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The Little League Lesson on Legislative Grants

Legislative grants have been an issue as long as I have been paying attention to Rhode Island politics.  They are so obviously a vote-buying scheme that legislative leaders use to reward representatives and senators who help to keep the insider game going.  They are therefore an excellent symbol for everything that is wrong with Rhode Island politics.

The Providence Journal Political Scene today emphasizes the increase in grants going to groups in the name of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, who had a too-close-for-comfort campaign result last time around and has clearly wanted to avoid a second roll of the dice:

The Cranston Police Department ($65,000), Western Cranston Garden Club ($1,000) and Cranston Western Little League ($15,000) were among the groups on which Mattiello bestowed 32 grants under the General Assembly’s legislative grant program this year.

No state lawmaker sponsored more grants individually than Mattiello or more total cash than the $205,048 in those grants, nearly 30 percent more than the $158,500 Mattiello sponsored the previous year, according to a Political Scene review of legislative grants for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

If legislative grants stand as an archetype of Rhode Island corruption, the Little League grants are especially revealing about the unfairness of the granting system.  Twenty-eight grants totaling $84,000 went to organizations with “Little League” in their names this legislative session.  Mattiello’s gift was the biggest, but that wasn’t it.  Cranston, as a municipality, received by far the most Little League grants in Rhode Island:  $32,500.  The second-place municipality was Warwick, receiving only $11,500.

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Those grants go to 19 Little League organizations in 14 cities and towns (out of 39) and are the work of 25 legislators (out of 113).  Democrat Senator Felag managed to spread his wealth to all three towns that he represents: Bristol, Warren, and Tiverton.  A few more legislators requested Little League donations in their names that don’t appear to have been granted.

There is no justification for a government program that picks and chooses which children’s baseball clubs deserve taxpayer dollars based on the political fidelity of their representatives and senators.  But the clear purpose is to keep our elected officials in line and to send a message to voters that the price of replacing their representation at the State House could be access to millions of dollars in cash for their kids and their pet projects.

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Bowling Subsidies Now!

Appearing on Rhode Island Public Radio’s “Political Roundtable” show, recently, Rhode Island House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who is running for governor as a Republican, had an exchange with political analyst Scott MacKay:

MacKay: It sounds, in a way, like you don’t really care whether the PawSox go or not.  Do you realize this is a part of Rhode Island culture and family entertainment that hundreds of thousands of people go to every year?

Morgan: I do understand, and I have taken my children, as well, to the PawSox stadium, but I still believe it’s a private company at this point.  We can’t build a facility for every private company.  I mean, why don’t we build bowling allies; a lot of families like to go bowling.  Why don’t we build miniature golf entertainment areas?  At some point, we really have to keep taxpayer monies for the things that actually are economic development, will actually build good jobs in Rhode Island.

Morgan should have concluded that thought by saying we have to keep taxpayer monies for things that are actually government responsibilities, but her point is otherwise right on.  The problem, however, is that conservatives can’t win this sort of reductio ad absurdum argument with progressives, because the latter will happily say, “Go ahead.”

Perhaps progressives won’t generally have the personal affection for bowling or mini-golf that they have for baseball, but nobody should doubt that they’d be happy to use government resources for family entertainment if somebody were to credibly propose doing so.  After all, family time is very important.  Why shouldn’t government build facilities to foster it?  Isn’t government supposed to do everything important for us?

Of course, the conservative reply might be that the lack of a private market for a bolling alley in a particular area is simply evidence that people aren’t interested in that activity in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile.  But however inexpensive the activity is, there might be some families that would jump at the chance if the price came down a little and who, without that opportunity, instead spend their time doing unhealthy things isolated from each other.  And hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders have fond memories of bowling with their families.

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The Dark Humor of North Providence Little League Sponsorships

Let’s start Thursday on a lightish note.  Is it me or does news about the North Providence West Little League read like some sort of Rhode Island–specific Abbot and Costello routine?  From the Valley Breeze:

Senator Ciccone and FOP-13 NPPD [Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 13, North Providence Police Department] earned a share of the North Providence West Little League’s Major Division regular-season championship by capturing their respective finales at Romano Field and concluding their schedules with 14-2 records.

On Monday night, Senator Ciccone posted a 9-0 triumph over Christiansen’s Fine Milk that was the ballclub’s fourth straight victory. Nathan Bautista pitched a superb one-hit shutout that saw him strike out 13 batters and Mazeo DiScullio led the offense with three hits and as many runs scored.

FOP-13, meanwhile, will head into the postseason with an eight-game win streak, thanks to its 12-5 victory over Mayor Lombardi last Wednesday night. Ethan Leveillee delivered the game’s biggest hit, a grand slam home run over the left-field fence.

It’s possible I just don’t remember something, but I can’t recall any labor unions sponsoring teams when I played Little League years ago in New Jersey and definitely not any politicians.  The latter seems flatly inappropriate.  Politicians aren’t promoting a product in the same way private businesses are, and to politicize children’s athletics in this way is wrong.

That said, it is inarguably appropriate, symbolically, for Rhode Island teams named after politicians and labor unions to be “triumphing” over those sponsored by the private businesses that move our economy forward.

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Unions’ Manipulation and the Possibility of Revolution

As Rhode Islanders contemplate the significance of the AFL-CIO’s apparently getting its way and killing a public referendum on public financing of the proposed PawSox stadium, and as we consider the possibility of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of debt into building and fixing schools that local governments failed to maintain, and as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello collects around $90,000 at a single fundraising event, Megan McArdle’s musings on government unions and might-as-well-be-government unions are worth a read:

… as the Times notes, both the cost of labor and the amount of labor that’s used contribute a great deal to those bloated bottom lines. Why does Paris, with its feisty unions, manage to use fewer workers than New York City, and get jobs done for a fraction of the cost?

Because New York unions are politically connected, and for various reasons, the American government is particularly vulnerable to capture by these sorts of interests, especially as regional partisanship hardens. New York City is a one-party town in a very blue state; while New Yorkers may occasionally vote for a Republican mayor or a Republican governor, the down-ticket offices are filled in the Democratic primary. Those politicians have no interest in angering a large segment of their base that has a lot of cash for campaign contributions, and is well organized to turn out and influence elections. And the finance industry throws off such a vast river of cash that they can get away with bloated construction budgets. So no one has any incentive to crack down on wages or featherbedding.

Unionization and the sheer size of government have combined to create a political system that is in large part dominated by people voting to give themselves other people’s money.

In a free market, somebody selling something (including his or her labor) is constrained by the possibility that the customer will simply go elsewhere or forgo the purchase.  As insiders endeavor to make sure that Rhode Island taxpayers do not have the choice to forgo the purchase of a new PawSox stadium, we can see how the constraint on labor unions in modern Rhode Island is not far short of the possibility of actual revolution.

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If the Process Is Open, Why Are They on a Side?

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Something Rhode Island Needs to Stop Believing

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Is Reality Setting in for the Governor?

Perhaps it’s just the moment and the particular set of issues raised, but a quick-hit Providence Journal interview with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo feels like a bit of a change in tone, from backing away from legalizing pot to holding back on school construction bonds.

A couple of points are worth teasing out:

“Look,” Raimondo said Tuesday, “I think it would be really sad if we lost the PawSox to Worcester …. But no, I am not going to get into a bidding war. We can’t afford a bidding war. We have a deal on the table now. I would say: Go ahead and pass that deal.”

“I am not going to get bid up, and pay more than we can afford, so we don’t lose it to Charlie Baker,” she said.

This is particularly nice to see.  Rhode Island has lost thousands of residents in recent decades because the state didn’t want, essentially, to bid for them to stay by making it easier to make it in Rhode Island.  Why should a minor league baseball team get better treatment?

Raimondo said her budget proposal will honor the next promised $25-million cut in local car taxes, part of a multi-year phaseout plan lawmakers approved earlier this year.

This is interesting.  Last week on the radio, John DePetro and I had some fun speculating that Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston was sending signals to Raimondo.  First, he was seen chatting with her potential Democrat primary foe, Lincoln Chafee, and then his shadow could be seen around the edges of Joe Trillo’s bizarre declaration of his intent to stage a third-party campaign that would almost certainly split the vote against Raimondo.

Holding to the car tax elimination, which the speaker championed, could be a sign that the messages have been received and an agreement struck.

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The Mixed Up Economics of Government Economic Development

Not to overuse the word, but let’s just say that I’m cynical about the newly proclaimed interest in development around the proposed PawSox stadium in Pawtucket:

Pawtucket leaders Wednesday used the interest in developing Tidewater and inquiries from an unnamed hotel developer to build near a new stadium in support of their push for a state-backed financing deal for the proposed $83-million downtown ballpark.

But cynicism aside, Rhode Islanders should take Mayor Donald Grebien’s explanation of the economics as a warning sign about government officials’ understanding:

“The Ballpark at Slater Mill is the catalyst that Pawtucket, the Blackstone Valley and Rhode Island need to continue to move forward,” said Mayor Donald R. Grebien. “Pawtucket is a business-friendly city and investors and developers are already expressing support for the ballpark project. However, the private sector cannot wait forever. They will look elsewhere to invest. That is why it is so critical that the General Assembly act prudently and expeditiously to enact the enabling legislation and move our great state forward.”

Anybody who’s ever negotiated the price of a car should know that you never buy under time pressure.  In this case, Grebien’s attempt at pressure undermines his larger argument.

If the stadium really generates economic value then the private sector really will wait or come back.  On the other hand, if these two particular prospects (one anonymous) are critical to the venture, then taxpayers should take that as a warning.  After all, the whole deal relies on ancillary development to pay the debt.  If the “private sector” isn’t clamoring for spots, the deal is too risky.

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Can Worcester Really Support the PawSox?

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PawSox Hearings Giving Troubling Insight into Officials’ Thinking

The final Senate Finance hearing about the proposal for a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket, as reported by Kate Bramson of the Providence Journal, has a couple of details that ought to be warning signs to Rhode Islanders with respect to the attitudes of government officials in the state:

[Pawtucket City Commerce Director Jeanne] Boyle said city payments could be made in early years from money set aside in a capitalized-interest account from bond proceeds. She said the city could also assess a fee on property near the stadium so some additional money would flow into the city’s general fund right away.

If this is correctly reported, then it’s new.  Up to now, the hints that we’ve heard have been that the city might expand the tax increment finance (TIF) area around the stadium so that more taxes would go to the stadium.  Ultimately, that’s just a sneaky way to force an increase in taxes without immediately blaming it on the development.

This sounds like a direct tax on businesses and residents around the stadium under the assumption that they’re profiting somehow from the stadium.  That would be a terrible way to go.

On a different matter, consider this evidence that Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton Senator James Seveney isn’t really representing his own constituents:

… Sen. James A. Seveney pinpointed that the legislation says money from a surcharge on premium tickets (in corporate suites, for example) might help the state pay off its $23-million contribution. But as it is written, the legislation doesn’t allow that for the city’s payments.

“Maybe that should be in yours,” Seveney said, to which Grebien responded: “We’d gladly take that. Having said that, it was very difficult negotiations.”

Seveney continued: “I’m not too worried about the state’s position, and I’m not worried about the team’s position. I think they’re going to be fine. I am worried about you guys.”

Why is an East Bay senator more concerned about Pawtucket taxpayers than about the liability of the people who elected him?  Sure, we should care about Pawtucket’s problems, but Seveney is essentially putting forward his constituents as a cash cow.

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