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Money-Grabbing State Officials Seek To Tax Everything That Moves

Yet again, Rhode Island has been saddled with a bottom-10 ranking: This time for its heavy-handed occupational licensing regulatory regime, which effectively denies many people the right to earn a living. In Washington, the Trump administration is returning to a “light-touch” regulatory strategy, a strategy that our state would be wise to follow.

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Contrasting Benny’s with State Bennies

While sympathetic to the plight of Benny’s employees whose jobs are disappearing out from under them, I can’t help but wonder how many people actually enter retail expecting benefits like severance pay.  Kim Kalunian and Ted Nesi’s WPRI article on the impending closure of all Benny’s stores makes it seem as that must be a thing, but even with a good bit of retail experience, I’ve never heard of it.

Presumably, workers were satisfied with the terms of their employment while it was ongoing.  It would be generous of the company’s owners to offer employees who happen to be working for the stores now that they’re closing an additional, unexpected bonus, but it would be above and beyond what tends to happen in the private sector.

Now contrast that situation with Kathy Gregg’s Providence Journal follow-up article on Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s incentive offer to near-retirees on the state’s payroll:

The retirement plan hinges on the one-time payment of an amount twice the “longevity” bonus that each worker, already eligible for retirement, is receiving. Until this bonus-pay program was frozen in 2011, the state automatically gave state workers 5-percent, 10-percent, 15-percent, 17.5-percent and 20-percent pay increases at milestones in their career, such as the 5-year, 10-year or 20-year mark. The cap on Raimondo’s offer: $40,000. …

More assumptions: the departing workers would leave with $8.94 million in retirement-incentive payments and $4.57 million in “severance payments” for all of the unused vacation days and sick time they were allowed to bank over the course of their careers. Assuming the administration replaced 252 of these workers by the end of this budget year — at substantially lower salaries — the Budget Office projected $2,608,406 in state-dollar savings this year.

We really do have two classes in Rhode Island, whose lived experiences and expectations about the world are entirely separate, and politicians (rather than workers’ talents) are the ultimate gatekeepers to the more-desirable one.  In one class, we work by mutual agreement, and all parties are tasked with assessing their own financial needs and adjusting accordingly, seeking the best deals we can as we go.  The other class collects what it needs from taxpayers and makes decisions based on the political clout of special interests (notably labor unions) before considering financial viability.

As Kalunian and Nesi report, the financial reality of defined-benefit retirement plans forced an end to the benefit at Benny’s in 2007.  The state’s, on the other hand, still stands available as another bucket of money and liability into and out of which officials can slop cash so as to create the appearance of fiscal viability in any given year.

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Chris Maxwell: RIDOT’s Inadequate Environmental Assessment Intended to Accelerate Toll Bait Lawsuit

[Below are the prepared comments of Chris Maxwell, President of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, for the RIDOT toll gantry workshop Tuesday evening. The video of Chris’ actual comments, abbreviated due to time constraints, can be viewed here. For the sake of the news outlet that erroneously reported that public comment Tuesday night was mostly a re-hash of old objections and omitted all on-topic comments from their story, Ocean State Current has bolded all of Chris’ comments that pertain to the Environmental Assessment that was the subject of Tuesday’s workshop.]

Good evening. My name is Chris Maxwell and I represent the Rhode Island Trucking Association and all local trucking companies adversely affected by truck-only tolls.

Our opposition to this plan from its introduction in the spring of 2015 is well-documented. And despite the justified rancour that still exists, our industry’s willingness to contribute to infrastructure improvement remains steadfast – even beyond our existing contributions which are considerable.

In 2016, the trucking industry in Rhode Island paid roughly $70 million in federal and state roadway taxes.

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Wheee! Warwick Fire Chief Puts Taxpayers On Hook for Cool $2.8 Million Fine

From the front page of yesterday’s Warwick Beacon.

[Taxpayer activist Rob] Cote claims that in the past four years the fire department has averaged about 1,400 shift changes a year, totaling about 5,600 Form 109s that are supposedly missing or have been purposefully disposed of. This could incur a maximum fine of $2.8 million, which the city would be on the hook for, according to Cote.

Cote filed an Access to Public Records Act request (APRA) in May and December of 2016 to get any documents pertaining to changes of shift within the Warwick Fire Department.

Fourteen hundred shift changes per year times four years requires 5,600 forms, each of which must be signed by four people in authority. What happened to those 5,600 forms? Where they destroyed? That is what Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin claims. Or did they never exist? If the latter, those 5,600 shift changes were never authorized and, therefore … what? The firefighters must pay back that money? (Asking honestly. Legal-types are encouraged to chime in on this point.)

Terrific work by Rob Cote, who worked for over a year rounding up all of this information and (lack of) documents to expose what is a scam, one way or the other — and could well turn out to be a costly one to taxpayers.

One other item from the article. This is called foreshadowing. (Emphasis added).

In response to allegations from Cote that fire department personnel had used the change of shift system to subvert using vacation or sick time in order to go work other jobs or even attend a softball tournament in Maine, McLaughlin said that he had seen no evidence of such activity, and if anybody has proof of such accusations to please bring it forward.

As they teach first year law students, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to … and government officials should never ask for proof of shenanigans unless they are 100% certain it does not exist.

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The Calciphylaxis of Union Contracts

Tim White provides the numbers for the long-term leave benefit that allows state employees to change jobs with a right to return to the jobs they left:

More than 1,600 positions in state government are effectively on hold, with employees having the right to return to them and potentially bump the worker who holds the job now, according to data reviewed by the Target 12 Investigators.

For the record, 1,600 jobs is about 11% of all authorized full time jobs in the state budget.  More telling, though, is this:

“The Leave to Protect rule was developed really in large part as a management tool to encourage employees to accept promotions, take a chance on a new opportunity and later if they did not pass the exam for that opportunity they would still have the ability to go back to their former position,” [Deputy Director of the Department of Administration Mark Dingley] said.

Merit exams are no longer common with promotions in state government, Dingley said. Yet the Leave to Protect policy has expanded to cover more employees as another job protection prized by organized labor.

Merit exams go away; this aristocratic benefit just keeps on going.  Just so, the benefits and stability that used to be the public sector’s compensation for its lower pay remain in effect though government work has become increasingly lucrative.

These provisions are like calcification in the blood stream, sticking to the walls and forcing us to work harder to push the blood through.  Once again, it appears that they don’t work for us; we work for them.

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… By the Way, RIDOT’s New Tolling Study Has Major Problems, Too

At about the same time they issued a not-ready-for-primetime Environmental Assessment of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) also issued an “investment grade tolling study” of the entire RhodeWorks toll plan – a study, we should note, which cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island a cool million dollars.

During their show, “Changing Gears”, yesterday on WPRO, Mike Collins and Chris Maxwell broadly hinted at major problems with this tolling study. Maxwell remarked that the state “would have been wise to put it through the shredder because it is very favorable” to the truckers’ anti-toll position.

Stay tuned on this – or drop by RIDOT’s hearing on Tuesday to hear about it first hand. That’s when the Rhode Island Trucking Association (represented by Maxwell) and the American Trucking Association (represented by Collins) will point out chapter and verse how RIDOT’s own toll study apparently torpedoes Governor Raimondo’s highly destructive, wasteful and unnecessary RhodeWorks toll plan.

Remember, Governor Raimondo and the General Assembly are only going to toll trucks! *snort*

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Hearing Tuesday on First Toll Gantries With Acute Case of UHIP-itis

RIDOT has identified the locations of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island. This Tuesday, they will be holding a workshop and taking public comment on their newly-released (not to say rushed out the door) Environmental Assessment of the locations. The problem is that the assessment suffers from exactly the same serious flaw as the ill-fated UHIP system: it was released before it was ready. “Continue Reading” to learn why – and for deets about attending the hearing.

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Is the Game About to Change for Labor Unions?

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Why Everybody Wants a Government Job

Howie Carr recently detailed some results from a Massachusetts inspector general report looking into the goldmine of unused sick time in the public sector, including some of the arguments for lavish pay and benefits.  Here’s a particularly trenchant juxtaposition:

On page 8: “(We must) pay a reasonable salary to the staff we have so that we could retain them.”

On page 13: Inability to promote younger hacks because “the only opportunities for advancement come about when someone leaves, which is an extremely rare event.”

Both of the above can’t be true. Either they’re leaving because they’re not getting paid enough or the jobs are so great that vacancies are “extremely rare.” Lack of turnover — it’s not a terribly pressing problem most places in the DPS like, say, the food court at your local mall.

When the Tiverton School Committee appeared before the Budget Committee last year and complained that its teachers are among the lowest-paid in the state, I asked how difficult the district finds it to be to fill positions.  Frankly, I don’t think most people involved with state or local government understand why those two points should even be connected.

As with other negotiations in which local government engages, people in office tend to negotiate against some abstract vision rather than with a focus on their constituents’ interests.  Without a profit motive, as private entities and businesses have, and with an apathetic electorate, they have no incentive to pull very hard in the tug of war.

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Teachers’ Chronic Absenteeism: Another Area of Bad Performance for RI

Summarizing research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by David Griffith, Jacob Grandstaff writes:

Griffith defines “chronic absence” as when a teacher misses more than ten school days for “sick” or “personal” leave. When he compares public school teachers with charter school teachers in this area, the difference is quite glaring. Public school teachers are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as charter school teachers, 28 percent to 10 percent. This is true in 34 of the 35 states that have a large percentage of charter schools. In eight states and the District of Columbia, public school teachers are at least four times as likely as charter school teachers to be absent.

The study finds the gap is the widest in areas that require public school teachers, but not charter school teachers, to bargain collectively. It also shows that it is not an issue of public schools, but of unionization. Unionized charter school teachers are twice as likely to be chronically absent from work as non-unionized charter school teachers.

According to the study, of the 35 states plus Washington, D.C., Rhode Island is the 4th worst for chronic public school absenteeism.  Add this to the mountain of evidence that the Ocean State’s public school system is not designed primarily for the benefit of our children.

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CCRI Union: Students Will Have to Wait, We Won’t Innovate!

Watching government agencies like the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) attempt to maneuver around their labor unions can leave a private-sector observer scratching his or her head.

The college was all set to introduce a short, three-week semester in winter for interested students.  It was offering faculty an “overload” rate (which is like overtime) of $87.50 per hour, without affecting the pay and overload arrangements of their regular work, and some employees had agreed to the deal.  Then their labor union stepped in, and the plan is on hold.

In the private sector, management decides to try something, and if it can pull together the clients and the employees, even if it means hiring more on a contract basis, it gives an innovation a whirl.  What’s the union’s game, here?

The Providence Journal’s G. Wayne Miller reports the union’s excuse thus:

But CCRI Faculty Association president Steven D. Murray, in a YouTube video posted a week ago, objected.

“The college has unilaterally decided to offer courses in developmental math, developmental English, a course in human anatomy, all very difficult courses to accomplish in 15 weeks, let alone three weeks,” he said.

“The faculty who teach these courses tell me that to try to compress them into three weeks is academically unsound. They have similar J terms at other colleges, but our student population is very different than those other colleges. And we want to do what’s best for our students.”

That explanation has an air of plausibility until one realizes that this is college we’re talking about.  Nobody has to take the courses, and advisors should be able to dissuade those who aren’t ready.  Moreover, the program could attract new students, whether from other institutions or just from the private sector.

Perhaps Murray’s reference to “faculty who teach these courses” provides a clue.  Maybe the regular teacher of one of the courses won’t be the one teaching the “compressed” version and wants to protect his or her territory.  The union may also fear that the market will conclude that regular courses are unnecessarily extended.

Whatever the unspoken rationale for the objection, the bigger puzzle remains why our society uses government for anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be handled by it.

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A Policy That Puts Students First

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which works with almost 50 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  He had some strong statements to make to Allysia Finley for the Wall Street Journal.  Here are a few key points:

The root problem, Mr. Taylor explains, is that traditional public schools are failing to prepare students. In “economically fragile” communities, many low-income students graduate from high school without basic literacy, and those admitted to HBCUs often need remedial classes. That presents HBCUs with a dual challenge. “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Mr. Taylor says. “I can’t get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary-school system—and you were.” …

He adds that “I don’t suggest that charters or vouchers or any of the other options are the panacea.” But he insists that if “you know that the traditional public school system is failing your children, to say, ‘I’m not going to do anything but pour more money into something I know is not working,’ should be criminal. And I know that’s a strong word—but it should be criminal because you are stealing children’s lives.” …

“We are nonpartisan,” he emphasizes before rushing off to give a keynote speech on criminal justice at the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice annual summit. “I hope we all start thinking: What’s in the best interest of the kid? If we let that be sort of our compass, our guiding light, then you don’t care what the union wants. You don’t care about what the NAACP wants.”

That’s really the key question, isn’t it?  The only question, ultimately, for public schools.  Revisit a post of mine from 2015 quoting former teacher union head Marcia Reback, who acknowledged that her job was to represent the teachers, not the students.  As Steiny related, “when their interests diverge, she said, ‘I represent the teachers.'”

And yet, our education system — our entire political system, in Rhode Island — is built with a tilt in their favor.  Somebody has to put the students first.

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Supporters of Big Government Often Work in Big Government

By the way, further to my  post, yesterday, something that Molly Ball writes incidentally in her Atlantic essay about Democrat groups’ touring flyover country to understand the natives is worth a moment of attention (emphasis added):

The report is short, covering only three big takeaways from the seven listening sessions Third Way conducted. The first is the importance of hard work; the second is the need for a strong workforce. The third, described in a section entitled “Just Get the Hell Out of My Way,” is locals’ purported antagonism to big government. “Whether the question is about immigration or banks, taxes or welfare, the people we spoke to generally felt that government policies were irrelevant to their daily lives,” it states. This view is made to sound like one that was broadly expressed, but in fact, we mostly heard it in just one session—the group of curmudgeonly farmers. Almost all of the quotations in this section are drawn from that group. There are no quotations from the people we met who were pro-government, such as the teachers and laborers and activists, who voiced concern that local, state, and federal government ought to be doing more to take care of people.

By “laborers,” Ball is referring specifically to a table of men who were members of Laborers International Union of North America and other construction unions.  So the people she lists as “pro-government” are employees of government, workers whose largest source of employment is government building, and people who are (for pay or otherwise) occupied with pushing government policies.  That is, the people who think “government ought to be doing more to take care of people” are largely employed in… helping government to do so.

That isn’t really surprising.

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Political Monday with John DePetro, No. 31: Sick Outs and What It Means to Be a Democrat

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the Warwick sick outs, my ethics complaint, Josh Miller’s view of the Democrats, Raimondo’s remorse for hurting journalists’ feelings.

Open post for full audio.

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Fighting Words in 2017 Rhode Island

Two stories in the statewide news right now strike me as similarly hinging on how people should react to things said about women.  The first is Katherine Gregg’s follow up report in the Providence Journal on the saga of Democrat Party Vice Chairman Joseph DeLorenzo and his expressions of doubt about progressive Democrat state Representative Teresa Tanzi’s allegations of sexual bribery in the legislature:

Having been roundly criticized by other Democrats, from Gov. Gina Raimondo on down, and urged to apologize by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the 75-year-old DeLorenzo issued this statement: “I sincerely apologize to everyone for my recent unfortunate remarks.

“As a husband, father of two daughters, and grandfather to two granddaughters, I never meant to minimize the problems of sexual harassment, which is a very serious issue,” he said.

Now juxtapose that with Steph Machado and Shawn Towne’s WPRI mention of a union firefighter’s return to work after an unexpected, paid month-long vacation following an altercation with another firefighter:

According to a police affidavit, [Deputy Chief and union head Paul] Valletta and Lt. Scott Bergantino got into an argument about overtime, and Bergantino made a disparaging remark about Valletta’s mother.

The affidavit states Bergantino told police, “Deputy Chief Valletta approached him and pushed him up against the chalkboard, punched him in the head two times, and then threw him over a recliner and onto the floor.”

From what I’ve seen, however much Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo may want to insist he “belittled” Tanzi, DeLorenzo’s offense was simply expressing doubt about an allegation that another adult — a public figure and politician.  Much of the Democrat Party in Rhode Island has called for his defenestration and will continue to shun and attack the 75-year-old supporter of their party.

Bergantino, on the other hand, allegedly made actually belittling and aggressive comments about a different woman — who was not a public figure, as far as I can tell.  Sure, Valletta crossed the line into physical violence, but by the party’s standards, it would at least seem understandable that he would do so.  Moreover, men have historically been able to move on, even to bond, after such exchanges of words and blows.

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