July 8, 2009

The Good and the Bad on Newsmakers

Justin Katz

It shows how far behind I am on catching up that I've just managed to watch the episode of Newsmakers featuring OSPRI's Bill Felkner and Pat Crowley of the NEA, RIFuture, and various other special interest groups.

Bill did admirably, but the viewer can observe something that I've found to typical of such head-to-heads. Crowley got in all of his (no doubt) scripted talking points, from "astroturf" to "tax cuts for the rich," while Felkner tried to give examples and put particular facts up for discussion. It's difficult to understand why the three other participants in the discussion let Pat get through the whole spiel, but the following quotation illustrates the disinterest in clarity and extemporaneous discussion:

What's wrong with working people making a good salary and having a decent benefits package? I mean, that's really what this comes down to. Instead there's arguments from taxpayer groups and from the right saying that just because a working person makes a living wage that that's a bad thing. No. That's a good thing. It's the model that we need to actually need to encourage more in this state. And I think the fact that this is being positioned as working people versus taxpayers — I think that what that actually shows is that there's a political agenda in the state that actually is trying to disempower working people, not so that the wealth is spread throughout the state, but so that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few. And I think what this last weekend [of union strikes during the mayoral conference in Providence] highlights is that working people in the state of Rhode Island — especially organized workers — are tired of being used as scapegoats for a political agenda.

The strategic objective: equate public-sector unionists with "working people." If the reality is that give-aways to organized labor are not sustainable and inevitably harm those who are most susceptible to harm — private-sector workers — do a quick hop-skip to distract from that fact through allusion to some vague "political agenda" pursued by rich masterminds. The distraction was certainly not hindered by host Tim White's reference to Bill as "from the conservative think tank Ocean State Policy Research Institute", while Pat was simply "from RIFuture.org and the NEA." (Earlier, White called RIFuture "left-leaning.")

Crowley effected this sort of maneuver throughout the show. To White's question about the economic damage should the NEA sue the state over pension reforms, Crowley couldn't even muster a "look, we appreciate that litigation puts an additional strain on taxpayers, but..." Instead, he walked away with this, correcting Tim on what his question should have been:

Well, think that the real question is why do the public sector workers and the teachers of Rhode Island have to keep on taking the hit? I mean, like I said, there was another reform in 2006. Prior to that there was a major reform in 1997. Prior to that, there was one in 1992. All of those reforms were taking benefits away. So the idea that all of these things are just heaped upon teachers and public sector workers simply isn't true. And every time there's a reform, there's a promise. "This is the last time guys" "Really, this is the last time." "No, this time's really it." So how many times do the public sector workers and the teachers of the state have to open up their pocketbook so that the state can balance the budget, especially when the state has year after year cut taxes for rich people. Cut taxes for corporations. The reason we're in a budget problem in this state isn't simply because we pay our teachers well; it's because, over the last decade, we've cut taxes, cut taxes, and cut taxes, and created this economic black hole for ourselves.

Thus does Crowley brush away decades of unbelievable hand-outs that have made public-sector workers, especially teachers, Rhode Island's elite class on the grounds that, every now and then, the gorging must be mildly restrained. Inasmuch as most viewers don't have the history Rhode Island's pension system at their fingertips, Pat's references might as well be plucked from a hat, but they do lend an air of legitimacy to his complaint. Describing the actual changes would likely expose his game. In 1992, the state introduced the requirement that pension recipients endure the long slog of 10 years of actual work for the state in order to be eligible; I didn't find any change in 1997, but in 1994, the General Assembly introduced a requirement of at least 20-hours-per-week of work. And in 2005, introduction of minimum ages (a ripe old 59) and other changes, as to cost of living adjustments (COLAs), were already known to be insufficient and only applied to those not already vested with 10 years of service.

As for the supposed promise of no further cuts, perhaps we're getting a whisper of behind-the-scenes talk, because such declarations are certainly not prominently made in the public. Whatever the case, it is irresponsible of legislators to make them.

And none of that touches upon the deeper debate about the effects of tax cuts on revenue. (Tax revenue from "the rich" has actually gone up, over the last decade, both in real terms and as a percentage of total taxes collected.)

Bill began to turn the tables at around minute 14:30, with his introduction of some of the structural strategies whereby left-wing groups shuffle money and redirect influence. He also made a strong point, against the combined efforts of Crowley and Ian Donnis to challenge the transparency of OSPRI on the grounds that it doesn't disclose small-dollar donors, responding that people give freely to such groups in a way that is not true of public-sector unions.

He could have further noted that the public has the same amount of information about, say, Ocean State Action as about OSPRI. That point was brought to the fore by the minor spat over what organizations are housed in NEA-RI's headquarters at 99 Bald Hill Rd. Crowley disputed that Marriage Equality RI is located there, although as of last August, the group's tax exemption was registered at that address. More significant is the reference to WorkingRI; although Bill may have misspoken about its relationship with the address, a little research shows how little difference it makes.

The group's Web site isn't very informative when it comes to its operations or management structure. (Its address is a P.O. box in Warwick.) But a 2008 Projo article about the links between labor organizations in RI names Frank Montanaro as the chairman of its board. Montanaro is also president of the RI AFL-CIO, as well as chairman of the Institute for Labor Studies & Research, which is indeed headquartered at 99 Bald Hill. NEA-RI President Lawrence Purtill is listed as the Institute's secretary treasurer, a post that NEA-RI Executive Director Bob Walsh fills (according to the Projo) for WorkingRI.

WorkingRI is a prominent player on RIFuture, by the way, and the AFL-CIO has a very large ad in the hardly-prominent position at the bottom of the blog.

Bill's point, in short, is irrefutable, which is why it's disappointing to watch an episode of Newsmakers hover in the zone of talking-point assertions. But ensuring such outcomes is, I suppose, part of Patrick Crowley's job — which may explain why his union pays him $5 per year for political activity, according to Felkner.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I was wrong about Working RI’s address, I wanted to make the connection by pointing out the overlapping treasurers (RE Walsh) that you mention but in the heat of battle I did misspeak. I originally commented on this connection in my “It takes a thief” commentary written for your site.

The 2007 NEA payroll shows Crowley’s $5 political activity and is located here - http://www.lrbwatch.org/Labor.html

You can also find it on the US Dept of Labor site if you have a few hours/days to poke around – a difficulty not encountered prior to the Obama Administration.

It’s best to open the excel version – the pdf is cut into two pages (I’ll try to get that fixed).

Posted by: Bill Felkner at July 8, 2009 1:39 PM

Remember people noticed the same thing when Travis Rowley was on with one of the Futurites. Travis kept trying to engage her in debate, but she just wanted to get her scripted points across, and often didn't even answer the questions that were asked.

Sounds like it's just yet another play from the playbook. Makes you wonder if they're capable of thinking on their feet.

Posted by: Patrick at July 8, 2009 2:00 PM

RIFuture is a special interest group? Ha! I thought we were a think tank!

Posted by: Russ at July 8, 2009 2:01 PM

Russ-RIFuture doesn't ban dissenting voices automatically,I should know.
The staff(contributors and editors)do however,share a generally left wing point of view.
Unions,for better or worse,are a special interest group.
Matt Jerzyk was an organizer for SEIU and we all know Crowley is an NEA executive-no secrets there-so it seems the leadership at RIFuture speaks for certain special interest groups.
Same sex marriage proponents and "immigrant"rights advocates also seem to hold sway there.They certainly represent special interest groups.
Anchor Rising has a conservative outlook.No one keeps you from posting here because you don't engage in abusive remarks-you make your point and that's it.
I guess Anchor Rising can be said to represent a particular group-taxpayers who are or were productive people and who are caught between the very wealthy and the people who always seem to have their hands out.
The term "think tank"always reminded me of "Donovan's Brain" a science fiction film from when I was a kid.If you see it,you'll know why.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 8, 2009 2:29 PM

Crowley is disgusting. He has managed to feed into the machine that continues to make the Democratic Party in this state solely for those who support big labor. Instead of looking out for the actual hardworking citizen, rifutures and those of the political machine in this state only look out for unions. Many of this states middle class do not have the luxury of rejecting cushy benefits packages and fighting for pensions, many of us have to pay OUTRAGEOUS healthcare costs (single male mid 20s, not even going to say what i pay)and have jobs that have no pensions. Yet I can sit and watch you defend unions where the workers pay substantially less in healthcare but cry demanding to pay less. I see you defend unions giving out ridiculous pensions. The average rhode islander is sick of this labor garbage, and you insulate yourselves with east side elites and no brain liberal loons. Many liberals and democrats alike are sick of what RIfutures and their cohorts do, and its a matter of time before they bankrupt this state even more.

Posted by: steadman at July 8, 2009 3:54 PM

"ridiculous pensions"? In RI? As a Hopkinton Town Councilman, “I resemble that remark.”

How’s this for a pension – 3% Cost of Living Adjustment compounded annually with eligibility after 20 years (RI Gen law 45-21.2-5(9)). We have all heard about this ultimate plum but if you combine it with Plan C (RI Gen Law 45-21-52) the employee contribution is only 1% so the taxpayers cover the rest (currently 18 percent in Hopkinton).

A 3% compound cola with a 1:18 contribution rate! AND we count longevity and holidays when calculating the highest income years. It doesn’t get any better than that.

(the contract is at www.ridata.org and the RI Gen Laws at http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/)

I doubt Hopkinton is the only town stupid (or corrupt) enough to do this, but I’m looking into it.

Posted by: Bill Felkner at July 8, 2009 5:26 PM

While you're at it, Bill, please look into the "fact" that Providence has the highest cost for fire protection "by far." I can't seem to find that particular tidbit anywhere reputable, but a lot of people are stating it as fact, even from you on Newsmakers.

The study in California that you mentioned stated that you could replace houses that burned down at a 3-1 ratio is ridiculous. If you are under the belief that fire departments do nothing but put out fires in houses you need to do a little more research.

Posted by: michael at July 8, 2009 5:49 PM

I will be you $1,000 that MERI is not located at 99 Bald Hill Rd.

Posted by: Pat Crowley at July 8, 2009 7:52 PM

Way to focus on a tangential point and then miss the point, to boot! Clearly, MERI was at one point associated with the building; whether the organization has moved on is interesting, but not really to the point.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 8, 2009 8:05 PM

So you can make your check out to MERI then.

Posted by: Pat Crowley at July 8, 2009 9:30 PM

Wish I could Pat. But I need all my pennies to pay for the outlandish benefits the unions have accumulated. Read comment 6 above. Or are you here to defend those pensions as part of a "living wage"

Posted by: Bill Felkner at July 8, 2009 9:41 PM

Michael is STILL perpetuating the lies that have been put out there that Providence has the most expensive fire service in the country and that Prov FF's are the highest paid...I'm sure he also believes that the average Prov FF costs the city $132,000 also.

Just goes to show you that these "scripted points" are not the weapons of left lening posters exclusively.

Lies are still lies. At least if the scripted soundbite is factual or the truth there's some merit to the statement.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at July 9, 2009 1:51 PM
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