreements to work together.  When individuals are taken advantage of, we ought to help them, but not with blanket pronouncements that assume everybody in one class (the evil business owners) is always trying to take advantage of everybody else (the vulnerable employees).

If the proponents of “diversity” and “inclusion” really believed that they helped businesses, they wouldn’t try to regulate them as mandates, because they would expect the marketplace to reward businesses who followed those principles.  Instead, they try to be exclusive of people who hold different views, not only within a single business but across the entire economy.

Congratulations to Mr. Coyne for living an important principle that too many of his fellow Rhode Islanders seem unwilling to learn.

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Rhode Island’s Very Own Green New Deal

How much more money can Rhode Island’s political class take from your pocket using green energy as an excuse?

The Ocean State has already signed on to the Transport and Climate Initiative, a cabal of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states designed to foster a radical change (for the worse) to our economic well-being through costly green energy policies.

Indeed, this very well could be Rhode Island own version of the “Green New Deal,” driving costs higher and higher.

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Where the Utility Money Comes From

The double-take-inspiring headline in the Providence Journal is, “Regulators: Utilities, not customers, should pay for gas outage on Aquidneck Island.”

While perfectly willing to believe there was some form of negligence on the part of the utilities when the natural gas stopped flowing in January, we might also be tempted to ask:  Where do the regulators think the utilities’ money comes from?  Sure, $25 million can come from reductions imposed on those who invest their time or money in the organization or from planned operational expenses or some other nook or cranny of the business, but all money that goes out ultimately has to come in, and that means customers.

No doubt, there’s waste to be found in the entire system (utilities are, after all, quasi-governmental in their nature), but taking money from different areas will have consequences.  If the organization becomes less profitable, or the possibility of profit becomes riskier, then fewer will be willing to make a career or a company out of it.

Now turn and look at the issue in the other direction.  If we want 100% uptime in our utilities under all circumstances, we’re going to have to build in waste and redundancy.  There would have to be people (unionized people) watching things that don’t actually have to be watched 99% of the time, like the faulty valve in this case.  There would have to be multiple pipes carrying multiple streams of fuel along multiple paths so losing one wouldn’t shut anything down.

In Rhode Island’s current situation, extra personnel is made impossible by regulations that keep prices down through political force while keeping costs high.  The extra infrastructure is made impossibly by the NIMBYism and environmental extremism of the region and the regulations that follow on those things.

So, whether the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers was correct in its judgment in this case is not the most important question for Rhode Islanders to ponder.  What sort of energy reality do we want in the Ocean State, and what are we willing and able to do to bring it about?  Unfortunately, our civic system has developed such that nobody benefits sufficiently in the moment from finding a solution for the long term in order to promote one, and too many people benefit from keeping a pleasant, superficial fantasy alive.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Cracks in the Wall of Corruption

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for October 21, included talk about a political operative’s indictment, other political operatives’ hemp biz, Block’s complaint against government operatives, Wyatt protesters, and an unpopular governor.

Open post for full audio.

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Is Government Over-Reacting With Vape Bans?

Are the decisions by the governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts to halt the sale of vaping products (which will destroy jobs and small businesses) fueled by solid research or inspired by politically-correct activism?

While we recognize that this may be a sensitive topic to some people, there are many pro-liberty arguments that can be made on why these vape bans are wrong. It is deeply concerning that Governor Raimondo used her office to unilaterally ban a class of products.

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Fundamental Questions Vaped

Joanne Giannini’s essay in this space yesterday points in the direction of fundamental questions our society doesn’t seem interested in asking these days — much less answering.

A former state representative, Joanne was in office during a time when state government was cracking down on smoking.  She sees the rise of vaping as an as-bad-or-worse substitute cropping up and (one infers) probably deserving of the same response.

The first question is whether the rash of illnesses is actually an indication that vaping is truly dangerous.  Robert Verbruggen writes for NRO that reports of “the mystery vaping disease” merit investigation and concern, but indications are that they may be highlighting a tangential, not endemic, problem:

… while a lot remains to be learned about the illness, there are strong suggestions it’s caused by bad or counterfeit products, not by normal vaping. The cases cluster geographically, and in some states they have been found exclusively among those who vape cannabis products, not nicotine. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA director who launched a crackdown on vaping when studies showed teen use on the uptick, told KHN he suspects the problem is counterfeit pods, both because of the clustering and because the FDA inspects the facilities of legitimate manufacturers to ensure the products aren’t contaminated.

This, in other words, may be less like cigarettes, which cause disease by their nature, than like food poisoning.  If that’s the case, then regulation should be less about limiting access as a way of discouraging use than about helping consumers differentiate between safer and riskier products.

Either way, the question remains what our society ought to do when the short- and long-term effects of a consumable are unknown or are known to be bad.  Limiting their use by minors, who are presumed to be unprepared to make informed decisions, is an obvious possibility.  But shouldn’t adults be permitted to balance the risks and rewards of these things for themselves?

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Theft Is One Way to Get the Money Out of Politics

When I’ve objected to the ever-growing regulations imposed on anybody who tries to participate in state or local government, I’ve had in mind mainly the disincentive for people to get involved and the potential for political “Gotcha!” games.  Recent news out of the Board of Elections is a reminder that government isn’t just this neutral, flawless storing house for all of our rules and information:

The Rhode Island Board of Elections acknowledged Monday that its inadvertent disclosure of banking information might have opened the door to “fraudulent activity” involving the campaign finances of two 2018 political candidates, Cranston Mayor and candidate for governor Allan Fung and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea — including the theft of money from Fung’s campaign account.

The board has learned that it mistakenly disclosed the routing numbers and account numbers of checks written by campaigns participating in the state’s Matching Public Funds program, according to a news release issued by Diane C. Mederos.

The Matching Public Funds program isn’t so substantial that every candidate or potential candidate in the state will even think about using it, but this is a warning.  The state now requires all candidates to have separate bank accounts and to provide statements to the Board of Elections.  These burdens have a way of expanding and becoming more detailed as they (inevitably) fail to stop the behavior they’re targeted toward stopping.

At the same time, being small and used only for the periodic purpose of elections, these accounts are easy for busy people to lose track of.

As long as I’ve been paying attention to politics, I’ve been hearing people say that we need to get the money out of it.  I’m not sure making it an easy target for theft is the right way to go about that.

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Rhode Island’s Politicians Are Failing

For too long, the political class has failed the people of our state. At $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s one million residents, a family of four is paying over $3,500 annually for excessive compensation deals for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

With almost two-thirds of these excessive costs being heaped upon municipal taxpayers, our recent Public Union Excesses report further estimates that property taxes could be reduced by 25% if more reasonable, market-based collective bargaining agreements were negotiated.

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Rhode Island: An OK Place to Live

Obviously, the more subjective the thing an index attempts to measure, the more subject it will be to interpretation, and WalletHub has made a cottage industry of cranking out subjective rankings.  That said, the Web site’s “Best States to Live in” ranking from June has some interesting considerations for the Ocean State.

Notably, the Ocean State is supposedly the 29th best state in which to live… which seems OK, considering Rhode Islanders’ expectation to come in at the very bottom of all rankings.  OK begins to look not so good, though, when one zooms out on the map.  WalletHub claims Massachusetts is #1 and New Hampshire #3.  Vermont and Maine are both in the teens, and Connecticut comes in at #20.

Looking at the subcategories, RI’s worst result was in “affordability,” which shouldn’t surprise anybody.  The Ocean State was the fourth least affordable state, after New York, California, and New Jersey.  But here’s the thing:  No New England states are very affordable.  Massachusetts, for example, is 43rd and New Hampshire is 42nd.

So what makes the difference?  Massachusetts is in the top 5 for everything else:  economy, education & health, quality of life, and safety.  New Hampshire only misses the top 5 in quality of life.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island only breaks the top 20 on the safety subcategory (at #5).  The conclusion is that Rhode Island might not be able to avoid being expensive, but that only means it can’t afford to be unattractive by other measures.

Here’s where the subjectivity of the index becomes important.  Quality of life includes things that Rhode Island can’t help, like the weather, and things that depend on one’s values and interests.  The importance of “miles of trails for bicycling and walking” will vary from person to person.

But quality of life also includes things like the quality of the roads, which is pretty universally valued.  Meanwhile, multiple criteria that the index uses center around leisure activities that cost money, which means disposable income is a factor, as is the ease with which businesses can pop up to answer the demand.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator states that a single Rhode Islander needs to make $12.35 per hour over a 2,080-hour workyear.  However, $1.86 of that goes to taxes.  For comparison, in New Hampshire, only $1.50 per hour goes to taxes.

This all suggests an unsurprising solution for improving Rhode Island’s standing:  lower taxes, use the money that is collected for things that are of more universal value, and decrease regulations.  We’d all have more money to spend, we’d feel better about our day-to-day life, and we’d be better able to answer each other’s needs.

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Hair Braider Freedom Passes GA: An Important Shrinking of Government

VICTORY! For years, our Center has worked, both publicly and behind the scenes, to secure an important and symbolic freedom for Rhode Island families. During the last moments of the 2019 General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to exempt natural hair braiders from the occupational licensing requirement for hairdressers and cosmeticians within the state.

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Hair Braider Freedom and Keeping the Rules Small Positives in a Dark Session

Let’s take a moment to celebrate something positive out of the General Assembly: the passage of legislation that would free natural hair braiders of the need to become licensed as full beauticians:

“For centuries, natural hair braiding has been a common practice for African and African American women and men. Hair braiding skills and techniques are passed down from generation to generation and do not require formal training. Forcing natural hair braiders to meet the same licensing requirements as cosmetologists is a clear injustice. This bill rights a wrong and allows entrepreneurs — including a lot of women from low-income neighborhoods — to make a living,” said Representative Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence). “Natural hair braiding is an art form, limited only by the braider’s creativity. The state does not require licenses to produce art, yet, that is in effect what is occurring now with natural hair braiders. Finally lifting this senseless requirement is a triumph for our community, not only freeing braiders from onerous regulations but also bringing about a bit of sorely needed cultural sensitivity.”

The bill (2019-H 5677A, 2019-S 0260A) defines natural hair braiding as “a service of twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending, locking, or braiding hair by hand or with mechanical devices.” The bill allows braiders to use natural or synthetic hair extensions, decorative beads and other hair accessories; to perform minor trimming of natural hair or hair extensions incidental to twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending, locking or braiding hair; and to use topical agents such as conditioners, gels, moisturizers, oils, pomades, and shampoos in conjunction with hair braiding as well as clips, combs, crochet hooks, curlers, curling irons, hairpins, rollers, scissors, blunt-tipped needles, thread, and hair binders. They may also make wigs from natural hair, natural fibers, synthetic fibers and hair extensions.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has been pushing for this legislation for years, now, so it’s good to see those efforts bear some fruit.  That said, it’s difficult not to see a dark lining to this silver cloud:  all that effort for this minor concession to freedom.  Observers must also wonder what the sponsors of this legislation had to vote for as the trade-off.

Similarly, it’s a positive development that House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (R, Block Island, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown) forced the legislature to finish up without suspending its rules, but as we move on from the 2019 session, we should ponder whether “not as bad as it could have been” is good enough.

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