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Center Blasts Newest Truck Toll Tyranny; RIDOT’s Laughable Denial

It has come to light that, on August 11, RIDOT *corrected* requested a hearing, scheduled for today, to issue commercial truck route restrictions within the state. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity (for whom I am Communications Manager) has just issued a statement strongly condemning this. It says, in part,

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Cranston’s Disability Pension Funny Factory

This is hilarious… but unfortunately not so hilarious that Rhode Islanders won’t accept it or step up their laughter into a demand for change.  In Cranston, 69% of retired firefighters and 77% of retired police officers in the state municipal pension system have disability pensions, which are meant to provide the additional benefit of a two-thirds-of-salary, tax-free pension in compensation for some disabling injury on the job.

Of course, when the large majority of your employees receive enhanced benefits, they’re no longer “enhanced.”  They’re just the norm.

The funny part comes with Cranston union boss Paul Valletta’s explanation:

What could explain the difference [from other municipalities’ disability percentages]? There are no easy answers, although Cranston fire union chief Paul Valletta suggests that “bad luck” plays a role.

Valetta, readers might recall, was a visible presence in the successful push this legislative session to add “illness,” not just “injury,” to the language allowing a disability pension.  Everybody from the union activists to the Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, when she courageously let the expansion become law without her signature, has insisted this is a mere correction to an oversight in the law.

That’s laughable.  To see why, consider that the law includes mental incapacity, as well as physical.  Allowing disability pensions for mental illness is clearly something broader than for mental injury.

The task of successful comedy writers — think Seinfeld — is to put characters in zany circumstances that seem like they really could happen.  It isn’t funny if it isn’t at least reasonably plausible with just a mild quirk of the character to make the difference.

The task of successful negotiation con artists is to make their special deals seem plausibly reasonable, with just the minor supernatural intervention of “bad luck” to explain what would otherwise be outrageous.  Bad luck, indeed… for Rhode Islanders.

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Tuition Benefit for a Few

Perhaps the most surprising finding of Ted Nesi and Tim White’s follow-up article on the matter of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s free college tuition is that only two other Rhode Island College employees have received tuition waivers while on unpaid leave from work in the last decade.  The obvious headline news, however, is that Montanaro received much more and was the only one who needed some sort of special approval.

But documents obtained by Target 12 show Montanaro was in fact the only member of the PSA union who received free tuition while on leave in the past decade, and that he obtained it thanks to a special “administrative authorization” by top college officials. RIC and Montanaro refuse to release the documents showing how the arrangement was structured and who approved it, though they have acknowledged former RIC President Nancy Carriuolo was involved and that the union reached “a negotiated settlement” with RIC over the matter in 2016.

Unfortunately, the key data point isn’t included, and may not be possible to find: namely, how many other employees took leave and were denied the benefit or didn’t even bother applying because they knew they shouldn’t be eligible.  That Montanaro was the only one receiving special permission and one of only three to receive some free tuition while on leave may only tell us that there are few employees who are similarly situated.

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The Union Shoe Drops on Evergreens

Well, here’s perhaps the key political consequence for Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo upon her veto of legislation that would ensure that teachers and municipal employees are exempt from the state law limiting all government employment contracts to three years:

“I think that the classified ad is out: ‘Real Democrat wanted for governor of Rhode Island,”’ Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said Thursday.

Much of my analysis of likely outcomes has been premised on Walsh’s previous statement that the 2014 election season had convinced his union that unity with Raimondo was important.  The truce has expired, apparently, an result that I expected Raimondo to seek to avoid.

It’s pretty rich, though, for Walsh to break faith with Raimondo and divulge that she mentioned her donors during a private meeting that the two had.  The NEA-RI’s PAC alone hands out $15,000 or more per year to state-level politicians, and that doesn’t count the combined total of every union local giving out money across the state, let alone individual members.

Hopefully Walsh was right a few months ago about the importance to progressives that they stick together.  That way he and Raimondo can both lose.

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Vetoes and Non Vetoes

I’ll admit that I’m surprised that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed the eternal contracts bill:

In a veto message that echoed the strenuous arguments raised by city and town leaders, Raimondo wrote: “Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable.

“The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public’s position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”

Raimondo has seemed to me to make decisions on political grounds, and she’s in a precarious enough position that she can’t really afford to push away the teachers’ unions, which have been explicit about not intending to target her next time around.  This action could change that.

It’ll be telling to watch the political play.  If, for example, the General Assembly overrides the veto and the teachers’ unions (especially the National Education Association – Rhode Island) do nothing more than issue a strongly worded press release against the governor (which is already done), then it would indicate that there’s a political dance going on, meant to give the governor cover with taxpayer advocates and municipal leaders while not harming the unions.

As part of this picture, note that Raimondo “allowed a disability-pension bill that was also championed by organized labor to become law without her signature,” according to Kathy Gregg.  Here the calculation is slightly different.  She didn’t sign it, thereby providing herself a little cover with taxpayer advocates (being able to say she didn’t “support” it), but she didn’t veto it, saying it was simply a legal codification of existing practice.  I think she’ll be proven wrong on that, inasmuch as the law now explicitly allows for work-related physical and mental illnesses to be grounds for a disability pension, but one could see how her calculation would be different.

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Montanaro Investigation… Well, That Was Quick

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

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

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

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

We’ll see.

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Insult to Injury When Town Government “Settles”

Tiverton goes through this every few years, but it never gets easier to take.

This latest time around, a local police lieutenant, Timothy Panell, was (let’s limit it to) “accused” of leading his shift in a regular “quiet time,” during which, “allegedly,” his car could often be found at his house.  The many charges brought against him, as described in the latest Newport Daily News article on the matter, were “obtaining money under false pretenses and filing false overtime slips.”

As I pointed out on Tiverton Fact Check back in 2014, before the investigation, overtime regularly made Panell the second-highest-paid employee in town, “earning” well over $100,000.  So, here’s the insult to injury from the Newport Daily News:

Because [the 47-year-old has been permitted simply to retire], he is also eligible for payment for unused vacation time, unused sick time and unused personal days. The unused vacation time totals $5,266, unused sick time totals $15,784 and unused personal days total $752, according to Town Administrator Paul McGreevy.

The town will continue to pay for his Blue Cross Blue Shield Healthmate Coast to Coast health insurance at a monthly cost of $1,908, McGreevy said [until he is 65]. The contract states that should a retiree get a job that has equal or better health coverage, they must inform the town so it can stop the coverage.

I think local elected officials need to take a look at the definition of “settled.”  Maybe the health insurance would have been a step too far for the accused, but could the Town Council really not insist that it would not settle if it meant a cop accused of fraudulently filing for overtime and taking money under false pretenses walked away with a parting check for $21,802 based on “unused” time off?  Seriously, how in the world does our electoral system stick us with “leaders” like this?

In case anybody familiar with the area wants to know, the Town Council members who voted to “settle” — defined, apparently, as “abuse taxpayers in order to make an uncomfortable issue go away” — were:

  • Council President Joan Chabot
  • John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat Representative John Edwards the Fourth)
  • Randy Lebeau
  • Christine Ryan
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Taxing the Rich Across the Country

Reading an Oklahoma editorial that cites public policy in Maine while I sit here in Rhode Island can’t help but make me wonder how it is we fail to learn with the entire nation — the entire world — as a real-time generator of examples and case studies:

Last year, voters in Maine approved a ballot measure that increased by 3 percentage points the income tax rate for those earning more than $200,000. This set Maine’s top income tax rate at 10.15 percent, second-highest in the country.

The tax increase, promoted by teachers unions, was a classic “soak the rich” proposal. The 41 percent rate increase was expected to impact only around 7,000 filers in Maine, and was expected to generate $157 million per year, which would be earmarked for schools.

Pause and think about a pair of aspects, here.  First, you’ve got the teachers unions using government literally to confiscate money from a targeted group of people and give it to themselves.  (The one step of separation that sends the money to the school districts makes no difference.)  To progressives, that’s called “representative democracy.”  If one side can manipulate political processes, their “representatives” will give it things taken from another side.

Second, following on that idea of taking from others, do a little quick math.  Taking $157 million from 7,000 people means taking $22,429 from each.  How is that not plain plunder?  Sure, maybe wealthy people can afford that hit, but robbing from rich people is still theft.  And what would make people think families wouldn’t seek some way to adjust their finances in order to prevent the taking of so much money?

It isn’t at all surprising that the Maine Revenue Services office reported no evidence of increased revenue a month ago.

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Penn Station and the CCRI Observatory: Where the Money Goes

Boy, taxes and the cost of government must have really fallen for this to be the case:

Penn Station is just one symptom of a larger illness. With an aging subway system subject to a recent state-of-emergency order by Cuomo, and a 67-year-old bus terminal called “appalling” and “functionally obsolete” by officials of the agency that runs it, the New York area’s transportation systems embody America’s inability, or unwillingness, to address its aging infrastructure.

Of course, far from shrinking, the cost of government has exploded over the lives of Penn Station and the bus station, so where is the money going?  In brief, our tax dollars are being redirected to pet projects, progressive redistribution, and (I would say) special deals that amount to outright theft.  A core tenet of blue-state spending is that the people will always accept more debt and higher costs if the last things they get to pay for are the things they find most critical.

We don’t have to go to the Big Apple or major infrastructure for the lesson.  Take a look at this somewhat-cryptic Providence Journal article by Alex Kuffner:

The Community College of Rhode Island organized an open house on Saturday at its Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory to celebrate the completion of a $45,000 renovation that included a new control desk, new seating and repairs to the roof-opening mechanism. …

But the event was clouded by a demonstration outside the observatory’s doors by faculty members and students who protested what they allege is mistreatment of the astronomy professor who has overseen operation of the observatory for the past decade. …

Britton was hired in 2007 to teach astronomy to students and to operate the observatory for his classes and on nights when it’s open to the public. Last month, when the administration changed the way he would be compensated for the public nights, resulting in less pay, he balked.

Kuffner never details the change, but the context suggests that the college may now be paying only a non-faculty rate for the public night.  That is, a special deal has gone away.

One needn’t look far at all to find other examples.

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At Least the Laborers Union Has Representation in the General Assembly

Don’t let the drama of a political fight over legislation distract you from this nugget in Kathryn Gregg’s Providence Journal article suggesting that differences over a new paid-leave mandate may have helped bring about the General Assembly’s surprise session ending:

In response to a Journal inquiry, House spokesman Larry Berman said this is what happened:

“The [paid leave] bill that was passed by the House did not include the Laborers’ because we believed they wanted to be exempt. Mike Sabitoni did not talk to the Speaker or anyone in the House until the bill was recommended for passage by the House Labor Committee on Thursday and the House was getting ready to vote on the bill.”

“When we were notified that the Laborers’ wanted to be included in the bill, the appropriate amendment was drafted on Friday morning and given to the Senate to amend the House bill.″

So, basically, the Laborers Union gets whatever it wants in the General Assembly.  They want exemption?  Why, it’s simply obvious that the legislation should be amended.  If they don’t, hey that’s no problem either.

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Going from Crime to Illness Means Big Growth for the Government Plantation

Marc Munroe Dion picks up on what I’ve been calling “the government plantation” in his latest “Livin’ and Dion” column about the budget consequence of recasting drug use from a crime to an illness.  Noting that a person who comes across a homeless beggar could feed him or her with a $10 sandwich, but:

If you ran a non-profit agency, you’d need an outreach worker to find the homeless guy, an intake worker to make sure the homeless guy was really hungry, a case manager to find out what kind of sandwich he likes, a nutritional expert to make to make sure he got a healthy sandwich, a coordinator to introduce the outreach worker to the case manager, a facilitator to go into the store and buy the sandwich, and a five-member board of directors to approve the $10 sandwich, which would be referred to in all documents as a “nutritional expenditure for indigent substance abuse-affected client.”

At all times, the homeless guy eating the sandwich would be referred to as a “client.” Total cost of the sandwich? $65,000, not including benefits, and pensions.

Rhode Island’s state government is deliberately working to transform our economy into one built on this very model.  Declare some benefit to be a right, find a way to collect money from the rest of the economy and other states (via the federal government), and fill out a massive bureaucracy with government-satellite non-profit agencies with plenty of well-paying jobs whose holders will tend to support the system politically and to fund the necessary political action through their labor union dues.

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Disability Pensions and RI’s Rate of Pilferage

Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin has been making a lot of sense, lately.  Most recently, on “R.I.’s disability-pension gravy train”:

One of the bills, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown attorney, wants firefighter disability to include not just on-the-job injury, but illness, too — specifically, cardiovascular.

If a firefighter can no longer serve because of hypertension, stroke or heart disease, it would be considered work-related. Automatically.

Bingo — tax-free disability for life.

A second bill, introduced by four reps who are former cops, also makes “illness sustained while in the performance of duty” grounds for disability for police officers.

Companion bills have passed each chamber, meaning that the state House and Senate each has passed an identical version of the bill (H5601 and S0896). If either chamber passes the other chamber’s version, the legislation will go to the governor to be signed.

It’s tempting to say that Rhode Island has crossed some sort of line this year (probably as the jackals put in their conditions for negotiation with Democrat Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, so that he could get the car tax elimination he locked himself into providing), but the reality is that we were already over the line.

As this legislative session has proven, the “reasonable” position in state government isn’t to improve conditions in Rhode Island or to loosen the ropes on residents, but simply to insist on a slower pace for the pilfering of people’s wealth.  That may delay the Puerto Rico or Venezuela endgame, but perhaps not by much.

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Consequence for Employee Theft, Fraud, or Whatever: Cushy Retirement

I’d say this is outrageous, but it’s far too common and doesn’t seem to produce the appropriate outrage in the Ocean State.  Stephen Greenwell reports in the Newport Daily News:

A Tiverton police lieutenant accused of sleeping during overnight shifts will retire June 30, after the Tiverton Town Council voted 4-3 on Wednesday night to accept a plea agreement that was executed Thursday morning in District Court.

Timothy R. Panell, 47, of 50 Shannon Ave., Tiverton, had a not-guilty plea entered for one charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. The charge was filed, meaning it will be removed from court records in one year provided Panell faces no additional charges.

As part of a court-approved plea-bargaining agreement, 48 additional charges of obtaining money under false pretenses and nine counts of falsifying documents were dismissed.

Keep in mind, by the way, that it wasn’t just this officer.  He merely led his entire shift to have “quiet time.”  The others faced no publicly stated consequence.  Also keep in mind that for years, Panell was the second-highest-paid employee in town, after the school superintendent, largely because of huge amounts of overtime.

In little Tiverton alone, we’ve had multiple instances of similar stories throughout town government over a handful of years, and every time the Town Council takes one of these union-friendly pleas, one can only wonder how they don’t see the incentives they’re creating.  Theft, fraud… whatever.  If an employee gets caught taking advantage of the town and its taxpayers, the consequence is that he or she simply eases into retirement, with an agreement that nobody on the town side will say anything bad about them.

How could this do otherwise than make it more likely that employees will make bad decisions?

Voting for the plea were council members John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat Representative John Edwards the Fourth), Randy Lebeau, Christine Ryan, and council President Joan Chabot.

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Montanaro Pay-Back Shouldn’t Close the Books

Ted Nesi and Tim White report that General Assembly employee Frank Montanaro, Jr., has decided to reimburse the state for the value of the tuition that his children received through a questionable benefit based on his prior employment with Rhode Island College:

“After consultation with my family and Speaker Mattiello, I believe the best thing to do is return the monetary equivalent of the tuition benefit my children received after I transitioned to my new role at the General Assembly,” Montanaro said. “I will be contacting Rhode Island College tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements.”

The first reaction of workaday Rhode Islanders may be to observe that the state seems to give insider benefits to people who don’t really need them.  If, as Montanaro says a consulting labor attorney told him, everything was on the up-and-up with this benefit, that’s an awful lot of money to give up to end a media “distraction.”  Either he’s even richer than his high salary might suggest or there’s even greater incentive we don’t know about for him to make the issue go away.

In that regard, enough information is already public to suggest that the state should investigate this matter.  Montanaro repeatedly checked a box providing incorrect information to the University of Rhode Island, and the surrounding circumstances make it seem unlikely he did so by accident.  That’s not something that people outside of the political elite in Rhode Island would get away with.

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The Bubble Begets Tone-Deafness on Eternal Contracts

So, the teachers unions’ annual attempt to give themselves even more leverage in negotiations by making their contracts eternal is back in the mix.  The lobbying by union employees and donations to politicians are ultimately taxpayer funded, so this bill probably won’t go away until it passes someday.

What’s notable, this time around, is that the bill accompanies a labor dispute in Warwick, leading to this telling point from Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh:

Netcoh said the bill “levels the playing field between employers and employees.”

Referring to [Warwick Schools Supt. Philip] Thornton, she added: “Would he go to work every day if he didn’t have a contract? I don’t think so.”

One wonders how it could have escaped Netcoh’s attention that plenty of Rhode Islanders go to work every day without contracts.  See, it’s called “a mutually beneficial transaction.”  The employer has work that has to be done, and the employee has a need to earn income.  If a contract makes sense in a particular circumstance, then the parties draw one up and abide by it; otherwise, the contract is essentially a casual, even verbal, agreement to do work and to pay for work that’s done.

In government, though, it’s not about that mutually beneficial transaction, in part because nobody’s spending their own money.  Contracts for government employees are fundamentally agreements about how much one party will take from taxpayers and transfer to the other party, and so they’ve become a mechanism for labor unions to get politicians to lock taxpayers into expenses.

This eternal contract legislation is about ensuring that taxpayers are locked in to the promises of elected officials (often elected with the help of the employees) to an even greater degree.

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About that Tuition Waiver While on Leave…

WPRI’s Ted Nesi and Tim White have kept on the story of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s three-year job-holding leave from Rhode Island College and the $50,000 benefit of free tuition he claimed through it, and this is starting to look like more than merely an ill-advised contractual benefit for employees.  Apparently, he took up the habit of filling out forms at the University of Rhode Island asserting that he was not on leave:

Asked why he stated he was not on leave during a time when he was in fact on leave, Montanaro said in an email: “As you can see all waivers were reviewed and approved by RIC. If there was a mistake they would have had me correct it before approval.” He also said a RIC staff member assisted him in filling out the forms.

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis refused to say why the college allowed Montanaro to avoid disclosing his leave of absence on the form forwarded to URI, but told Target 12: “In this case, there was an existing agreement that enabled the authorization of a tuition waiver.” (RIC and Montanaro declined to provide a copy of that agreement.)

Seems to me there are three possibilities:

  1. The “benefit” was simply a special crony handout offered to a government insider.
  2. A six-figure employee of the General Assembly made a habit of submitting fraudulent forms to secure a valuable benefit.
  3. That six-figure employee was so inept or careless at filling out forms as to be of disqualifying competence for his high-paying job.

At the end of the article, Republican state senator from Coventry Nick Kettle suggests that Montanaro “should pay [the tuition] back or resign.”  How about both?  And maybe face prosecution, as well, along with anybody at Rhode Island College who facilitated any fraud?

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