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Truck Tolls: Plaintiffs Appeal Ruling to Dismiss; Do Not Accede to Moving the Fight to State Court

On March 19, the federal district court in Providence dismissed the American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, heeding the State of Rhode Island’s legal argument that their truck-only tolls are not a federal but a state matter and within the state’s purview to assess because they are actually taxes. (Wait, what?? Since when? From the beginning and all through the toll battle, Governor Gina Raimondo and state leaders repeatedly told us that tolls are a “fee”, a “user fee“, an apple – anything but a tax.)

At that point, the ATA had two choices: file the suit in state court or move to keep the suit at the federal level by appealing the decision. They just issued a statement indicating that they have chosen the latter course, stating, in part

Yesterday, the American Trucking Associations, along with three motor carriers representing the industry, appealed last week’s decision by the federal district court in Rhode Island to dismiss their challenge to Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, on procedural grounds.

In its challenge, ATA contends that Rhode Island’s truck-only toll scheme is unconstitutional because it discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes the flow of interstate commerce. In its March 19, 2019 decision dismissing the case, the district court did not address the merits of that constitutional claim. Instead, it held only that ATA’s challenge could not proceed in federal court.

ATA President and CEO Chris Spear went on to underscore, “…we look forward to establishing the unconstitutionality of Rhode Island’s discriminatory tolls on the merits.”

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current and Anchor Rising for over ten years, was volunteer spokesperson for the citizens advocacy anti-toll group StopTollsRI.com for three+ years and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of 2017.]

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Tilted Labor Relations All Around the State

The Providence Journal editorial board points to one of those deep details of state government that does more damage than the average voter probably realizes.  The subject is the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB):

It is supposed to include three members representing labor, three representing management, and one representing the “public.” What could be fairer?

Except the politicians’ appointments heavily tilt the board toward labor.

Board Chairman Walter Lanni, appointed by Gov. Lincoln Almond in 2000, is supposedly in the management camp. But he served for more than two decades on the executive board of the Cranston firefighters union, securing extraordinarily generous contracts for union members.

Another “management” appointee is lawyer Alberto Aponte Cardona, who has represented public employees and is the brother of Democratic Providence City Council member Luis Aponte.

However experienced and dedicated to public service they might be, these hardly seem like rock-ribbed defenders of the interests of management and business. There are plenty of other business people, surely, available to serve.

To my experience, among those who negotiate contracts in Rhode Island, it’s well understood that the SLRB is a dead end for managers seeking protection of their rights — basically an added step (and expense) before getting into an actual court.  (And the courts are only fair in comparison.)

Of course, the SLRB is only one gear in the machine tilting things toward organized labor.  Last week, Democrat state Representative John “Jay” Edwards told the Tiverton Town Council that the way to get legislation passed is to ask the local unions to put in bills.  (I’ll have a post on that in the near future.)

All of this raises a concern that it’s impossible to have truly good faith negotiations in the Ocean State.  When legislators use bills to put a thumb on the scale for labor unions during specific negotiations and the SLRB can’t be trusted to keep labor relations fair, there can be no doubt who holds sway.
A related problem is that simply grousing about the inequity in local publications is going to have absolutely no effect. We need a concerted effort to disrupt the political fortunes of those who resist change toward a more fair arrangement, and few are willing to make themselves that clear of a target.

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Another Consideration with Binding Arbitration for Teachers

A Providence Journal editorial worries that the teachers unions may have finally bought themselves binding arbitration from the legislature and governor this year.

Such a change would mean that the unions could dig in their heels when a contract is due and try their luck with a three-person arbitration panel that ultimately doesn’t have to worry about where the money will come from or what other priorities might be sacrificed, as elected boards must do.  The editors note the political imbalance:

Labor interests have immense financial resources, politicians in their pockets and batteries of relentless lobbyists to help secure their gains at the State House. Citizens have little more than their own vote and their voice in trying to restrain property taxes and move Rhode Island in a healthier direction. But voices and votes, if used, can frighten enough politicians into doing the right thing.

The leverage of citizens and their elected officials in negotiations is something I’ve learned a bit about since I was elected to the Tiverton Town Council in November.  When it comes to police and fire, the dynamic is very different.  Not only are they dealing with emergencies and public safety, but their 24/7 schedules create challenges that fall squarely within management rights.  That means arbitrators cannot touch them.

What are management rights when it comes to teachers unions?  Maybe I’ve been missing something, but I’ve never gotten the sense that school departments could simply force teachers to stay in their classrooms longer without negotiating that into their contracts, for example.  And any such moves may also impose requirements on students and families, making them less likely.

In other words, binding arbitration not only has less justification for teacher unions than public safety unions, but it also comes with less leverage for management.  That is, it’s simply a flex of political muscle that will create huge imbalance in local budgeting.

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RI Government Is Always a Growth Industry

For the “Who is serving whom?” file, the Associated Press reports:

The number of Rhode Island state workers who made $100,000 or more increased 21 percent from 2016 to 2018.

WPRI-TV, citing state payroll records, reports that 2,336 state workers had six-figure salaries in 2018, compared to 1,936 in 2016.

The employees accounted for a 23 percent increase in state spending to nearly $304 million.

Apparently the biggest increase is in correctional officers, attributable to a freeze in hiring that will likely improve in the near future.  Rhode Islanders should be skeptical.  The Corrections department has had a long prominence on the list of high-earning state employees, with 21 out of 33 employees earning over $100,000 in overtime alone back in 2011.

When The Current looked in 2017, Rhode Island had the fifth-highest cost per prisoner among states, which was sixth-highest per capita, which was an improvement from second-highest per prisoner in 2001.

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The SEIU May Get a Child Care Reward for Its Political Support

Here’s some legislation that would be a reward for the SEIU for all of its political donations during last year’s election.  Unsurprisingly, the bill summary is misleading:

This act would expand the tiered-rate structure for the childcare assistance program to meet the federal benchmark for access to high-quality childcare for all age groups of children, with higher rates paid to licensed child care centers that have achieved higher quality ratings in “BrightStars”, the state’s quality rating and improvement system. A requirement that childcare providers must raise tuition rates for all other public or private paying families in order to receive higher state rates is removed.

The law already provides for tiered payment rates.  All this bill would do is dramatically increase the amount that taxpayers are required to pay.

Taking the taxpayer’s point of view puts another light on the section removing a “requirement that childcare providers must raise tuition rates for all other public or private paying families in order to receive higher state rates.”  Right now, the law simply states that taxpayers won’t pay more than child care providers charge their unsubsidized customers.  This bill would allow providers to charge those families who pay for their own care less.

One consequence of this change in incentives is obvious: To the extent that the market rate for child care is less than the government’s rate, providers will have incentive to fill up available space with subsidized customers unless families can pay more.  If this creates a crisis, then (from the Big Government perspective) so much the better.  The politicians will be able to cash in on the promise of giving away “free” care to everybody.

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RIC’s Wrong Solution for Subject Matter Gaps

This plan from Rhode Island College illustrates well how our state’s establishment is attempting to cure the symptoms of our educational problem so as to avoid solving the problem itself:

Starting this fall, students who study elementary education at RIC will also be trained to teach one of the following subjects: special education, middle school math or middle school science. …

Like most states, Rhode Island doesn’t have a generic teacher shortage. It has a shortage in certain subjects, including special education, math, science and English as a Second Language.

A new study by Bellwether Education Partners concludes that there is no overall shortage of teachers. Rather, districts face a “chronic and perpetual misalignment [between] teacher supply and demand,” according to “Nuance in the Noise.” Bellwether is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for under-served students.

The problem is our union-driven factory-worker model for education.  Districts can’t differentiate sufficiently between different teaching positions, so challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.

Consequently, public schools attract large numbers of people to the areas precisely where they are not needed.  That is a problem that districts could fix through contract negotiations and that the state could help fix through changes to state law, including laws that currently give the unions an indomitable hand in negotiations.

When challenged on this sort of thing, the response of union organizers is to trot out their approved talking point:  “We want a qualified teacher in every classroom.”  That is the sentiment that appears to be behind this attempt at RIC to plug holes by forcing every teacher who wants to teach elementary school to be qualified to teach something for which there’s actually demand.

Rhode Island is still missing the point by ignoring the importance of individuals’ interests and refusing to allow the market to place an accurate value on certain skills and talents.  Giving education students who’ve shown no special interest in or aptitude for certain subjects might help around the margins, but we should be skeptical of the outcomes for students.  We should also expect that any prospective educators who discover that they have a those valuable talents will make the same calculations that are creating the shortage.

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Yet More Bad Toll Numbers from Raimondo & RIDOT

Surprise surprise surprise! WPRI’s Ted Nesi reports that

Gov. Gina Raimondo has sharply lowered her forecast of how much money truck tolls will generate this year because they are getting and running more slowly than initially expected.

The budget proposal Raimondo released earlier this month projects that tolls will generate $7 million in the current 2018-19 budget year, which is $34 million less than was expected when the budget passed last June.

If you’ve watched the toll discussion and rollout even casually, you will know that this development is actually not at all a surprise.

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Wagner’s Warning for Rhode Island

A scathing editorial in the Providence Journal takes Education Commissioner Ken Wagner to task, suggesting that he never should have been hired:

Buried in the story, on the jump page, was an astonishing revelation. “In my three and a half years, I’ve seen only four classrooms that challenge kids at the levels the standards require. We are dramatically under-challenging our kids.”

That is a shocking admission. In the entire state, with its 300-some schools, Commissioner Wagner has found only four four classrooms where students were being adequately challenged.

The referenced story is an interview with the $225,000-per-year commissioner, and the editorial rightly snarls about his insistence that “it’s no one’s fault.”  But in one respect, the editorialists might have been a little unfair, inasmuch as they missed Wagner’s lightly hidden warnings:

Wagner said Rhode Island might be ready for a test-based graduation requirement in two or three years, when educators and elected officials have a chance to dig into the latest test scores. Next year, he said, the education department will release data on students who have reached proficiency on the Rhode Island Common Assessment Program or RICAS, called a commissioner’s seal, side-by-side with high school graduation rates.

“I’m not opposed to it. Just not right now,” Wagner said. “Let everyone digest the dramatic gaps between high school graduation rates and student proficiency and then revisit it.

“If you change the graduation requirements, everyone is going to bank on (the belief) that we’re going to blink,” he said. “The legislature will step in again.”

Also:

“If absenteeism rates are high,” he said, “there is something wrong with the school … with its climate and culture. Our first role is shining a light on this. Every school is talking about this. We have named it.”

There you go.  Basically, the education commissioner is confirming that the problem is a system in which powerful labor unions create an unproductive, low-quality environment with no hope of improvement because they can make the politicians blink.  The trick those legislators and the governor are trying to pull off is to find a way to squeeze some improvement out of the system without actually naming (or fixing) the underlying problem.

It won’t work, and no one should blame Wagner if he sees escape as the silver lining of his scapegoating.  By contrast, we all should wonder what sort of person would want to take the job on the politicians’ terms, even with that six-figure pay rate.

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.

A Rationale for Expanding Janus

In the continuing pursuit of worker freedom, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit to clarify (or, I guess, expand) the recent Janus v. AFSCME ruling to railway and airline employees.

Janus found that government employees could not be required to pay for union representation if they were not members of the unions that bargained for their workplaces.  The specific legal question in the new case is whether the Railway Labor Act extends those rights.

I haven’t reviewed the legal reasoning to be able to explain why the Railway Labor Act makes the difference.  The point in Janus, as I understand it, was that unions negotiating with government are inherently producing political speech, even when they simply negotiate contracts.

But one of the plaintiffs in the case, Lin Rizzo-Rupon seems to make the case that the right not to join unions should be universal:

“It’s my money. I don’t feel that I should be required to pay someone to protect my job,” said Rizzo-Rupon. “We now have laws to take care of our health and safety in the workplace. I don’t think I should be paying taxes to the government that’s protecting me and then also be paying these mandatory fees to a union for those same protections.”

If the point is that the Railway Labor Act affords protections to the worker, then all workplace or labor standards would apply.

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A Long Time for a Decision on a Rhode Island Labor Question

A Rhode Island–initiated labor union case that the National Right to Work Foundation is asking a U.S. Court of Appeals to force the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a helpful reminder of the abuses of the Obama administration.  The underlying case, brought by Jeanette Geary, is nine years old and has been sitting without resolution for the last five:

Geary, then a nurse at Kent Hospital in Warwick, Rhode Island, filed an unfair labor practice charge in 2009 with free legal aid from Foundation staff attorneys. Her charge stated that United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP) union officials unlawfully spent her forced union fees and failed to meet financial disclosure requirements as to the amount of the compulsory fees required as a condition of employment.

One might conclude from the summary that the union was simply asserting that dues-driven funds were spent appropriately without providing any evidence.

In 2012, President Obama’s illegally-appointed NLRB rejected Supreme Court precedent and granted union bosses power to charge nonmember workers for union political lobbying, including lobbying in other states. However, that decision was invalidated by the Court’s holding in NLRB v. Noel Canning that the Board lacked a valid quorum because of three unconstitutional “recess appointments” President Obama made.

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Roland Benjamin: Look to Mass for Both Educational Outcomes and Budgeting Approach

Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago. Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years. For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.

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Another Union Case in the Supreme Court Pipeline

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has signaled its support for the plaintiff in another union-related case, Kathleen Uradnik, a university professor in Minnesota:

This Uradnik case challenges state laws that appoint a union to represent and speak for all workers, even those who disagree with it – an arrangement known as “exclusive representation.”

Uradnik, who has had major disputes with her faculty’s labor union, which has discriminated against her, is nonetheless required by state law to associate with it and to allow it to speak for her. Rhode Island has similar laws imposing exclusive representation upon public employees, limiting their freedoms and opportunities for advancement.

Owing to the Janus v. AFSCME case, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year, government employees can no longer be forced to pay union dues.  Uradnik would free them of association with unions, allowing them to represent, and negotiate for, themselves, or to hire some other party to do so.

Right now, unions have a government-enforced monopoly over each workplace, usually voted into existence by employees years, even decades, ago.  That isn’t right, and it distorts the labor markets, the operation of our government, and (as Rhode Islanders know all too well) the balance of our politics.

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Roland Benjamin: Why Are We Spending So Much More on Education than Massachusetts?

In 1980, the State of Massachusetts recognized the limitations and threats of relying too heavily on expanding property taxes to fund our public education systems. Proposition 2 ½ was passed to limit the increases a town could levy through its property taxes each year. Named for the enacted cap of 2.5%, any town that needed to increase its levy beyond it could do so, but only through a town wide referendum. For the last 35 years or so, Massachusetts has tamed its property taxes and runaway school spending.

Rhode Island enacted our own, lighter version, of a tax cap. Unfortunately we chose 4% as our limit and waited almost 30 years to implement it. During the lead up to the cap, can you imagine what districts did? In South Kingstown, we ramped our baseline spending up between 6% to 12% each year despite losing about 100 kids per year from our enrollment.

The chart here shows how this played out over the last 2 decades.

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Taxpayer Funding of Union Activities Under Challenge in Austin

Spend some time with government labor contracts, and you’ll find that free withholding of dues isn’t the only way in which taxpayers subsidize the unions themselves.  Employees get paid for time spent on union activities around the workplace, they get space and storage for union operations, and they even get paid time off to go to union conferences and regional meetings.

In Austin, Texas, a lawsuit by residents Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley contends that these practices violate a provision in the state constitution forbidding the payment of public resources to private organizations for “work that does not benefit the public,” as the Texas Monitor article linked above puts it:

The city’s 1,100 firefighters are contractually given a combined maximum of up to 6,600 hours annually in which to conduct union business, while public safety departments in other cities receive strict guidelines about such leave.

Those hours are spread out through the department. In 2017-2018, 70 firefighter association members received the leave time, according to timesheets.

The union and the city contend the activities, which include attending meetings of its political action committee, are within the bounds of the contract between the city and the firefighters union.

Rhode Island does not have such a provision in its constitution, and the lay of the law in the Ocean State would likely hold that union activities do “benefit the public.”  Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering how interwoven the unions are with our government and questioning the propriety of this spending.

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Balance of Toll Gantries Going Up at Top Speed; Serious Implications of Raimondo Breaking Her Word

As we jump into the latest unsavory development in the state’s shady, deliberately ignorant roll-out of truck tolls, this preamble is the most important take-away: tolls on any vehicles in Rhode Island are completely unnecessary. The spending to repair Rhode Island’s bridges can be found within the annual budget – and without throwing 30% of the revenue away on gantry construction and toll fees.

RIDOT has announced today that they received federal approval for the balance of the gantries and that the contractor has been issued notice to proceed with construction, with the first new gantry expected to go live in May of 2019.

This flies in the face of Governor Gina Raimondo’s repeated statements that any more gantries would wait until the lawsuit and the legality of truck-only tolls is decided. Just one instance was on Dan Yorke State of Mind earlier this year (starting at Minute 06:00):

Yorke: You said, “If we lose the litigation, we don’t put the tolls up”.

Governor: “Correct”.

Governor: “We’re going to start with one in February. We assume there will be litigation which we will then have to defend and then we’ll see.”

Governor: “We gotta do one, we gotta see how it goes and then we’ll move to the next one.”

To not proceed with the construction of the balance of the gantries until their legality had been threshed out was a significant undertaking and also the prudent course on behalf of taxpayers and residents.

The implications for Rhode Island residents of her breaking her word and doing a highly irresponsible one eighty are significant. We have received repeated assurances that these gantries will be used only to toll trucks. But what happens if the court rules truck-only tolls illegal? The most innocuous – and actually not that innocuous – implication of her action in erecting gantries for a use that may be legally vacated is that she has very irresponsibly opened state taxpayers to a significant, unnecessary expense; i.e., putting us all on the hook for the cost of these gantries.

A far more ominous implication is that, by proceeding with the construction of all gantries before a court ruling, she is actively positioning the state for all-vehicle tolling. In a recent interview with WTNH, Governor Ned Lamont said that Governor Raimondo told him she is “highly confident” that the lawsuit will be found in the state’s favor – and “later this spring”, no less. (This attitude strikes me not only as baseless, extreme legal optimism but also quite disrespectful of the judge presiding over the case.).

The governor’s highly quizzical legal prognosticating to one side, it is impossible to predict the lawsuit’s outcome. A ruling against truck-only tolling doesn’t mean that tolls themselves have to go away, only their discriminatory assessment. By going back on her word on gantry construction, Governor Raimondo may be telescoping the time it takes to spread the – remember, completely unnecessary – toll cancer to all vehicles.

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current for over ten years, has been a volunteer for StopTollsRI.com, a grassroots citizens group opposed to all tolls, for four years, and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]

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Another Route to Side Deals in Warwick

The latest extra-contractual agreement for Warwick firefighters, as reported by Mark Reynolds in the Providence Journal, is the sort of thing we should watch for across the state:

An unauthorized practice has overpaid retiring city firefighters for accumulations of vacation time since 2015, a Providence Journal investigation shows.

Asked about documents and information developed by The Journal, Mayor Joseph J. Solomon said Friday he was ordering a halt to the practice. …

“I know the contract that Scott Avedisian signed was not the contract that was voted by the City Council,” he said.

That last detail makes this deal substantively different from the other side deal, unearthed in October, because Avedisian denied even knowing about that one.

These side deals — and the next level, at which employees take resources and time without even the cover of somebody’s approval — show the sense of entitlement and impunity. Government employees in Rhode Island already get employment agreements well beyond what the market would set, but that isn’t enough.  It’s never enough.

One wonders if the motivation isn’t greed so much as seeing how much they can get away with.  And why not?  When there are never any consequences, grabbing more and more becomes a game.

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Confirming a Conservative Response to Poverty

Writing about public policy day in and day out, one can forget that not everybody follows every argument with close attention.  Broad philosophical points of view and underlying intentions can therefore be lost.

Just so, I almost didn’t bother reading a brief essay in which Michael Tanner promotes and summarizes his forthcoming book offering a broad explanation of a conservative policy response to poverty.  It’s worth reading, though, because he summarizes some conservative policies specifically in terms of their human objectives:

  • Keeping people out of jail can promote work and stable families.
  • Breaking up “the government education monopoly and limit[ing] the power of teachers’ unions” is rightly seen as an “anti-poverty program.”
  • Preventing government from driving up the cost of living, especially housing, will give poorer families a chance to get their feet on the ground.
  • Policies that discourage savings also discourage healthy financial habits.
  • A heavy hand in regulating the economy tends to target economic growth toward the rich and powerful.

As he concludes:

An anti-poverty agenda built on empowering poor people and allowing them to take greater control of their own lives offers the chance for a new bipartisan consensus that rejects the current paternalism of both Left and Right. More important, it is an agenda that will do far more than our current failed welfare state to actually lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

My only objection is that I’m not sure that the “paternalism of the Right” is a view that conservatives actually hold rather than a caricature that the Left spreads about us.  Of course, the fault is arguably ours, if we don’t often enough express our real intentions.

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In Whose Interest Is No Confidence at CCRI?

The professors’ union at CCRI has voted “no confidence” in the school’s leadership.  Here’s the claim:

The motion said that Hughes, the vice president of academic affairs, Rosemary Costigan, and Dean Thomas Sabbagh have each “repeatedly failed in their leadership roles at the College to the detriment of our students.”

So what’s the underlying problem?

At issue is a plan for a three-week winter term that would start in January. In November, the chairs of the business, social studies, math and English departments said their faculty would not participate in the winter session without including the courses in the collective-bargaining agreement.

Ah… so the “detriment of our students” thing makes a leap from the professors’ interests to the students’.  That link is debatable, but it shouldn’t be assumed.

The statement asserts that the administration is “putting our accreditation and academic reputation at great risk,” which would certainly be a concern to all of Rhode Island.  Were this more of a looming possibility than some speculative rhetoric, though, one would think there would be more evidence.  For now, this seems to be the same old story in Rhode Island — all about labor.

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Government’s Autonomous Vehicles: The Driver Just Doesn’t Drive

Yeah, this program kind of misses the point of autonomous vehicles:

The [May Mobility] shuttles will run between downtown Providence and Olneyville via the Woonasquatucket (woo-NAH’-squaw-tuck-ett) River corridor. There’s currently no public transit along the full route. …

Each vehicle holds six people, including an attendant who’ll have the ability to fully control the shuttle at any time to ensure safety.

The state’s news release provides more information, although not much more detail. Oddly, that includes the expression of concerns from the bus drivers’ union, which isn’t the sort of content one generally gets from a promotional government statement.

Each of these shuttles will be too small even to carry two three-person families, because one-sixth of its capacity will be taken up (essentially) by a driver who isn’t driving. This might be why we don’t tend to allot our cutting-edge work to government.

Wasn’t there anything else on which the state could spend half a million dollars it shook down from Volkswagen?

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Where Can Non-Union South Kingstown Teachers and Students Turn?

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity makes an interesting point in a statement about the controversial election of teacher union representative Sarah Markey to the South Kingstown school committee:

As the United States Supreme Court opined in its historic Janus decision last summer, virtually every action that a government employee union conducts is inherently political, as it necessarily involves public policy or public money. On a local school committee that deals 100% on issues involving public education, and its funding by taxpayers, Ms. Markey faces a hopeless conflict of interest.

As an intellectual exercise to better understand the complications involved, here, consider this: Where can a non-union teacher in South Kingstown turn? Since Janus, government labor unions have been sending out threatening notices about the support they lose if they leave their unions, and now South Kingstown’s board of directors appears to be in the hands of the unions, as well.

More significant, however, is the question of where the students can turn when their interests are contrary to those of the union.

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Bruce Waidler: S.K. School Committee – Serious Questions of Transparency & Conflict of Interest

On Tuesday, November 27, 2018, I attended the South Kingstown School Committee meeting. The recently elected Vice Chair, Sarah Markey, is also the Assistant Executive Director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI). The vast majority of the employees working in the South Kingstown School Department are represented by this labor union.

Last year, Markey attempted to get appointed to a vacant school committee position.

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A Great Year for Worker Freedom – Help Spread the Word

This year was a GREAT year for worker freedom across the country, and here in the Ocean State. Early in the summer, the SCOTUS decision in the historic Janus case determined that state and local governments are forbidden from forcing their employees to join unions as a condition of employment. The ruling means union leaders can no longer automatically plunder the pocketbooks of public employees to fund the unions’ political agendas.

In August, we launched our MyPayMySayRI.com campaign to educate public servants about their restored First Amendment rights.

But the insiders want to keep workers in the dark, and in the unions… at any cost.

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School Choice: An Opportunity for Minorities, Republicans, and Conservatives

Some folks questioned whether minority school choice families put Republican Ron DeSantis over the top in the race for Florida governor.  Here’s the numerical evidence:

Of the roughly 650,000 black women who voted in Florida, 18% chose Mr. DeSantis, according to CNN’s exit poll of 3,108 voters. This exceeded their support for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott (9%), Mr. DeSantis’s performance among black men (8%) and the GOP’s national average among black women (7%). …

What explains Mr. DeSantis’ surprising support from African-American women? Two words: school choice.

More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in the Step Up For Students program, which grants tax-credit funded scholarships to attend private schools. Even more students are currently enrolled in the state’s 650 charter schools.

Most Step Up students are minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats. Yet many of these “school-choice moms” vote for gubernatorial candidates committed to protecting their ability to choose where their child goes to school.

The school choice wave more than a decade ago created a challenge for Democrats, who are dependent upon support from government labor unions, specifically teacher unions.  It’s an area in which free-market reforms actually create something like a government benefit through the loosening of government funds already (for the most part) being spent.  This opens a window of opportunity.

This creates an opportunity for Republicans to open up new cuts of the electorate and, if they play their cards right, to teach some lessons about their policy principles.

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An Important Question About School Committee Impartiality

A minor controversy in South Kingstown raises a question that Rhode Islanders across the state should consider.

Town Council member Bryant Da Cruz (a Democrat) has expressed concerns that a newly elected member of the School Committee, Sarah Markey (another Democrat), can be expected to fully engage with her new role, considering that Markey holds a $126,000-per-year job as a member advocate for the National Education Association of Rhode Island.  Markey’s response, while entirely correct, points to how inadequate our thinking is on these issues in the Ocean State:

“From reviewing the recent ethics commision advisories, I would have to recuse myself from discipline, termination, and negotiations with the NEARI bargaining members,” said Markey when reached by email on Tuesday. “No, school closures don’t apply.”

Look, if this is what South Kingstown wants, it’s what South Kingstown should probably get, but that means the people of South Kingstown should understand what they’re doing.  To my experience, people don’t realize what school committees are, often seeing them as sort of official PTOs, not councils charged with the governance of multimillion-dollar, socially indispensable organizations.  Furthermore, folks don’t fully think through the political philosophy, according to which it is essential that the school committee is on the side of the students.

On that point, recall a 2015 post in this space pointing to the simple reminder from former teacher union head Marcia Reback that, when students’ and teachers’ interests diverge or even conflict, “I represent the teachers.”  Well, Sarah Markey represents the teachers as a highly paid occupation.  This isn’t something that can truly be compartmentalized.  As Da Cruz emphasizes, closing schools reduces the number of teachers. More than that: every expense of the school district that doesn’t go toward teachers puts more pressure on their compensation.

At the very least, Markey’s presence on the committee reduces the number of people on the committee who can reliably be expected to err on the side of students (and taxpayers) when one must benefit at the expense of the other.

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