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The Tragedy of a Halted Development in Providence

There may be no better illustration of Rhode Island’s central problem than the foolish people celebrating the halt of a redevelopment project in Providence:

[Jim] Abdo’s request for a tax stabilization agreement, or TSA, was met with opposition from labor unions and progressive groups. Members of the groups applauded when the plan was tabled Tuesday night.

“I know Mr. Abdo is going to make out tremendously from his investment, with or without the TSA,” Nancy Iadeluca, the Rhode Island director for UniteHERE Local 26, said at a hearing about the TSA earlier this month. “What are we getting back?”

Mr. Abdo is looking to develop the former Providence Journal building and another next door, but he says he can’t secure financing for the project, pegged at $39 million, unless there’s a $2.7 million tax break.  According to the developer (who has reason to present his case in the best light, of course), property taxes resulting from the project would have been $5.7 million, anyway, in addition to more than $20 million in various state taxes.  All that comes with jobs and economic activity.

The article does not say, but one wonders, given labor’s involvement, if Mr. Abdo declined to promise to use union shops for his project.  Be that as it may, he says he’s going to hold on to the asset, undeveloped, whether or not it takes 20 years for him to do something with it.

Many Rhode Islanders oppose these special deals that make an inhospitable economic climate tolerable for hand-picked investors, but even we might see this outcome as tragic — if only as an indicator of things we don’t see.  Imagine how many deals are not being done in the Ocean State because of the environment progressive policies have created!

This is more than just tragic, though; it’s frightening, because under the progressives’ glee is the expectation that this is a step toward their “progress,” not an obstacle.  Note this comment from the Providence Preservation Society’s director, who supported the deal:  “These two buildings are eyesores in the core of downtown. They drive down the sense of positivity.”

Abdo says he’s patient, but his patience might be misplaced.  What the progressives may understand is that an “eyesore” is “blight,” and our society has given the government authority to confiscate properties on which they can pin that tag.  As Providence’s economy gets worse and worse, it may be that progressives are counting on being able to take Abdo’s property away from him, using public dollars to redevelop it into some delusional hipster dream (with expensive union labor), and taking the money to do it from the rest of us suckers who haven’t fled the state.

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.

Expanding Big-Government Programs Increases Taxes

Well, this news isn’t exactly surprising:

On New Year’s Day, the state Temporary Disability Insurance tax rate will rise from 1.1% to 1.3% of pay, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. That means someone making $50,000 per year should expect to pay $650 in TDI tax next year compared with $550 this year.

The biggest reason is that Rhode Islanders are beginning to take advantage of a 2013 change in the law that allows them to use the disability program to take time off in order to take care of other people who are injured or sick, or to “bond with a new child.” The sponsor of that legislation insists it’s a small price to pay, and she works diligently every year to make it a little less small:

Sen. Gayle Goldin, sponsor of the 2013 bill that created caregiver insurance, said Tuesday that more people taking advantage of the program is a sign that it’s working and that taxpayers are getting good value.

“It’s a very small [tax] increase to pay for a benefit that helps people when they need it the most,” said Goldin, a Providence Democrat.

Going from 1.1% of pay to 1.3% is actually an 18% increase.  What should families forgo in order to cover a benefit that people in 46 other states somehow manage to live without?

Naturally, the state’s army of spokespeople spins it as a positive:

“It is not surprising that improved income conditions would increase claims; more employed workers result in more individuals eligible, therefore, more potential users,” Angelika Pellegrino, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Training, wrote in an email.

That comment has two layers of deceit.  First, the program is funded by a percentage of total payroll.  More people working means more people paying into the system, which shouldn’t have to be adjusted if it’s designed well.  Of course, if Rhode Island is only creating low-paying jobs, then new tax contributions would be less likely to cover the cost of coverage.

Second, the increase in employed Rhode Islanders cannot possibly account for an 18% increase in the rate.  The number of people employed has barely budged year over year, and the number of jobs based in the state is up only 1.5%.

We should also remember that these policies pile up, including, for example, more-recently-mandated paid leave for employees.  That policy arguably froze and reverse employment increases in the state.

This 18% increase in the TDI tax is a visible warning sign for what we can’t see.  We can’t know all the jobs that would have been created or the raises that would have been given in the absence of these progressive policies. And we can’t forget that employers (and potential employers) can’t only adjust for the policies that have been passed; they have to plan for all of the new burdens their betters in the General Assembly are likely to impose every year.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: A Creature of Their Own Making

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for November 25, included talk about:

  • Insider Alves and the radical caucus
  • The union view of employer responsibility
  • Gaspee versus campaign finance laws
  • Paint on the statute becoming blood on government’s hands
  • Blood on the police officer’s hand gets a slap on the wrist

Open post for full audio.

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What Organized Labor Thinks of Workers

To understand Rhode Island politics, one must understand the activities of organized labor (that is, unions), and to understand their activities, one must understand their attitude.  (By the way, one should also know that reporters for the state’s major daily newspaper, the Providence Journal, are unionized under the AFL-CIO.)

This is from a Providence Journal article by Katherine Gregg about a press conference promoting legislation from Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo that would impose a new tax on large companies whose employees are on Medicaid:

“There is a loophole in the Rhode Island health-care system allowing certain large corporations to avoid their responsibility to provide adequate coverage to their workers. Instead they shift employee health-care costs to the state budget from their own balance sheet,” said George Nee, president of the RI AFL-CIO.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Hold on there, a second.  When did it become my employer’s responsibility to take care of my health?  Put from a perspective that sees workers as adults capable of making their own decisions, when did it become the case that when we choose for whom we want to work, we’re picking the people who will take care of us?

We’re not wards of our employers.  They aren’t our parents; they aren’t our masters.  That’s a huge stolen base in our rights and our autonomy.

Why would labor organizations — who claim to be all about the rights and humanity of workers — see us as something like children who need to be cared for?  Because they have a worldview that breaks us all into classes of people, in this case workers and management, and they want workers to feel like they are something more like servants under the protective thumb of a master so that they, the unions, can edge into the relationship promising that only they have the strength to go up against the master.

Once they do that, it ceases to be your job, for which your employer pays you an agreed upon rate, with agreed upon benefits.  It becomes the union’s job, which you get to fill for the moment, as a nameless servant of the boss and a client of the union.  One uses you for labor, and the other uses you for leverage.

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The Perfect RI Government Agency

If you were to envision the perfect government agency, what would it look like?  Rhode Island has come up with one that few would find perfect in an objective sense, but it is perfectly emblematic: the Central Collections Unit.

As Patrick Anderson explains in the Providence Journal, this unit was put into place with the promise that just a little bit of effort from the state government could increase its collection of money owed to the state by millions of collars, well beyond the cost of the program.  The reality hasn’t, let’s say, matched expectations:

The Central Collections Unit, created last year to capture some of the millions of dollars owed to state agencies, had collected $196,000 through the end of October, a fraction of what was expected, according to the Department of Revenue.

The Projo editorial board contrasts that revenue with the cost of the unit:

What are the taxpayers spending for that $196,000? According to Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi, the annual budget for the unit is $899,649.

What is a bureaucracy to do?  Redefine the goals (emphasis added):

“We’re building something new with the Central Collections Unit, trying an innovative way to improving the state’s financial operations. It’s too early to rate the ultimate effectiveness of the effort this unit is making to hold people accountable,” Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi said in an email. “The figures submitted to the Revenue Estimating Conference cannot tell the complete story. Some of the money we’ve collected goes directly to workers who were shortchanged by their bosses. Other people who owed the largest amounts to the state have been drawn into monthly payment plans by the CCU.”

Ah.  So now the Collections Unit is not a profit center, but an expense to assist employees in collecting their own back pay.  No articles have yet flushed out a number for how much those workers received, but it would be reasonable to wager that taxpayers would have saved money by simply giving them the cash.

These sorts of debacles-in-the-making can leave Rhode Islanders feeling as if there’s something missing in the story.  Who proposed this unit?  Who advocated for it?  Does it amount to more union membership, or were its employees earmarked before it was even created?

We’ll never know, because nobody has the incentive to dig into it (at the expense of other priorities), which ensures that there will be more plaque-like units building up in the arteries of state government on into the future, with the more-visible officials professing that they can’t get by without growing budgets year after year.

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Not Quite as Unequal as Advertised

TaxProf Blog’s Paul Caron highlights an important point from a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Phil Gramm and John Early:

The published census data for 2017 portray the top quintile of households as having almost 17 times as much income as the bottom quintile. But this picture is false. The measure fails to account for the one-third of all household income paid in federal, state and local taxes. Since households in the top income quintile pay almost two-thirds of all taxes, ignoring the earned income lost to taxes substantially overstates inequality.

The Census Bureau also fails to count $1.9 trillion in annual public transfer payments to American households. The bureau ignores transfer payments from some 95 federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, which make up more than 40% of federal spending, along with dozens of state and local programs. Government transfers provide 89% of all resources available to the bottom income quintile of households and more than half of the total resources available to the second quintile.

Teasing the direct wealth redistribution our government imposes on the economy out of the equation changes the picture dramatically.  Click over and look at the included chart.  Adding wealth transfers to those in the lowest quintile moves their average income from nearly zero to over $50,000, while removing taxation from the top quintile drops their average income from nearly $300,000 per year to less than $200,000.

This is a nifty trick from progressives that might just slip past folks’ notice or might be deliberately obscured.  Government takes action to correct a presumed problem but then doesn’t account for the correction in future years, so it looks as if the problem never changes.

In fact, it might appear to get worse!  In this case, for example, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that progressive taxation actually leads to a bigger difference between earned income (not including transfers).  After all, the higher taxes are, the more companies have to pay at the high end in order to produce the same take-home-pay, and the more progressive the tax structure is, the less incentive workers have to take higher paying jobs that carry more responsibility or require more investment in credentials and such, so the more pressure there will be to maintain or increase take-home pay.

If reducing the gap in earned income is really the goal (which I think it should be), then a redistributive tax structure is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

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Rhode Island Became A Less Hospitable Place To Raise A Family In 2019

Recently, our Center released our 2019 Freedom Index and Legislator Scorecard for the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Sadly, with only 12 of 113 lawmakers scoring above zero, the members of the political class failed to fulfill their promises to help everyday citizens. Worse, the 2019 legislative session was an unadulterated assault on individual and economic rights, the totality of which I have not seen before.

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Freedom… From the Progressive Point of View

Perhaps the most clarifying statement in Rhode Island politics, recently, came from one of the candidates now involved with Matt Brown’s Political Cooperative (which, despite the name, is not an alt-country band):

“Thought I may be the epitome of the American dream I cannot sit around and watch while many of my brothers and sisters are denied a shot at that very dream,″ said Jonathan Acosta, tracing his own story from “first generation American born to undocumented migrants from Colombia″ to the Ivy League.

“I believe that we are not free until we have dismantled structural inequality, developed sustainable clean energy, enacted a $15 minimum wage that pays equal pay for equal work, extended healthcare for all, provide[d] affordable housing, ensured quality public education starting at Pre-K, undergone campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, and implemented sensible gun control,″ said Acosta, running for the Senate seat currently held by Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls.

So, to Mr. Acosta, we’re not free until we’ve taken from some categories of people to give to others, limited people’s energy options to benefit fashionable technologies, forbidden employers and employees from setting a mutually agreeable value on work to be done, taken money from some people in order to pay for others’ health care (as defined by a vote-buying government) and/or put price controls on what providers can charge, placed restrictions on who can live where and what they can build, tightened the regulation of politics with limits on the donations and privacy of those who become politically active, and reduced the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.

If that doesn’t match your understanding of “freedom,” you’re not alone.  Indeed, by its mission, this “cooperative” is cooperating against anybody whose understanding of freedom differs, because it cannot possibly cooperate with anybody who disagrees.  You simply can’t hold a definition of freedom that doesn’t have satisfactory outcomes for the interest groups that progressives have targeted.

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Ocean State Exodus: We Are Losing Productive People

No single indicator should be of more importance to lawmakers and civic leaders than whether or not our state is retaining and attracting talented and productive people.

The opportunity for prosperity is a primary factor in the migration of families from state to state. In this regard, our Ocean State is more than just losing the race. Far too many Rhode Islanders are fleeing our state, leaving a swath of empty chairs at our family dinner tables.

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The Impression of a Surplus

This article from a few weeks ago shouldn’t pass into memory without comment:

Rhode Island finished the past fiscal year with a $29-million surplus, $25.5 million of which the state is already counting on in its budget for the current year, according to a preliminary accounting of the year that ended June 30.

State spending for the year that ended June 30 came in $12 million lower than the final, revised spending plan lawmakers approved earlier that month; state revenues were $2.1 million higher than expected.

Review the budget documents from the House Fiscal office for the real story.  With less than two weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the state increased its final budget for that year by $174 million.  This new “surplus” is just the extra wiggle room they gave themselves, and the fact that they are counting on almost all of it for the next year raises the question of how aware they were of the likelihood.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that the state ought to budget with the expectation of a small surplus.  In that case, however, the story isn’t really about a surplus, but about the absence of an unforeseen deficit.

To say that the government ended the year with a surplus is like saying your child has money left over when he or she gives you back a quarter from a hundred dollar bill that you gave him or her to buy something for $98.  That $1.75 went to buy some unapproved candy, but your kid wants credit for giving you any change at all.

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Collective Bargaining Taxpayer Ripoff #2 : Providence Teacher Leaves of Absence

It is not difficult to understand that if our front-line public servants have incentive to not actually be on the front lines, then the overall quality of those public services will suffer.

A new report from our Center, released this week – Paid for Not Working, Collective Bargaining Taxpayer Ripoff #2 : Providence Teacher Leaves of Absence – highlights the many forms of collectively-bargained “leave time” allowed for teachers.

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Bright Today Educational Freedom Scholarships To Counter Collective Bargaining Inequities

At a cost of approximately $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s one-million or so residents, a typical family of four is paying over $3500 annually to support the extravagant compensation programs for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

Beyond these extreme financial costs, there may be an even more corrosive impact from this kind of political cronyism.

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The Mystery of Deteriorating Roads

As is true around the state, the condition of the roads are a constant (and justified) complaint in Tiverton, with a particular focus on those that the state owns and, therefore, is responsible to fix.  Oh, they’re on the 10-year plan for repair, but that means at least five more years — five more winters and five more thaws — until the worst of them are addressed.

A local landscaper asks a question that occurs to many Rhode Islanders, in one form or another:

Louis Dupont, said the state “better do something.”

“The state gets all this money from the lottery. Where does it go?” Dupont asked. “That baffles me. All that money. Where does it go?”

Asked his opinion of the eastern stretch of East Road, Dupont says: “The tractor almost jumps off the trailer.”

The state now has a $10 billion budget, and the municipalities collect another $2.5 billion in taxes on top of that.  Where does all the money go?

Well, this is the Know a Guy State, and budgets fund special favors, handouts, pet projects, and a substantial pay premium for government employees.  Once a chunk of cash is claimed for anything or anyone, it becomes an entitlement that is extremely difficult to take away.  When money does go toward infrastructure, cost-growing mandates from the state, such as prevailing wage, drive up the expense to ridiculous heights so taxpayer dollars can’t go as far as they otherwise would.

Big-government politicians everywhere understand that they’re better off siphoning money to things that shouldn’t be priorities so that the public will consent to higher taxes and more fees in order to fund the things that they really care about, and Rhode Island has made that principle a way of life.  Until we stop shaking our heads and writing it off simply as the way things are around here, the practice will continue.

But imagine if we insisted on change and our roads were rapidly repaired, perhaps even while we experienced a reduction in taxation.  Decline has been a choice, and it is within our power to reverse it and rocket up the national rankings that give Ocean State residents a near-monthly slap.

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MA and Fall River Should Help with Their Drug Dealers’ Disruptions

The only recreation marijuana store in Fall River is experiencing booming business, and it’s disrupting the neighborhood, not to mention one of the major traffic areas into Tiverton:

“We totally understand their frustration as far as last week because it was mayhem,” said Kyle Bishop, the dispensary’s chief operating officer. “The Fourth of July was insane.”

Bishop estimated that business at the dispensary was up 30% over the holiday weekend and that as many as 1,800 customer transactions were taking place daily.

To help remedy the problem, Northeast Alternatives is considering making some changes. Bishop said the business will request an increased police presence to help direct traffic at the intersection of William S. Canning Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, to which the dispensary’s parking lot is connected. Police will also create a new traffic lane at the intersection using traffic cones on weekends, Bishop said.

The dispensary will also post signs discouraging customers from parking on the nearby residential streets of Commonwealth Avenue and Heritage Court and have private security patrols of the neighborhood.

That’s all well and good, but a piece of the puzzle is missing.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts collects a 10.75% excise tax on top of the 6.25% sales tax on marijuana, and the city is allowed to pile on another 3%, for a total of 20% of every sale.  If there’s any legitimate use of all that extra money, it’s dealing with the challenges that the state’s entry into recreational drugs might create.

In short, modifying that stretch of road to accommodate the cash cow should be a top priority.

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Larry Fitzmorris: All Down Side, No Benefit to Portsmouth Unifying High School with Newport

In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.

We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.

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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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The State’s Casino Monopoly and a Wall Street Gamble

For practical purposes, the Twin River casinos are government run, with the state contracting its monopoly of the gambling market to the private company.  However, it’s worth remember from time to time that isn’t how the market sees the business:

In just over three months as a public company, the owner of the Tiverton Casino Hotel in Rhode Island has rapidly gained a following in the hedge fund community. Currently, 10 hedge funds own shares of Twin River, a massive amount for a $1.22 billion company that does not have two full quarters of trading under its belt. …

Twin River owns the only two casinos in the Ocean State, giving it a competitive advantage there. While a new regional threat is emerging in the form of Wynn’s recently opened Encore Boston Harbor, TRWH has some avenues for stemming the rivalry, including a different target demographic and legalized sports betting.

The entire arrangement has long cried for a thorough public discussion of this unique business model, so as to understand Rhode Islanders’ perspective on having a government that has essentially displaced the mob.  The interface with the investment markets adds another dimension.  Because, as the linked article highlights, the monopoly standing of Twin River is a marketable financial asset, should state and local taxpayers continue to benefit only by our percentage of the gambling profits?

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Straight Up Taxpayer Dollars for Promise of a New Treatment

After Steve Ahlquist firstbrought attention to the million dollar handout that the Rhode Island House wishes to give to Dr. Victor Pedro for his Cortical Integrative Therapy (CIT), a WPRI report covered the history of Pedro’s taxpayer funding.  One can’t help but feel that there must be more to the story:

  • Legislative leaders have long gone to bat for the doctor.
  • The executive branch has apparently made extra efforts to secure Medicaid funding for his treatments.
  • And even mild-mannered Lieutenant Governor Daniel McGee has spoken well of Pedro, including his activities in Cumberland schools back when McKee was mainly known as a mayor for that town.

Amazingly, though, nobody has yet mentioned the connection of pop star Paula Abdul, which takes an only-in-Rhode-Island turn.  Says Abdul:

I wish I’d had Cortical Integrative Therapy when I first discovered I had RSD, and I wish Dr. Pedro had been a part of my support system then like he is now.  The treatment replaces the old tapes in your head that have held onto the tapes of pain.  It helps your brain to allow for new experiences and new memories that don’t involve pain.  Think of it in terms of a computer — you’re deleting old files so you can free up more space.  I didn’t find out about Cortical Integrative Therapy until recently, and it has proved to be a life-changing treatment for my RSD.

The strange Rhode Island turn is that Abdul has another connection to Rhode Island as the long-time girlfriend of John Caprio, son of Caught in Providence star judge Frank Caprio and brother of the former treasurer and gubernatorial candidate of the same name as well as former representative David Caprio.  Various online sources also seem to indicate that Abdul has set up various businesses at 2220 Plainfield Pike in Cranston in the past.

This topic could certainly take a serious turn into political theory as an example of why government shouldn’t be in the investment and research business, why Rhode Island should end legislative grants, and why the governor should have the line-item veto.  If Pedro is an innovative practitioner of alternative medicine for the stars, he shouldn’t need government subsidies.

For this post, though, let’s just close with a sincere hope that Rhode Island’s press is sufficiently interested to unravel this entire peculiar tale.

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