— Basic Government Functions —

April 5, 2013

Notebook Entry: "Secretary of Commerce vs. RICWFA paradox"

Carroll Andrew Morse

A brief exposition of an entry put down in an actual dead-tree notebook, referring to a news-subject worth watching, at a time where there is certainly no shortage of subjects vying for public attention...

Secretary of Commerce vs. RICWFA paradox -- A group of Rhode Island leaders led by General Treasurer Gina Raimondo announced a plan in late March to help Rhode Island municipalities secure low-interest loans for infrastructure projects through the quasi-public Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency. At about the same time, the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council pitched to the House Finance Committee its plan to move a chunk of the the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation's function to a Secretary of Commerce position situated inside of the Governor's office. This seems, at least on the surface, to have things a bit backwards, with a quasi-public organization assuming a significant role in providing a public good, i.e. maintenance of roads and bridges, while the government-proper devotes more energies to "economic development", most of which ultimately must happen outside of government.

According to WPRI.com's Ted Nesi, "the treasurer's office estimated communities could save $1 million on every $10 million in loans thanks to the lower rates they'd get by borrowing through the AAA-rated [RICWFA]", but the ability of a city or town to pay off debt doesn't change because it takes a new route to get a loan, and adding a new middleman isn't a guaranteed method for lowering the cost of something. It is fair to ask if there's a more fundamental issue with RI cities and towns paying more than they need to for lending, if someone else will be assuming risk of default in RICWFA routed loans, or if there's some other cost to this plan that's not immediately obvious.

(Bumped upwards, from an original April 4 posting date)

March 24, 2013

How's That Fraud Squad Doing? Let No One Be Exempted from Their Scrutiny

Monique Chartier

Very good editorial, entitled "Waste-and-fraud report", in today's Providence Journal.

Mr. Block came back with what was a first glance at the problem; he lacked the data to do a more extensive survey. But he found signs of serious fraud just below the surface — demonstrating that our elected officials and bureaucrats should better monitor the billions of dollars pumped into the system. ...

The report found Food Stamp money going to dead people and more than 60 inmates in the Adult Correctional Institutions. Some recipients were selling their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, or using them for such things as “mail order gourmet meals.”

Mr. Block found that people who requested more than three replacement EBT cards over a year were much more likely than others to have prescriptions for drugs that can be easily resold on the street, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. ...

The governor has organized a small fraud unit in the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, something long overdue and desperately needed.

(Side question about "replacement" EBT cards. If someone ... er, "loses" their EBT card and applies for a replacement, are the benefits, however much or little remains, on the lost EBT card transferred to the new card? Or has this become an illegal but handy-dandy way to considerably amplify the benefit received because the recipient can get a brand-new, topped off EBT card?)

So. What's happening with the Fraud Squad? Have they been given the green light and the information that they need to get to work? If not, why not? Every day that goes by that waste, abuse and abuse is not found and stopped means many tax dollars squandered, dollars that could go to genuinely necessary spending or, heaven forbid, back to the taxpayer.

One important thing to bear in mind as we sit eagerly on Fraud Watch. Whether "waste" or "abuse" or "fraud", the core of each term, the definition is a social program benefit distributed to a recipient who does not qualify for it. The waste or abuse or fraud must be swiftly identified and terminated across the board, no matter the basis for the disqualification. There can be no exception or exemption. Not even if it leads to potential abuse of those 666 by-pass numbers at the Department of Human Services.

[Monique is Editor of the RI Taxpayer Times newsletter.]

November 30, 2012

Keep Christ in Christmas, but the Government Out

Patrick Laverty

Ok, so there's this green tree kerfluffle thing at the Statehouse. People are making a big deal over it and what name the Governor chose to refer to it. He even went on the Bill O'Reilly show last night to talk about it, and I think he did better than I expected. I wish he had a better explanation for his position, but at least he didn't embarrass himself terribly. He showed his biases a little bit with his comment about the Fox network being "angry", but that's beside the point.

I think we should give credit where credit is due. Lincoln Chafee did not create this issue. This is an issue that was created by WPRO talk show host John DePetro. He brought it to the forefront and used countless hours on his show to rail against the Governor referring to the "Holiday Tree", and has been wildly successful in getting many others excited about the topic.

Plus, there are those who think that Chafee created this by calling it a Holiday Tree, but as he said on O'Reilly, he's merely following what at least one of his predecessors did as well, as WPRI's Ted Nesi noted last year.

Let's put all of this aside and get down to what should be the real question. Why in the world is there any kind of tree at all in the Statehouse? Why is the state government celebrating any religious holiday? I know O'Reilly referred to the tree as secular, but how in the world can a "Christmas" tree be secular? Unless he's now going to tell me that Christmas is as secular a holiday as Thanksgiving or New Year's Day. There's no question that Christmas is religious and if you call it a Christmas tree, it is a religious symbol.

I get that the people who celebrate Christmas are in the majority in RI, however should everything be done simply because the majority wants it that way? Even at the potential expense of others? Maybe it's an overused example, but how angry would many get if Muslim symbols were celebrated at the Statehouse? Or random piles of flying spaghetti? We saw what happens when a government tries to be all inclusive and a flock of pink flamingos appeared on the Cranston City Hall lawn. Full inclusiveness is impossible, someone's going to be left out.

Here's a thought. Stay out of it completely. Don't try to include anyone. Government's job isn't to be hanging lights and decorations on an oversized, dying fir in the Statehouse rotunda. Their job is to run the state, keep it safe for its citizens and create an environment where all can thrive. In addition to create a healthy environment for business and jobs, but also create a healthy environment where everyone can celebrate anything they want, any time they want themselves on private property with their family and friends. That is how we all should celebrate our religious holidays, separate from the government.

October 31, 2012

Big Storms and Big Government

Carroll Andrew Morse

From Walter Russell Mead of the American Interest, in a blog post titled "Hurricane Sandy and the Perils of Nanny State Governance"...

The problem with nanny state governance isn’t just that it’s intrusive. It isn’t just that it stifles business with over-regulation, and it isn’t just that it empowers busybodies and costs money. It’s that it distracts government from the really big jobs that it ought to be doing.

October 18, 2012

Capitol TV: End the Puffy Filler and Get Back to Basics

Monique Chartier

In today's GoLocalProv, RISC's Harriet Lloyd concurs with the reservations of Common Cause's John Marion about an election loophole exploited by Capitol TV, resulting in the taxpayer funded promotion of incumbent legislators - strangely, all Democrat ones.

Just last week, Capitol TV ran “interviews” in which the legislature’s $70,687-ayear inhouse TV host, Dave Barber, gave three incumbents facing challengers in the Nov. 6 election the opportunity to talk about what they see as their biggest accomplishments and disappointments. ...

... other featured guests on Barber’s recently aired shows include: Representatives John Carne-vale, Arthur Handy, Joy Hearn, Raymond Hull, Cale Keable, Deborah Ruggiero, Agostinho Silva, Scott Slater and Donna Walsh.

Under Harriet's op-ed, commenter Edith points to a video called "Catholic Schools Day at the State House". I clicked on it. It is a production of Capitol TV. It is very nice. I appreciate that it is respectful of Catholicism, which seems an increasingly rare approach to Christianity across the media spectrum.

Nevertheless, whether it be "Catholic Schools Day" or Capitol TV coverage of hypothesized "French Canadian" or "Gadsden Flag" days, such productions are completely superfluous to the purpose of Capitol TV, which is to cover the General Assembly while it is in session. Any such productions, along with puff interviews of incumbents of any stripe, strongly reek of filler material to justify a full time television budget which covers only a part time legislature.

While we're at it, this would be a good time to ask: why doesn't Capitol TV stream its coverage of the General Assembly live on the internet? Why must voters and taxpayers pay for cable service in order to watch their state legislature in action? East Providence, for example, not particularly known to be the Redmond of Rhode Island, has been live streaming their council meetings online for years.

And forget about attempting to bring about equal time for Capitol TV legislator interviews. There will never be an end: after Republican incumbents get into the Capitol TV interview rotation, challengers on both sides will understandably want in.

Reduce the expense of Capitol TV by cutting altogether the puffy interviews and the nice but irrelevant productions. Set up the live internet streaming of Capitol TV, certainly a "basic" in this golden age of the internet. It's time for Capitol TV get back to basics.

July 19, 2012

Credit for Building, Blame for Dividing

Justin Katz

President Obama's teleprompter style has been the subject of substantial (often mocking) critical commentary, and with some justification, as this nearly parodic 2010 video from a Virginia classroom proves:

Given recent political events, one can sympathize with the desire of public officials to avoid extemporaneous speech. In a world in which one's every public utterance can be recorded, scrutinized, and exploited, one can't rely on an audience's capacity to get your drift and give you the benefit of the doubt. And it's all to easy to blurt out a sentence such as the now infamous, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

Predictably, in the realm of commentary, the debate has moved to the meta matter of whether commentators are deliberately misconstruing the President's meaning. On Slate, Dave Weigel charitably infers "a missing sentence or clause" that Obama neglected to utter because he was "rambling." On Reason, Tim Cavanaugh rejoins that "at some point it helps to look at that thing above the subtext, which is generally known as 'the text.'"

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 17, 2012

A Decade of Moving Next Door

Justin Katz

I've been following taxpayer migration data for years, but in a haphazard way. A new study that I've coauthored for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity finally gave me the opportunity to review all fifteen years of available data from the IRS.

The picture — from the 2003 beginning of what can only be described as an exodus — is frightening. After accounting for the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who moved to other states and other taxpayers who moved in the opposite direction, Rhode Island lost 24,455 households, with $1.2 billion of annual income (not inflation adjusted). More conspicuously, a net 3,406 taxpayers moved right across the border, to abutting counties in Massachusetts and Connecticut, taking with them $254.5 million in annual adjusted gross income (AGI).

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 13, 2012

The Board of Elections and Confidential Information

Patrick Laverty

On Tuesday, Andrew wrote about the "imminent peril" that the Board of Elections (BoE) felt that voters' information was in.

Then Justin live-blogged the actual BoE meeting where they voted to put off the issue of making this data confidential.

What they are concerned about is some radical NH citizen posted the RI voter information to a web site and made it easy to search for people by various criteria.

So what's the real issue here? Well, the first issue that rankled so many people was the way the BoE went about this, calling an "emergency meeting", with the minimum 48 hours notice (actually closer to 50 hours) and no public vetting or opinion.

But what the BoE wanted to do was to make confidential was the voters' voluntarily-supplied email address and telephone number. Not the name, not the address, not the party designation, not the date of birth. None of those are optional information and none of those were going to be protected. Should that information get out to the public? Well for one, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has already decided that all voter registration information, with the exception of social security number, must be made and kept public. (h/t Ken Block)

Why do they ask for email and phone number? I don't know. What do they do with it? I don't know. One thing that is known is even though the voter registration card says that the phone and email are optional, they don't say what they'll do with the info or who it will be given to. I think at the very least, that should be fixed. Somehow explain to people that all of their information will be given out to campaigns and candidates and anyone else who asks for it. At least let them know.

But for now, they do have the data. So what should the BoE do? Nothing and let people continue to have public access to it and let people put it up on a searchable web site? Well, that's one option, seeing as how all the information is usually findable on the internet anyway.

As an example, I did a quick search for BoE Executive Director Robert Kando. Using no subscription services or anything underhanded, in just a few seconds, I was able to find his home address, home phone number, his age, and people who also live in his home. I'm suspecting if I cared enough and did a little more digging, an email address could also be located. It's all information that is already public. Some have mentioned how it's creepy to see their name and address posted so publicly. My thought on that is "how quickly we forget." Your name and address and phone number has been publicly posted for decades. We depended on that for a long time. It was called a "phone book." The information was available to everyone and once a year the phone company dropped off a free copy at your house. Now that information pops up on a web site and people get freaked out? If you're really worried about your privacy, stop using "password" as your password to services and stop posting on Facebook that you're "on vacation in Florida!" Those would seem to both be bigger privacy and security concerns than someone being able to find your address.

The BoE will convene again to specifically discuss whether to make the phone number and email address confidential (remember, according to the 4th Circuit Court, they can't). My suggestion is that if they don't want the public to have that information, then delete it from their databases, stop entering it in for new registrations and remove those lines from the voter registration cards. Problem solved. You can't give out what you don't have.

February 9, 2012

Bureaucracy Bottles Up Harbor Maintenance

Marc Comtois

While we continue to hear about money we don't have being spent on bad loans to green economy darlings like Solyndra and Fisker, it turns out that there is cash sitting there waiting to be spent on good old fashioned things like our waterfronts and waterways. In the latest Federal Transportation bill (h/t), which is currently making its way through the House, is contained the following "Sense of Congress on Harbor Maintenance" (page 822 of PDF) regarding one trust fund that has money:

(a) Findings- Congress finds the following:

(1) There are 926 ports served by federally maintained channels which handle more than 2.2 billion tons of cargo annually, and this figure is expected to increase.
(2) More than $1.1 trillion in foreign commerce enters the United States through the Nation's ports annually, and this figure is expected to increase.
(3) Expansion of the Panama Canal system in Central America will likely be completed in 2014, and this will present opportunities and challenges for the Nation's economic well-being.
(4) Insufficient maintenance dredging of the Nation's navigation channels results in inefficient water transportation and harmful economic consequences.
(5) In 1986, Congress created the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to provide funds for the operation and maintenance of the Nation's navigation channels.
(6) The fiscal year 2011, Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund equity grew by 13.7 percent from fiscal year 2010 (to $6.42 billion) and total annual receipts increased 17.3 percent (to $1.6 billion).
(7) Despite growth of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, expenditures from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund continue to decline.
(8) Despite growth of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, federally maintained channels are only at their authorized widths or depths 35 percent of the time, thereby restricting access to the Nation's ports for both imports and exports.

(b) Sense of Congress- It is the sense of Congress that--

(1) the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is not being used for its intended purpose and charging maritime commerce a harbor maintenance tax while failing to provide the service for which it was established is unfair and places the Nation at economic risk;
(2) the Administration should request full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for operating and maintaining the Nation's navigation system; and
(3) Congress should fully expend the amounts in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to operate and maintain the Nation's navigation system.

The fees have already been assessed and collected from the stakeholders (the damage is done, in other words). So why is it just sitting there? My guess is that the OCEAN state could benefit from that money being spent as it was intended.

More broadly, this is a clear example of government inefficiency. I wonder how many other special programs are in place that assess the private sector fees for a purported "beneficial" reason and then fail to follow up. Meanwhile, the money piles up because of typical bureaucratic malaise. In the mean time, that money could have gone towards other, more immediate and beneficial things that those in the industry could have identified for themselves. At this point, maybe a better solution would be to offer them a refund!

December 15, 2011

And If There Are No Gold Mines Under Kennedy Plaza, How About (Crazy Thought) Monitoring the Tax Dollars That We Distribute?

Monique Chartier

Thank you, Andrew.

Let me get this straight. A city that has no money, because it spends more than it takes in, is loaning money to an organization that receives all of its money from public sources -- raising the question of how the "loan" will be paid back -- ...

... the Rhode Island solution to ProCAP's problems seems to be to pile new debts on an already bankrupt organization that has no taxpayer-independent source of revenue with which to pay them back. Does Rhode Island's governing class really think that this is legitimate, rational finance?

One of the creditors to be listed in ProCAP's filing will be the City of Providence for health coverage loaned to ProCAP to the tune of $1,000,000. But if ProCAP gets

"96% of its...revenue from taxpayers"

will the taxpayers be paying themselves back for the health coverage loan???

This is grotesque.

Whether it's disability pensions, welfare, medicaid or tax-payer funded quangos like ProCAP, THIS STATE NEEDS TO START EXERCISING SOME OVERSIGHT WITH TAX DOLLARS.

Here are some eminently reasonable, even minimalistic, questions to ask and answers to verify on a REGULAR BASIS before our tax dollars are handed out:

- Are you truly disabled?

- Do you qualify for this social program? Are you drawing benefits in more than one name?

- Are you actually the food stamp recipient or did you pay cash for that EBT card at half off?

- How many staff members does it take to (fill in the blank) operate a heating oil program / administer a health program / oversee a youth program / tutor / steer people to govt housing programs? By this standard, is your organization overstaffed because you've decided (outrageously and unsustainably and possibly criminally) to try to end poverty by putting a bunch of people into do-nothing jobs at taxpayer expense???

When handing out tax dollars, our government, on both the state and local level, needs to do more than rotely fill out forms and then disseminate those funds on auto pilot. From the iron-pumping "disabled" firefighter (who highlighted the sky-high and patently unbelievable rate at which public employees retire "disabled") to the absurdly over-staffed "community" organization to medical care and nursing home beds given to illegal aliens to local shops which purchase EBT cards for half the face value, it is clear that our elected officials have been scandalously careless with our dollars.

It needs. To. End. We need to spend as much - I'd settle for HALF as much - on the verification end as we do on the distribution of tax dollars. If that means less money for the distribution side for a while, so be it. The continued squandering of our tax dollars in the current fashion is a flagrant display of craven and depraved irresponsibility, both to the taxpayer and to those who truly need or have earned those dollars.

November 29, 2011

Why Does ProCAP Have 58 Employees? And Why Did They Have 120 Last Year???

Monique Chartier

For this post and the prior, I've been tempted to create a new A.R. category: "Shady Quangos". It is not difficult to imagine that ProCAP is not the only government funded non-profit which spends its tax dollars in questionable ways.

Today, we add to the list of troubling practices at ProCAP.

Further to my concerns about the situation at ProCAP, I spoke this morning to ProCAP spokesman, Bill Fischer. He advised that the signatory on the organization's checkbook would be changed today. It will be interesting to see in due course what checks were cut in recent months and, especially, the last two weeks as scrutiny on the organization has ramped up sharply. (In fact, we learned today that the US Attorney began taking an active interest in the organization six months ago.)

As Mr. Fischer was far more forthcoming than other officials on this matter, I took the opportunity to ask him about the extent of the employee roster at ProCAP. He advised that ProCAP currently has fifty eight employees. Without my prompting, he volunteered that a review of employees was being undertaken.

Fifty eight employees? That seems awfully high. What do they all do? How does this payroll compare with ProCAP's gross revenue? Has the level of services provided to the community been unnecessarily suppressed in preference of excessive hiring?

Once again, we return to the matter of oversight - or the apparent lack thereof. Shouldn't our elected officials on the state and local level have been asking the above questions, and more, all along? Would the situation at ProCAP have deteriorated to this point if they had done so?


WPRI's Ted Nesi e-mailed me a link to this WPRI investigation of a couple of weeks ago. In it, Tim White and Ted had determined, amoung other things, that ProCAP had 120 employees in 2010!

Many details about ProCAP remain unclear. An up-to-date list of its employees has yet to surface. The nonprofit employed 120 workers in a 2010 filing with the IRS.

Good job, guys.

All the more do we need to ask what happened to the level of services offered to the community as those in charge ramped up the payroll. All the more do we need to know where our elected officials were as our tax dollars were being expended in this questionable manner.

November 26, 2011

ProCAP and How Yours Truly Went For An Unexpected Ride on the Government's Pass-The-Buck Merry-Go-Round

Monique Chartier

Two developments yesterday at ProCAP: the Executive Director has been fired suspended, followed in short order by [edit] the firing of the organization's COO and attorney.

On Wednesday, what we knew was that ProCAP vendors were not being paid, personal loans had been made to the director and some staff members, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were unaccounted for and that the organization's Executive Director and the COO had held a shredding party behind locked doors on Tuesday.

Alarmed in particular by that last item, which appeared to be an attempt to destroy evidence of wrong-doing, and not yet having the benefit of the highly reassuring explanation subsequently provided by ProCAP's COO - "We shred all the time" - I decided to make some calls to the people responsible for funding ProCAP with our tax dollars.

My questions were pretty straight-forward.

1.) In light of the document shredding, what had been done to secure ProCAP's computer hard drives?

2.) What was happening to ProCAP's checking account(s)? Had the signatories been changed so that the questionable expenditures could not continue?

3.) What was being done to protect taxpayer dollars in light of the revelations of questionable expenditures and unpaid vendors?

- I started at Mayor Taveras' office, leaving a message with one of his press people requesting that someone call me about the ProCAP situation. (No one had called me back as of the end of the day Wednesday.)

- Next was a call to the Governor's office, where a press person named Lindsey (sp?) didn't even let me get through all of my questions before saying that she would ask someone who was familiar with the situation to call me.

- Someone from the Governor's office called me back fairly quickly and directed me to the state's Energy Resource office - apparently, the arm of government which is responsible for actually disbursing tax dollars to ProCAP and other organizations.

- When I called the Energy Resource office, I got voice mail and left a message. In short order, a woman from that office called me back and informed me that my questions had to be directed to the Director of Administration.

- On, telephonically, to the office of the Director of Administration, where I spoke to someone named Janice. Janice directed me away from the state and to the city, advising me that I needed to speak to Michael Solomon, President of the Providence City Council and ProCAP's Chairman. (Wheee! It's a good thing this ride has straps!)

- After leaving a message, I received a call in due course from Michael Solomon's Chief of Staff, who cheerfully offered to talk to me off the record. I declined, which is where both the conversation and the ride came to an abrupt halt for now. (Regrettably, I cannot furnish the name of Mr. Solomon's Chief of Staff for this post. I asked for it but he refused to provide it after it became clear that "off the record" would not be a pre-condition to a discussion about the expenditure of tax dollars.)

Now, the answer to my first question came a day later via a Turn to Ten report

Bentley says the U.S. attorney has taken materials from ProCAP's offices, including his computer's hard drive.

... which simultaneously provided the good news that the US Attorney has now taken an interest in the situation. My second question - what's happening with the ProCAP checking accounts? - so far remains unanswered.

The larger point, however, is this. What procedures are in place to protect tax dollars when it becomes clear that financial mismanagement or worse might be occurring at an organization partially or wholly sponsored by tax payers?

Judging from this case, if there are any, they aren't terribly impressive. Rather than reacting with hands-on concern, the various government agencies which funnel tax dollars to such an organization treated the whole thing like a hot potato. So much of government spending is on autopilot. It appears that procedures need to be implemented to disengage the governor (this kind, not that one) so that the flow of tax dollars to a questionable situation can be quickly choked off.

September 10, 2011

The Tolls Will Rise

Justin Katz

One thing that the great majority of voters can agree to be a legitimate government function is public infrastructure. If all residents can move about with equivalent ease, then they can compete economically and they can resist de facto segregation. Tolls and other usage fees actually serve to diminish this justification; as prices go up, the advantage of those with money increases, as well. Upkeep on such infrastructure should therefore be among the very first expenditures taken from general revenue.

From the perspective of government bureaucrats, the plain necessity of mobility makes tolls that much more attractive. If they spend all of their general revenue on things that voters wouldn't support if asked, they can turn around and plea poverty in order to charge for necessities like infrastructure maintenance.

And as I've said, before, the tax-and-spenders have reason to love EasyPass, because it will make future increases almost invisible. At this point, though, they're trying to clear a much more difficult hurdle: that of instituting a new toll:

The state Turnpike and Bridge Authority needs more revenue to maintain its bridges and will consider a toll increase, Chairman David A. Darlington said Friday.

But he also said that if the authority were to reinstitute tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge, it might be able to avoid a toll hike affecting Pell Bridge users.

As things stand now, to the annoyance of some Pell Bridge users, their tolls also pay for the maintenance of the Mount Hope Bridge, while Mount Hope Bridge users pay nothing.

See, it's just a matter of fairness, the thinking goes. People who enter the southern (urban and more touristy) end of the Aquidneck Island pay a toll, and those who enter the northern (suburban) end of don't pay anything (except taxes). So the new toll would just place the burden of a supposedly necessary increase on a group of heretofore freeloaders. With the wonders of technology, the new toll would hardly even be an inconvenience:

Darlington also said that a recent development in technology would make it easier to collect tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge. Called “open road tolling,” it refers to the collection of tolls without toll booths. Instead, an overhead “arbor” replaces the toll booths, and electronic devices scan transponders mounted on vehicles passing underneath. The owners are charged automatically.

And with two bridges onto the island generating revenue for the state, it would hardly be fair to allow users of the third bridge, which practically leads right into the pockets of non-residents to the north and east, to continue shirking their share of the responsibility for keeping up the infrastructure that serves the island.

Once three bridges are in the "open road tolling" loop, drivers will hardly notice when the price has to go up every year or so. Little by little, the bleeding can continue... without requiring government officials to address the real profligacy that is strangling the state.

July 18, 2011

Maybe If the Kitchen Table Is on a Yacht... with Servants

Justin Katz

This AP analysis — or whatever you would call such an essay — by Calvin Woodward and Martin Crutsinger is dumb to the point of being offensive. Woodward and Crutsinger try to put the debt ceiling debate in terms of family finances, and the lede that the Providence Journal gave to the story captures the error:

The choice in simple terms: Borrow more while fixing the budget, or refuse more debt, leave some bills unpaid and risk upheaval

Perhaps I'm not alone in thinking that the politicians' preferred option would actually be to borrow more without fixing the budget and then make the same threats and doomsday predictions when the problem comes around again. And what about the unmentioned option of living within one's means in the first place? President Obama offers a typically erroneous comparison:

"A family, if they get over-extended and their credit card is too high, they don't just stop paying their bills," he said. "What they do is, they say, how do we start cutting our monthly costs?

"We don't stop sending our kids to college, we don't stop fixing the boiler or the roof that's leaking. We do things in a sensible, responsible way."

The idea that our bloated government is so trim and efficient that the next cut will have to be to the roof maintenance budget is ridiculous on its face. But frankly, if a household is to the point at which it has to borrow forty cents of every dollar it spends, then it really has to think about selling the house and (contrary to the essay's authors) selling some assets is really not an extreme step.

June 10, 2011

No State Budget Until Late Next Week?

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Associated Press is reporting that the House's budget bill won't be introduced until a week from today...

Rhode Island lawmakers say they'll introduce a new state budget proposal next week...

The new proposal is expected to be unveiled next Friday before the House Finance Committee. If the committee endorses the spending plan it could go before the full House a week later.

Seeming Wise, but Raising Taxes

Justin Katz

For years, I've been arguing against transportation bonds on the grounds that such basic matters of infrastructure are the first expenses that our government ought to make. Instead, the political strategy becomes one in which elected officials and unelected bureaucrats spend as much money as they can on non-basic services and then return to taxpayers to fund critical projects like road and bridge repairs, often leveraging debt to delay the pain that such a strategy is sure to cause.

Well, the RI Senate is beginning to tackle the problem, but in a way that attempts to make the strategy more of a permanent fixture:

The Senate Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding became the latest in a series of study groups to recommend highway tolls along with higher driving-related fees such as licensing and registration. ...

The commission also recommended that the state look into a VMT tax, for vehicle miles traveled. That would mean a fundamental change in the way driving is taxed. Now, motorists usually pay indirectly, through taxes and fees. A VMT tax would raise money by taxing actual miles driven. It remains unclear, however, how that would be done.

Sen. Louis DiPalma (D, Little Compton, Tiverton, Aquidneck Island) places cessation of debt as the first priority, which is good and necessary, but it's as part of an effort to add revenue sources. What the state government should be doing is starting its budget from zero, funding those things that give government the most justification to tax money out of the economy and then arguing for any additional expenditures and even tax/fee increases for everything else on the merits.

June 1, 2011

Now It Costs More to Borrow

Marc Comtois

Whenever a rating agency lowers their estimate of the ability of a state to pay back its bonds, the interest rates the state pays go up. Moody's just lowered its rating for Rhode Island.

Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the outlook on Rhode Island bonds to negative from stable because of "the potential impact of rapidly escalating pension costs on the state's ability to increase its liquidity margins, diminish its reliance on one-time measures to balance its budget and reduce its debt burden."

Moody's added, "The state's pension costs are set to double in two years by an amount that roughly offsets its budget reserve account, raising the likelihood that it will continue to face significant budgetary pressures..."

That means all those transportation bonds we Rhode Islanders love to pass (because, ya know, we gotta have roads!) will cost more over the long term. Smart states budget transportation, they don't bond it. For years, we've dealt with sacrifices to the quality of basic government services that most state taxpayers actually use--indeed, require--like roads, bridges, the DMV, etc. While other budget items have continued to increase, either with state or federal (it's magic!) dollars.

For his part, Governor Chafee recognizes this and is trying to find ways to get off the transportation bond wagon. Unfortunately, his ideas revolve around paying tolls or mileage taxes. That's a non-starter, too. Just like his call to add more workers to the DMV. Maybe we should make Twin River a full-on casino and devote some of that revenue to transportation. Or we could just re-prioritize the state budget--baseline it--and go from there. Doubt that will happen.

April 14, 2011

The City that Outsourced Everything

Marc Comtois

Really, watch the whole thing (7+ minutes). Yes, it's much easier to do with a "new" city (4 others have followed the Shady Springs model). But older cities can do the same thing. The difficulty is with selling the change. Especially to the workers.

August 12, 2010

Government Giveaways... to Itself

Justin Katz

Matt and I discussed the federal government's billion dollar giveaways to states to make up for their poor management and failure to adjust to the economic times, on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

August 6, 2010

Public Servants as CEOs

Justin Katz

Joe Mysak takes up the topic of Bell, California's highly paid public servants:

In his only statement to the press to date, the $787,637 man, [City Manager] Robert Rizzo, told the Los Angeles Times, "If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business. I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."

To which the answer should be, "go right ahead." One hears this point frequently from highly paid government administrators, and while it's legitimate to allocate compensation sufficient to attract talented people, it's also true that candidates for public-sector jobs aren't necessarily the same as candidates for similar private sector jobs. A school district employee who has risen through the ranks from teacher to principal to superintendent has highly specific experience that may not garner a six-figure salary (plus the equivalent of public sector benefits) in another field.

Of course, as Mysak goes on to relate, the situation in Bell is egregious even so:

"There are darned few $787,000 salaried positions anywhere in the private sector for managers who run an organization of similar size," said Girard Miller, a public-pension and finance consultant at PFM Group in Los Angeles. Bell has 80 full-time employees, according to its latest financial report.

Unfortunately, while Bell is extreme, the reality is that government has become so broad, complicated, and pervasive that few citizens care to keep tabs on such matters to the extent necessary. The only rational response, in my view, would be to shrink it and limit its responsibilities.

July 6, 2010

An Absence of Space Goals But Not of Conflict of Interest: What in the World is Going on at NASA?

Monique Chartier

Okay, maybe we should consider privatizing our space program, as President Obama has proposed. There's something a bit disconcerting about the idea but we certainly can talk about it. Does that mean that the entire concept of space has to be removed from the top three goals, as set by President Obama, for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration? From NASA Watch. (Thanks, Michael Graham.)

When I became the NASA Administrator — before I became the NASA Administrator — [Obama] charged me with three things: One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.

Can the US Department of State file a grievance because another department is markedly infringing on their duties?

Speaking of duties, the aptly named (... well, aptly for the time, up until about a year ago, when NASA was charged with doing bold things) NASA administrator Charles Bolden, seems oblivious to the fact that his duties do not include using his office to jack up the value of stock in his personal portfolio.

As the Orlando Sentinel reported Sunday, Bolden weighed in against NASA's participation with the U.S. Navy in a project to develop ocean-based biofuels. He wrote in a series of e-mails that he did not think NASA should be the lead federal agency looking at alternative fuels.

On its face, this is a defensible position. NASA is under tremendous budget pressure, and its leader is right to be wary of taking on commitments when the agency doesn't have enough money to adequately fund its core, space-related activities. NASA shouldn't spread itself too thin - especially now.

But Bolden registered his opinion after running the biofuels project past Marathon Oil Corp., a Houston-based company that has invested in a different biofuels venture. Marathon advised against it.

An oil company recommending that NASA not get behind a competing project: Who saw that coming?

It gets worse. Bolden sat on Marathon's board until Obama named him NASA administrator last year. While he was on the board, the company invested $10 million in the other biofuel project.

And he still owns as much as $1 million worth of stock in the company.

Yikes! As the June 24 editorial in the Orlando Sentinel goes on to observe

It is dumbfounding that Bolden would not only seek the view of an oil company about a competing project, but go to the one on whose board he served, in which he still owns a significant stake. Yet he not only saw nothing amiss in his actions, he even called attention to them. "I continue to have doubts about the viability of this project, especially after discussions with representatives of the Marathon Oil Corporation," he wrote to other NASA leaders on May 2.

NASA's Inspector General is investigating this conflict of interest.

It's not clear who can look into President Obama removing the "S" from NASA ...

June 21, 2010

President Obama: "... if we secure the border, then you all won't have any reason to support comprehensive immigration reform"

Monique Chartier

This is simply unacceptable. The president has openly admitted that he has walked away from two of the paramount duties of his office: the preservation of his country's sovereignty and the protection of his country's citizens, legal immigrants and guests. [H/T Glenn Beck.]

On June 18, 2010, Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl told the audience at a North Tempe Tea Party town hall meeting that during a private, one-on-one meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, the President told him, regarding securing the southern border with Mexico, "The problem is, . . . if we secure the border, then you all won't have any reason to support 'comprehensive immigration reform.'" [Audible gasps were heard throughout the audience.] Sen. Kyl continued, "In other words, they're holding it hostage. They don't want to secure the border unless and until it is combined with 'comprehensive immigration reform'."

June 15, 2010

Naming the Civic Illness

Justin Katz

Veronique de Rugy gives a name to the political ploy, whose success is indicative of a civic illness, in which Rhode Island school committees, town councils, and state-level politicians specialize:

President Obama's recent plea for another $50 billion... to save the jobs of teachers and firefighters in the states is a great example of the "Washington Monument Syndrome." This refers to the bureaucratic practice of threatening to close down the most popular and vital programs in response to prospective budget cuts; it gets its name from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which always threatens it will have to close the Washington Monument if its budget is cut.

de Rugy goes on to describe some of the ways that governments might close their gaping budget deficits without gutting school systems and fire departments — including the obvious step of decreasing teacher salaries, assuming that "teachers have an incentive to accept a salary cut rather than to lose their jobs all together." Of course, teachers also have an incentive to fund union activists and stack committees and legislatures with people who don't mind watching well-paid adults soak up resources that might otherwise go to, say, books and programs for students and who see increases in taxation as a Dickensian pickpocket saw his trade: a legitimate means of taking money that is only made questionable to the extent that it is so overt as to alert the victim to the process.

The linked post also presents a chart showing that teachers were the big winners of the federal government's "stimulus" program, which (as I've said several times in the past) wasn't about "stimulus" at all, but about insulating the nation's various governments from the effects of the recession. Some day, when I've time, I'll work that idea into a poem, à la Lewis Carroll, about a bureaucrat who endeavors to explain that his own girth contributes to the health of his starving neighbor.

June 8, 2010

The Line to Our Future

Justin Katz

Would it count as a lighter note to consider, for a moment, Mark Patinkin's report from the lines of the Pawtucket DMV?

By 2:30 p.m., my wait was officially longer than the one I'd experienced at Moscow Airport in 1989. It was a remarkable achievement. The Rhode Island DMV proved better at creating endless lines than Eastern European communism.

There were still 150 people in front of me, which left plenty of time to go receive a child home from school. I drove home and soon returned. I got back to the DMV at 3:19. There was a security guard blocking the entrance. He said the door closed at 3:15 p.m. and only those still inside would be processed. I showed him my ticket and explained I’d waited four hours. He told me that was too bad. No entry allowed.

Considering that we're on a path to government-centered healthcare, I'd say that the tribulations of vehicle regulation aren't the light commentary they used to be. After all, the reason for the historic wait times, according to Patinkin, is computer training, and that is necessary no matter the service being provided. As Mark writes, "I have never heard of an entire company being closed a day a week for six months for computer training." Perhaps not a company, but that's government — the entity to which we're entrusting more and more of our society's activities.

ADDENDUM (10:21 a.m.)

Well, look what press release has just hit the email:

Starting this week, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will be returning to regular business hours at its Pawtucket office; at the Middletown, Woonsocket, and RI Mall branch locations; and at the Operator Control office in order to service the increased number of customers who transact business during the summer months. ...

The agency has been closed to the public on Wednesdays to work on data issues and systems testing and training related to the implementation of the DMV's new computer system. The new system, dubbed RIMS, will allow the DMV to offer new customer benefits, as well as providing more timely services to the public and other agencies with whom the DMV works.

So is that the power of Patinkin at work?

June 3, 2010

Always Money for the Trifles

Justin Katz

I don't know enough about the project in question to endorse his insinuations, but William Stanley, of Cranston, does point out a curious allocation of limited resources:

Both of these bridges are critical to the residents, especially because without them, such emergency services as police, rescue and firefighting must travel a considerable distance, and in that lost time a person could die.

What bothers me is that new sidewalks are being constructed in various places in West Warwick. Is it a coincidence that this is being done in the town that state Representatives William Murphy and Timothy Williamson, both powerful political figures, represent? Perhaps the money was earmarked to do the sidewalks, but under these emergency conditions, should not the money have been diverted to repair these critical bridges? Politics in Rhode Island? Nah!

Sometimes, complex systems like government simply allocate resources inefficiently, so corruption isn't necessarily in play. At the very least, though, we could suggest that Mr. Stanley's observation would be an excellent place to begin looking for means of improvement of government operations.

April 15, 2010

Talking Money with Matt

Justin Katz

Monique and Matt discussed points about the supplemental budget on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

April 14, 2010

Evidence That Our Government Has Become Distracted: Ranking of Rhody's Bridges

Monique Chartier

Further to Justin's point about the misplaced priorities of the state, the ranking of our bridges - worst in the country - a couple of years ago confirms that the underfunding of road and bridge projects is a recurring theme at the General Assembly and not a brand new development in this supplemental budget.

As Justin pointed out, while good bridges are a proper use of public resources, our elected officials have found it irresistable to, instead, divert an inordinate amount of public money on programs that would either advance their own political careers or (my addendum) assuage a seriously misguided sense of compassion.

A Sign That Our Government Has Become Distracted

Justin Katz

Take every pothole that you hit and bridge that you tremble to cross as a reminder of how misplaced the priorities of the state and federal governments have become:

In the supplemental budget Governor Carcieri sent to the legislature, he proposed reducing the DOT budget by $74.3 million. The House Finance Committee recommended cutting slightly more than $5 million more, leaving the DOT with $409.4 million. The House is scheduled to vote on the supplemental budget this week. ...

The state puts no more money into its bridge and highway programs than the 20 percent required to match federal aid for projects, and it borrows that matching money. Shawver said the state has known its highway aid would be held up for months. Congress hasn't approved a replacement for the country's main highway legislation, making funding unpredictable, he said.

Road repairs aren't as politically valuable as big giveaways, in part because everybody already expects them, leaving no advantage to being the politician who made them happen. Then, when they're clearly deficient, the blame is diffuse, both in its origin among the people and in its targets.

March 30, 2010

RISC's Open Eye Catches More Economy-Killing Taxes

Justin Katz

The Rhode Island Statewide Coalition has been making a concerted effort to peruse all of the legislation making its way through the General Assembly and recently unearthed this gem from Senator Charles Levesque (D., Bristol, Portsmouth), creating a Highway Maintenance and Public Transit Trust Fund, financed as follows:

... There is imposed a surcharge of forty dollars ($40.00) per passenger car and light truck to be paid by each car and light truck owner in order to register that owner’s vehicle and receive license plates. ...

... There is imposed on each company that is engaged in the refining or distribution, or both, of petroleum products and that distributes such products in this state a tax at the rate of three percent (3%) of its gross receipts derived from the first sale of petroleum products within this state ...

... There is an imposed on each company that imports or causes to be imported, other than by a company subject to and having paid the tax on those imported petroleum products that have generated gross receipts taxable under subdivision (b)(2) of this section, petroleum products for use or consumption by it within the state a tax at the rate of three percent (3%) of the consideration given or contracted to be given for such petroleum products if the consideration given or contracted to be given for such deliveries made during a quarterly period exceeds three thousand dollars ($3,000)

There really is no surprise in the fact that Rhode Island is wallowing at the bottom of the nation's economy. As I've said many times, public infrastructure is a legitimate function of government, and it ought to be the first thing funded by taxes that we already pay.

February 19, 2010

A Negative Approach to Governance

Justin Katz

And around and around not-my-town goes:

Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), whose district encompasses neighborhoods on both sides of the Sakonnet River Bridge, has introduced legislation that will prohibit tolls from being charged on the bridge. ...

Instead, Rep. Edwards proposes placing a toll on Interstate Hwy 95 (I-95) in Westerly and in Pawtucket as an alternative revenue source.

As a political matter, it's an easy call to reject state-level policies that will affect one's subregion negatively. And sure, perhaps there are marginal justifications for putting a toll in one place rather than another. However, this is just gamesmanship. If Rep. Edwards wishes to submit legislation that will solve the acute problem of a toll proposal while addressing the underlying difficulty, he should propose that the General Assembly allocate money from its general revenue to the basic infrastructure matters to which it ought to be going before anything else.

Of course, that would require the risk that people in his own district might dislike the decreased revenue for the ancillary government expenditures that would have to be cut, such as nanny state programs, inside deals, and union giveaways.

January 22, 2010

RIPEC's Analysis of Firefighter Pay/Contracts

Marc Comtois

My post concerning the Warwick Beacon's look into Warwick firefighter pay/contracts has generated some commentary regarding the RIPEC report (mentioned in Russell Moore's story) that found:

On average, [a RIPEC] report showed that Rhode Islanders spend about $6.24 on fire services for every $1,000 of personal income, or just under double the national average of $3.21 per $1,000 of income.
Those who doubt these numbers seem to have these questions (cribbed directly from actual comments):

1) EMS services are included for Rhode Island but not the other states. By including EMS, you couldn't even compare Providence to Worcester- two very similar sized cities, but Worcester's EMS is provided by UMass Hospital, and Providence's by the Fire Department.

2) The cost represents the total cost of fire protection in RI, meaning sprinkler systems, alarms and other additions, not just the actual fire department budgets.

3) Belief that pension costs are included in the RI costs but not in those for other states.

All the RIPEC report says about it's methodology is:

Fire Protection comprises expenditures for the prevention, avoidance and suppression of fires and for the provision of ambulance, medical, rescue or auxiliary services when provided by fire protection agencies.
To be clear, I'd like more particulars myself. RIPEC appears to have used data taken directly from U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Government Finances, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (for personal income data) as well as their own calculations. Based on the Census Bureau's explanation of their methodology, the data is provided by the states. (Right now, I don't have the time to weave through the tables myself--and the links I provided are my best guess). All that being said, here are my thoughts on the 3 main contentions.

1) Whether cities and towns pay for EMS or not is not as relevant as some think. Having tax dollars pay for EMS is still a governmental (taxpayer/resident) choice. Just because some don't cover EMS via taxes doesn't mean it should be excluded from a comparison of tax dollars spent on fire/safety services. Those are real dollars no matter what column on the spreadsheet you want to put them in. Don't let the inconsistent accounting methodology obscure the fact that other cities and towns in other states appear able to provide EMS services through private companies or hospitals and not through taxpayer supported fire departments.

2) It is probably true, given the brief explanation by RIPEC, that they include expenditures for fire suppression (sprinkler systems, etc.) the state paid to have installed in government buildings (for instance). There can't really be any doubt that much of that expenditure is a direct result of government over-reaction to the Station Night Club fire. We all know that small businesses have screamed that they can't afford to pay for the new requirements. Unsurprisingly, local governments didn't because, well, they had the money, right? (Ours....)

3) There is no way of knowing whether pension costs were included or not without the raw data.

I'm sure this won't satisfy RIPEC's critics, though I wonder if they have similar reservations about the rest of RIPEC's analysis regarding other areas of government expenditures?

January 13, 2010

Let Them Throw Coins in the Water

Justin Katz

Mike, of Assigned Reading, laments that union old-liners and their allies have taken the opportunity of hard times to smash positive education reforms:

Hope High School in Providence has been a beacon in Rhode Island school reform. It was undoubtedly the worst school in the state just five or six years ago. But with RIDE intervention, Hope has turned around. No one can deny the dramatic gains made by the students and teachers at Hope.

The city, however, according to the Journal, is seeking to significantly alter the academic model that was instrumental in Hope's success. Bureaucrats want to curb the autonomy granted to the school, and eliminate the block schedule that has brought teachers together and established a much needed school community. School leaders want continuity among schools, and claim they cannot afford the additional costs of the Hope model.

That last point, additional costs, rears its head in Mike's subsequent post:

Today, the Providence Journal reports the city has allocated $112,000 to restore the Henry Bowen Anthony Fountain. This fountain is located at the head of Blackstone Boulevard in the affluent East Side neighborhood, with the extravagant homes of some of Providence's wealthiest residents.

The same turn of events prompted the following reader email:

This just reminds me of the terrible things I used to hear about the Soviet territories in grade school, where the local political leaders would put themselves into lavish properties while presiding over hunger and poverty, all in the name of 'serving the workers'. Here is the most upper-class, liberal, educated neighborhood in Providence, a city full of crumbling infrastructure, awarding itself a monument (in the name of 'better neighborhoods' and 'fiscal stimulus'). The irony of the fountain being shut down thirty years ago to help close a budget hole does not escape me. The park's main recurring event is the new uber-expensive upper-class farmer's market, which I suppose will now be accompanied by the delightful sound of the entirety of two dozen households' tax dollars percolating through polished marble.

The takeaway for those of a reformist bent is that the governing power base in the city and state has no concern that Rhode Islanders can muster the will to turn them out. Perhaps we can rebrand the fountain as a "citizen request kiosk." Tying wishes to coins is as apt to turn the state around as following the due processes of local government.

December 14, 2009

Taking Rhode Island for a Ride

Justin Katz

Because — honestly — I'd love to see a successful and commuter- and visitor-friendly public transportation system in Rhode Island, it was encouraging to read the headline, "Public transit is en route to bright, diverse future," above the following first paragraph:

After a near-collapse, public transit in Rhode Island is making a dramatic turnaround, with some supporters saying its prospects haven't seemed better in recent memory.

One must get to the final paragraph of Bruce Landis's story, however, before it's possible to fully understand what's changed:

An open question, however, is how to pay for it all. The RIPTA officials who put the plan together say they have identified sources for about 10 percent of the money.

There hasn't been an upsurge in passengers (due to changing priorities or employment landscapes). There hasn't even been a huge windfall of magic Obama money, although the RI General Assembly did increase taxes on behalf of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Rereading the story in light of the ending, all that's changed, in essence, is that RIPTA has picked up some allies in the effort to extort more money from what remains of Rhode Island's productive sector.

If big plans and no notion of how to finance them were happy news, the story of my life would have a glistening title.

November 2, 2009

Not Breaking in the Least: People Don't Like to Pay High Taxes When They Get Nothing in Return

Carroll Andrew Morse

For those interested in the continuing debate about the relation between taxpayer mobility and tax-rates, Los Angeles Times op-ed contributor William Voegeli adds another analysis based on multi-state Census data…

One way to assess how Americans feel about the different tax and benefit packages the states offer is by examining internal U.S. migration patterns. Between April 1, 2000, and June 30, 2007, an average of 3,247 more people moved out of California than into it every week, according to the Census Bureau. Over the same period, Texas had a net weekly population increase of 1,544 as a result of people moving in from other states. During these years, more generally, 16 of the 17 states with the lowest tax levels had positive "net internal migration," in the Census Bureau's language, while 14 of the 17 states with the highest taxes had negative net internal migration.

October 26, 2009

Interesting Anecdote from Steyn

Justin Katz

Mark Steyn tells a tale of two bridges:

A few weeks back I mentioned a couple of bridges in a neighboring town of mine, both on dirt roads serving maybe a dozen houses. Bridge A: The town was prevailed upon to apply for some state/town 80/20 funding plan, which morphed under the stimulus into some fed/state 60/40 funding plan. Current estimated cost: $655,000. The town's on the hook for 20 per cent of the state's 40 per cent — or $52,400. There's no estimated year of completion, or even of commencement, and the temporary bridge the town threw up has worn out.

Bridge B: Following their experience with Bridge A, the town replaced this one themselves, in a matter of weeks. Total cost: $30,000.

Government is simple provided two conditions are met: You do it locally, and you do it without unions.

The higher the level of government, the more unnecessary burdens other people can manage to assert as requirements for conducting business. Steyn goes on to describe a program costing nearly a half-million dollars intended to assist the State Library of Illinois in educating employees about "'social networking' tools such as Facebook and Blogger." $420,000 could buy quite a comprehensive user manual. Perhaps the government could save a few bucks by recruiting authors from some local middle schools.

July 24, 2009

Rhode Island Diverting 911 Fees into the Operating Budget

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Associated Press is reporting that Rhode Island is one of several states that's been using money from fees on cell-phones, nominally intended to support 911 service, to plug holes in its yearly operating budget...

Oregon, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Tennessee are among the states that have dipped into their 911 money recently. New York and Rhode Island have been diverting their funds for at least five years. States started collecting the funds in the 1990s.

In the fiscal year that ended in June 2008, Rhode Island collected $19.4 million in 911 fees and used $5.8 million for 911. The rest went to the state's general fund.

May 19, 2009

How Economic Development Should Work

Justin Katz

Brian Bishop takes up the appropriate call to government when it comes to economic development: just get out of the way.

The last thing we need is a government-run Chamber of Commerce, a retread bureaucracy of fortune tellers picking winning businesses or sectors that will be offered state loans and regulatory absolutions. Rather, we should attract new businesses and nourish existing businesses with the level playing field of a better business environment.

You might think this is a time when we need an economic development agency more than ever. It’s not a military secret that Rhode Island is among the nation’s leaders in unemployment, a key indicator of a low-performing economy.

But it is also not a secret why. Corporate and personal income taxes are high, estate taxes are repulsive, energy costs are high, our education system produces a labor force with below-average skills, our legislature has empowered unions over management, our roads and bridges are in worse shape than other states’ at higher costs, our regulatory environment is stifling, and this all takes place in a good-ole-boy environment that breeds, at minimum, a perception of corruption.

In other words, our policies make us unattractive to business, and when you look at these problems you realize they are not to be addressed by the EDC. This systemic hostility to economic growth is brought about by the legislature and all the other departments of state government. These are the arenas where change must take place.

Of course, Jim Beale raises salient questions as we move toward implementation of necessary changes:

Does anyone believe that the Rhode Island General Assembly will enact the major structural reforms necessary to put this state on a new course — a path to prosperity for everyone instead of just their favored special interests: the public-employee unions, their relatives' state jobs, and the Poverty Institute constituency?

Does anyone believe that absent such reforms — and therefore regime change in the General Assembly — that Rhode Island will not continue its decades-long economic decline?

May 11, 2009

A Broader Application than Broadband

Justin Katz

It seems to me that Frank Rizzo's reasoning in deciding that government-run broadband Internet is a bad idea applies pretty much across the board for possible government actions beyond a limited set of activities:

At the heart of the problem is this: The economics simply didn't work [in Philadelphia]. To come close to breaking even, municipal systems need to attract sufficient numbers of low-dollar subscribers to help offset the ever-swelling capital costs of building, maintaining and upgrading the network.

Typically, any wire line or wireless broadband network will cost, conservatively, tens of millions of dollars in initial investments. On top of massive start-up capital costs for initial construction, broadband networks require huge annual operating costs to pay for administrative staff, customer service, repairs and maintenance. Equipment upgrades — needed every four to five years — often cost potentially tens of millions of dollars more.

To offset these costs, municipal systems need to attract thousands of local subscribers by either drawing customers away from commercial providers or by persuading nonbroadband users to sign up.

But commercial providers generally offer more reliable and faster service — few of their subscribers are likely to switch to a slower municipal service to save a couple of bucks. And, as the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found, broadband nonusers don't see relevance of the technology in their lives, making it unlikely that a taxpayer-subsidized network would suddenly change their minds.

Government isn't as sufficient. It can rig the system. And it drives up prices for everybody outside of its offering and diminishes quality for those within.

Despite his insight, Rizzo falls back on brainstorming ways in which to make the system work:

What's really needed is not a utopian dream bound for fiscal bankruptcy, but rather a true national broadband policy that will give the nation's mayors the resources for low-cost computers, digital training, local technology centers and resources for creative nonprofits and other third parties to generate targeted online content that will foster greater interest in broadband by nonusers. When Wireless Philadelphia failed, we did just this with the Digital Inclusion 2.0 program and, as a result, more low-income residents are online in our city than ever before.

Thus does a limited effort to level the playing field and create a baseline public infrastructure for Internet access grows into the generation of content meant to generate interest in a government service. It's like government mission-creep at Internet speed.

May 2, 2009

A Tax by Any Other Name

Justin Katz

Maintaining infrastructure is one of the basic tasks appropriate to government, but for that very reason — its clear importance — politicians in the state of Rhode Island tend to seek money for it independently, as a sort of deliberate afterthought. Rhode Islanders' ultimately don't want any bridges to collapse, and if they don't get incensed over the fact that the money wasn't already apportioned from taxes, they'll accept toll hikes even though they are, in effect, taxes for programs and giveaways that they wouldn't approve given the option:

The state Turnpike and Bridge Authority needs to raise tolls to pay for $50 million worth of repairs to the Pell and Mount Hope Bridges, Chairman David Darlington told a legislative committee Thursday.

Darlington asked the House Finance Committee to approve borrowing the $50 million through a bond issue for the work, which would include repairing rusted steel and doing painting on both bridges. He said that a toll increase would be needed to cover the bond issue, but that the authority wants to avoid raising tolls for Rhode Island residents.

Darlington said it would be the first toll hike in the history of the Pell Bridge, which opened in 1969. And if tolls are reinstituted on the Mount Hope Bridge, it would be for the first time since they were eliminated in 1998. Maintenance on the Mount Hope Bridge is now paid for with tolls paid by drivers crossing the Pell Bridge.

Of course, even the bond and toll gimmicks are beginning to raise hairs, so the plan is at least to double EZPass charges on the Newport Bridge for out-of-state drivers only. Of course, those paying cash — the majority, at least the last time I went back and forth over the bridge, last Saturday — would not be distinguished by their license plates and would pay the out-of-state fee. (It'd be interesting to see the data related to cash and EZPass payments; it's not inconceivable that doubling the toll will spur more Rhode Islanders to get EZPass, thus decreasing revenue.)

Perhaps the most important point to absorb from the linked article is the ultimate cost of this $50 million bond:

According to the legislation before the committee, the bond issue could actually cost as much as $132 million when the cost of 8-percent interest is added in, assuming a 30-year maturity for the bonds.

I'll reach across the aisle, here, and note that even Tom Sgouros has raised an eyebrow over the fact that Rhode Island currently pays $100 million in interest on Department of Transportation borrowing every year. This game can't go on; our government is going to have to find ways to keep the roads and bridges in good repair with money already in its budgets.

February 16, 2009

A Thought on Minimum Manning

Justin Katz

I know and trust Lieutenant Michael Morse of the Providence Fire Department, and he certainly makes some persuasive points on minimum manning:

From my seat I witness Providence's manpower used beyond the breaking point daily. Day after day, we are forced to tap resources from surrounding communities to answer 911 calls. Crews from Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, Pawtucket and anywhere else Providence can find fill the void when we need emergency responders. The people in those communities are under-protected while their first responders are busy bailing out their neighbors in the capital. It is a recipe for disaster. ...

One thing that is imperative in the fire/EMS service is consistency. From our end, we need to know where our resources lie, how long before they arrive, and how many will show up when called. While I am doing CPR with my partner, I'm also formulating a plan based on my expectations. I know Engine Company 11 has been dispatched from the Reservoir Avenue Fire Station and will arrive within a few minutes with three firefighters on board. I'll need two trained people to continue CPR, one to drive the rescue, my partner to monitor the heart, administer oxygen and start IVs. That leaves me to administer medications, defibrillate, document and contact medical control. Nobody is idle during an emergency. Often we have nobody left to drive the fire engine. We do the best we can and make due with what we have.

What if the mayor closed Engine 11 for the night rather than pay overtime? What if two firefighters showed up five minutes later than planned? What chance, if any, the patient had for survival would be tossed aside because of irresponsible budgeting? Is this the best our society can do?

The basic distrust is that the people setting manning levels stand to gain financially from overtime. (Whether that is really a factor is a debate into which we needn't slip.) The basic challenge is that schedules will always hover somewhere between full-time equivalent positions.

To square this circle, although I hate to create any additional departments at the state level, what if Rhode Island were to establish (or adjust rules and regulations in whatever way necessary to enable municipalities to establish) a statewide or regional fire authority that would take care of some of the organizational and back-office work entailed in sharing full-time firefighers/rescuers from town to town? The fire authority could bring an outside perspective to disputes about the number of team members necessary at any given time, and more importantly, it could organize a mixed volunteer and professional force that would split time with different departments.

I'm not suggesting a union-hall type setting to which such employees would show up to grab their daily assignments. Rather, their schedules would typically be nearly as regular as firefighters' currently are.

That way, each town or city could remain fully staffed without requiring a significant number of work hours to be paid at time-and-a-half. There would also be a new route toward securing full-time jobs or volunteering. (Details about pay, benefits, and pensions would have to be worked out of course.)

Just a thought.

January 6, 2009

Three Communities Work Towards Consolidation

Marc Comtois

In anticipation of the Governor's address tomorrow, in which it is likely he'll announce some pretty deep cuts in aid to cities and towns, it seems like a good idea for communities to embark on the sort of potential cost-saving projects that Warwick, East Greenwich and North Kingstown appear ready to try (couldn't find link to Warwick Beacon article online):

Consolidation efforts between Warwick, East Greenwich and North Kingstown appear to offer the three municipalities the best of all worlds--reduced costs, improved services and even lower costs for the homeowner.

Mayor Scott Avedisian disclosed last week that talks are being held between the fire departments of the the three municipalities with the thought that Warwick would handle dispatch operations for East Greenwich and North Kingstown. Revenues generated by the service would offset Warwick costs while freeing personnel in the other two departments.

The article goes on to explain that some infrastructure differences still need to be figured out and that, at least in East Greenwich, upgrades to 911 dispatch (for instance) could lead to lower homeowner insurance rates. Hopefully, ideas like these will bear fruit. There really isn't much of an alternative.

January 3, 2009

Re: Gas Tax Increases Are Coming Down the Road

Justin Katz

I think what I find most distressing about the reports of potential transportation-related tax increases that Marc mentioned this afternoon is that nobody is even hinting at the possibility of increasing money for such a basic government function as transportation infrastructure by taking it from less fundamental government functions. (Pick your favorites.. or rather, your least favorites.)

Of course, I don't intend the above to detract from the plethora of other distressing factors. Take, for instance, the fact that a strategy of increasing taxes to compensate for revenue lost because of conservation shifts the burden directly to those who cannot conserve — namely, folks who must use gasoline directly or indirectly in support of their jobs. If a lowly carpenter like me must bear more of the burden of fixing our roads because I have no choice but to drive my van full of tools for at least an hour-and-a-half per day, then prices will go up across the economy, and competition will go down.

Then, of course, there's this:

According to a draft of the financing commission's recommendations, the nation needs to move to a new system that taxes motorists according to how much they use roads. While details have not been worked out, such a system would mean equipping every car and truck with a device that uses global positioning satellites and transponders to record how many miles the vehicle has been driven, and perhaps the type of roads and time of day.

That such a notion would make it beyond a mere thought spoken out loud during a meeting indicates the dangers that our freedoms face in the future. Just as there will always be an excuse not to shift government expenditures from extras back to essentials, there will always be a reason that our liberty — notably our liberty of movement — can be circumscribed just a little bit more tightly.

December 19, 2008

The Land of All or Nothing

Justin Katz

So we're within a couple of hours of the end of the normal school day, and I haven't seen a snowflake yet. It seems that there ought to be a middle ground between utter calamity during a snowstorm and unnecessary public panic. Would it be too much to orchestrate for early releases to be played by ear? (That's my recollection from similar forecasts during my youth.)

I wonder how much economic activity was lost today as public school employees got a free day off and private-sector workers had to take personal days or scramble to accommodate their children's schedules.

December 1, 2008

Embrace Your Inner Underfunded Pension!

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to RI Future contributor Pat Crowley, if your pension plan is underfunded don't think of it as a bug, think of it as a feature…

An unfunded liability may in fact enhance the security of the plan because it requires more caution, therefore, more long term thinking.
I wonder if progressives will apply this line of reasoning to universal health care too -- sure there's no way we can pay for our proposals, but that's a good thing, because it means the government will plan them better! (The version of this kind of thinking often joked about amongst salespeople is "we lose a bit on every sale, but we make it up in volume.")

Anyway, back in the reality-based community, understanding why pension underfunding is a bad thing is straightforward. A pension plan is underfunded if, according to reasonable actuarial and design assumptions, it will run out of money before all obligations owed can be paid out. This situation should be avoided not only in pension plans but anywhere else in life. Claims from defined-benefit advocates that the current underfunding of Rhode Island's public pension system does not present a serious problem severely undercut the notion that defined benefit plans can be as cost-effective as defined contribution plans, if decades of total annual contributions equal to at least 25% of employee payroll are considered par-for-the-course for keeping a defined benefit system afloat.

In terms of present specifics, the underfunding of Rhode Island's state employee pension plan means that the state is required to contribute over 20% of employee payroll next year, to help get the pension plan to point where it will be self-sustaining by 2027, while still meeting all obligations until then. If the pension plan had been fully-funded (and never raided), the required state contribution would be much smaller, probably somewhere in the vicinity of 3% to 4% of total payroll per year. Given the current size of the state workforce, the difference between 4% and 20% of payroll is about $120 million, meaning that, if the state employee pension plan had been funded in accordance with its obligations assumed, $120 million more would be available to pay for existing programs or to reduce the deficit next year.

Finally, the pension study cited in Mr. Crowley's post takes a curious approach to the concept of "moral hazard". Here is the study's explanation of the concept…

If [pension plans’] investment decisions are being distorted by moral hazard, then we would expect to see less well-funded plans adopting more risky asset allocations.
But this formulation is incomplete. Moral hazard could also manifest itself in pension managers who don't believe they need to pursue a high-return (and associated high-risk) strategy because, hey, no matter how poor the investment returns are, as much money as is needed can be taken from future taxpayers – or should I say from current taxpayers, at a future time.

November 12, 2008

How Much is $800,000,000?

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Steve Peoples' report in the Projo, Rhode Island needs $800,000,000 more in revenue than it expects to collect through fiscal year 2010, to provide 1) all of the services budgeted for in this fiscal year and 2) approximately the same level of spending in the next fiscal year.

To understand how big this number is in practical terms, suppose -- as some advocates in Rhode Island would prefer -- that the education and health and human services areas of the state’s general revenue spending were declared off-limits to any cuts. How much would have to be cut from what remains of the state budget, to make up an $800,000,000 shortfall by the end of FY2010?

Well, if every non-education non-health-and-human-services government function was completely shut down on January 1, 2009 and not reopened until June 1, with everyone furloghed, no payments made to the pension plan for the downtime, etc., and we assume that the resulting savings is half of the money budgeted for this year, only about 60% of the total amount needed would be saved. With more judiciously spaced cuts beginning in FY2010, a 40-50% reduction in the total size of non-education non-hhs government operations could make up the rest and, if made permanent, possibly keep the budget balanced going forward.

That’s the size of the problem we’re facing.

With all programs on the table, health and human services and education included, a 12%-15% cut in total annual general revenue spending is needed to balance the budget and maybe end the recurring shortfalls.

Here is the list of every major area where the state planned to spend more than $50,000,000 of general revenue this year…

Elementary and Secondary Education$931,218,471
Human Services$767,224,135
Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals$219,361,864
Higher Education$179,856,018
Children, Youth and Families$137,133,720
Public Safety$66,828,094

These 8 areas account for 92% of all Rhode Island general revenue spending. It’s going to be difficult to reconcile an $800,000,000 shortfall without taking something from each of them.

September 22, 2008

Efficiency Shock

Justin Katz

Just a reminder that such things are possible (emphasis added):

The old bridge fell Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. The sudden collapse of steel and concrete jolted Minnesota and other states into taking a harder look at the safety of thousands of aging bridges across the country.

The state put the $234 million replacement on a fast track, and contractors had it ready for traffic on budget and more than three months ahead of deadline.

July 10, 2008

Poll Numbers and Government Priorities

Carroll Andrew Morse

Two recent newspaper articles have suggested that the results of the Rhode Island College Bureau of Government Research and Services poll released on July 1 imply that immigration enforcement is not an issue of interest to Rhode Islanders; one article was from a source with an established track record of writing thoughtful, long-form news-analysis pieces, Ian Donnis of the Providence Phoenix

[Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte] calls Cicilline’s liberal stance on immigration “absolutely right for the city,” but, he adds, “[I] think it does not play out well in a broader discussion.”

This might be a safe assumption, considering how the mayor and Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman have faced considerable public criticism for bucking Carcieri’s executive order on immigration. (Then again, in a recent Rhode Island College poll, just four percent of respondents ranked illegal immigration among the state’s biggest problems.)

…the other was from Scott MacKay of the Projo
Last night, Governor Carcieri was again on national television –– conservative Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly’s show –– to talk about his executive order cracking down on immigration.

While Carcieri, some legislators and the talk-radio hosts may think the issue is gaining traction locally, a recent public opinion survey by veteran pollster and political science Prof. Victor Profughi, of Rhode Island College, shows a substantial disconnect between average Rhode Islanders and political figures pushing illegal immigration as a top issue.

When asked “what do you think is the biggest problem facing Rhode Island right now,” hardly any respondents mentioned illegal immigration. Thirty-three percent said the economy, 17 percent said the state budget, 6 percent mentioned gas prices, 8 percent listed government corruption, 6 percent said taxes, 5 percent said education and 4 percent said illegal immigration.

In reponse to both excerpts, let me suggest that using polling results from open-ended questions to determine what people believe government's day-to-day priorities should be is a premise flawed from the start. In the present-day Rhode Island that we know and love, we have a perfect example of the limitations.

According to that same RIC poll, a whopping total of 1% of people surveyed gave an answer of "roads" when asked what the biggest problem facing the state was. We can safely take an answer of "roads" to include the sub-category of "potentially collapsing bridges", a problem the RI public is well-aware of.

Now, as far as I know, no one is seriously arguing that any plans for addressing Rhode Island's bridge maintenance troubles should be placed on the backburner until a bunch of other problems with better polling numbers are "solved”. I haven't seen anyone in the mainstream media, in the blogosphere or in person argue that Governor Carcieri's March announcement (the same month the illegal immigration executive order was issued, by the way) of Rhode Island’s need to effect 600 million dollars worth of "bridge repair and replacement" was a distraction from the “real” issues that government should be paying attention to. Indeed, the reaction to the bridging troubles has been exactly opposite, more along the lines of why wasn't state government paying better attention to this all along -- again, despite a meager 1% polling number for the problem of "roads".

So if a one-one-hundredth polling response does not delegitimatize the decision by Rhode Island’s executive branch of government to take some high-visibility steps to address problems that have developed over the long term in the area of “roads”, then why should Governor Carcieri's decision to address the problem of illegal immigration -- a problem also that also has been allowed to build up over the long term -- be viewed as controversial because of a similarly low (but higher) polling response?

Would it make sense to stop repairing the bridges too?

May 6, 2008

Rain on Me

Carroll Andrew Morse

We interrupt this broadcast for a moment of hyper-local blegging...

Would anyone with a measure of civil engineering experience care to comment on whether the permanent shower occurring beneath the new overpass between Route 95 exits 18 and 19 is something Rhode Island drivers (or taxpayers) should be concerned about?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

April 26, 2008

National Day of Silence

Monique Chartier

Yesterday, students across the U.S. and in Rhode Island participated in National Day of Silence, taking an oath of silence for a day or part of a day to bring attention to the harassment of gays and lesbians.

From the Providence Journal:

... at least 29 public and private high schools participated in Rhode Island. This year’s event honored Lawrence King, a 15-year-old California student who was shot and killed in February by a classmate because of King’s sexual orientation.

At Feinstein, students and a smattering of teachers wore gray T-shirts that said, “Silence is the most powerful scream” and “58,000 — the number of homophobic slurs you’ll hear by the time you graduate from high school.”

The Day of Silence challenged students to think about their own behavior. When a classmate uses an anti-gay slur, do you speak out and run the risk of being ridiculed or harassed or do you remain silent?

While expressing indifference to orientation and "what people do in the bedroom", WPRO's Matt Allen in his show today questioned whether schools should not be more focused on the three r's. In response, a teacher called in to defend the exercise and point out that participation by students was voluntary.

Let us now separate out the matter of orientation. The issue is not whether gays of all ages should live free of harassment; of course they should. Questions raised pertain rather to the mechanism or authority by which such a day in our secondary public schools was arranged: who decided that, phrasing this as positively as possible, students would be availed of the opportunity to participate in such a day of recognition and also ensured that the student population was made aware of the details of this opportunity? What was the criteria by which the cause to be championed was selected?

These details are important as questions in their own right. But answers to them are requisite also to a compilation of a list of proposed Days of Silence. (Additions to the list are welcome.)

- In tolerance of religion.

- For promotion of the qualities of hard work and responsibility.

- Encouraging respect and recognition of the hard work and sacrifice of men and women in our military.

- For awareness and prevention of teen pregnancy.

- And the corollary to that last: in recognition of the importance of the father in a child's life.

Participation would be voluntary, of course. To whom do we submit our list?

March 13, 2008

As Rhode Island Crumbles

Justin Katz

See, this sort of thing ought to be a state government's first priority:

After reexamining the condition of Rhode Island's bridges, the state Department of Transportation has identified the need for "approximately $600 million in bridge repair and replacement projects" over the next five years, Governor Carcieri told a press conference today.

But the money may not be there. Rhode Island is in danger of losing $60 million to $70 million in federal transportation aid each year. The state's 30-cent gasoline tax cannot make up the difference. And even if the state's must-fix list is pared to high-priority projects, he said, the state faces a potential $210 million shortfall in available funding.

All of the other areas of state spending may or may not be desirable, but roads are fundamental, and raising taxes and tolls to pay for them is not the solution.

December 20, 2007

Providence EMA Director Messier Fired

Monique Chartier

Citing a lack of confidence in the Director's ability to carry out his official duties in a future emergency, Mayor David Cicilline has announced that Leo Messier has been fired as Providence's Emergency Management Agency director.

Mr. Messier is perhaps best known for being a little too sanguine during last week's storm about how some Providence school children would get home on gridlocked, often impassable, streets.

That evening, Messier called the school bus situation “inconvenient.” But he said children “will get home eventually” because they have call phones to call their parents.

The bus ride (or non-ride) home that night of some school children is also on the agenda of the Providence City Council post-storm meeting tonight.

The City Council leadership, apparently unwilling to wait for a storm-response report commissioned by the mayor, has scheduled a special meeting for [tonight] to call department directors to account for why some children were stranded for up to six hours on school buses Thursday, among other problems.

The meeting will take place tonight at 6:00 pm in Council Chambers on the third floor of Providence City Hall.

UPDATE - Messier responds

Leo Messier is not accepting his termination quietly. In an interview with Jim Hummel of ABC 6 News, Mr. Messier states that he informed Mayor David Cicilline that traffic was gridlocked around the city but that he never received instruction from the Mayor upgrading the storm to an emergency or directing him to implement an emergency plan.

Who knew what when and what they did when they knew it is going to be an interesting component of the storm's aftermath.

December 18, 2007

EMA Director Warren Fired

Carroll Andrew Morse

WPRO (630 AM) is reporting that Robert Warren has been fired as the state Emergency Management Agency director, presuambly over his handling of last Thursday's snowstorm.


EMA Director Warren Fired

Carroll Andrew Morse

WPRO (630 AM) is reporting that Robert Warren has been fired as the state Emergency Management Agency director, presuambly over his handling of last Thursday's snowstorm.


December 14, 2007

Another Structural Failure Highlighted by the Snowstorm

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ian Donnis of the Providence Phoenix

"Mid-afternoon, when it became clear that the situation was not resolving itself," is when the EOC should have been triggered, [Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts] says.

Asked who was running the state, she says it appears to have been a team of Brian Stern, Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, and Jerome Williams, head of the state Department of Transportation.

…and Michael McKinney of the Projo
The Rhode Island National Guard commander said today the Providence Emergency Management Agency was in control during yesterday's storm -- a storm that he said did not warrant a "multi-jurisdictional event" that would have activated the state Emergency Operations Center.

Major Gen. Robert T. Bray, the guard's adjutant general, said the operations center has been triggered for hurricanes and severe flooding -- and the yearly Tall Ships celebration, when hundreds of old sailing ships come to Newport drawing thousands to Aquidneck Island.

Saying that the traffic problem was confined to Greater Providence, Bray said "statewide, the emergency was well handled," which is why, he said, the EOC was not triggered.

Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, Brian Stern, said at the same State House news conference attended by Bray and Col. Brendan Doherty, who leads state police, that it was an "unprecedented traffic disaster."

…have been reporting today on the chain of command issues that arose in Governor Carcieri's absence (he was out of the country) during Thursday's snowstorm that may have contributed, at least at the state level, to the poor emergency response.

Something I've yet to hear mentioned is how the confusion pretty clearly illustrated the folly of electing a Governor and Lieutenant Governor separately. The ineffectiveness of yesterday's response was rooted at least in part in multiple, politically unaccountable officials (Brian Stern, Jerome Williams, Robert Bray, for starters) all claiming to be a final authority when the Governor is not around. That was, and is, inadequate.

Unlike a President, a Governor doesn't have access to an Air Force jet that can get him home from anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, so there will be times when a Governor will be away from the state for a day or more, yet decisions will still have to be made by a legitimate authority near an emergency situation. The Governor's Chief of Staff has no authority to give orders to the National Guard or the State Police that must be followed, yet in the American system of governance, the head of the State Police or the National Guard is expected to be immediately answerable to a civilian authority.

The system would function much more smoothly in the Governor's absence if the heads of state agencies knew that the Lieutenant Governor was a trusted deputy who had specifically accepted the responsibility of speaking for the current Governor in circumstances where decision making could not be delayed.

Another Structural Failure Highlighted by the Snowstorm

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ian Donnis of the Providence Phoenix

"Mid-afternoon, when it became clear that the situation was not resolving itself," is when the EOC should have been triggered, [Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts] says.

Asked who was running the state, she says it appears to have been a team of Brian Stern, Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, and Jerome Williams, head of the state Department of Transportation.

…and Michael McKinney of the Projo
The Rhode Island National Guard commander said today the Providence Emergency Management Agency was in control during yesterday's storm -- a storm that he said did not warrant a "multi-jurisdictional event" that would have activated the state Emergency Operations Center.

Major Gen. Robert T. Bray, the guard's adjutant general, said the operations center has been triggered for hurricanes and severe flooding -- and the yearly Tall Ships celebration, when hundreds of old sailing ships come to Newport drawing thousands to Aquidneck Island.

Saying that the traffic problem was confined to Greater Providence, Bray said "statewide, the emergency was well handled," which is why, he said, the EOC was not triggered.

Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, Brian Stern, said at the same State House news conference attended by Bray and Col. Brendan Doherty, who leads state police, that it was an "unprecedented traffic disaster."

…have been reporting today on the chain of command issues that arose in Governor Carcieri's absence (he was out of the country) during Thursday's snowstorm that may have contributed, at least at the state level, to the poor emergency response.

Something I've yet to hear mentioned is how the confusion pretty clearly illustrated the folly of electing a Governor and Lieutenant Governor separately. The ineffectiveness of yesterday's response was rooted at least in part in multiple, politically unaccountable officials (Brian Stern, Jerome Williams, Robert Bray, for starters) all claiming to be a final authority when the Governor is not around. That was, and is, inadequate.

Unlike a President, a Governor doesn't have access to an Air Force jet that can get him home from anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, so there will be times when a Governor will be away from the state for a day or more, yet decisions will still have to be made by a legitimate authority near an emergency situation. The Governor's Chief of Staff has no authority to give orders to the National Guard or the State Police that must be followed, yet in the American system of governance, the head of the State Police or the National Guard is expected to be immediately answerable to a civilian authority.

The system would function much more smoothly in the Governor's absence if the heads of state agencies knew that the Lieutenant Governor was a trusted deputy who had specifically accepted the responsibility of speaking for the current Governor in circumstances where decision making could not be delayed.

(In Some Ways) The City Is the State

Justin Katz

To provide some perspective on yesterday's stark warning of calamity, it's worth mentioning that I made it home to Tiverton from Newport in not much more time than usual — about an hour, with three short stops (coffee, money, and newspaper). In other words, Will Ricci's nine-hour trip from East Providence to South Kingstown and back (if I read correctly) would likely have taken him less time if he'd gone all the way through Fall River and then Newport.

In a major catastrophe, many people would realize such things and clog that route, as well.

With respect to my comments on Rhode Island state expenditures, I'm confident (though I haven't looked up the numbers) that one would find that a large percentage of our top-of-the-country social and union spending goes to Providence, and that a large percentage of our bottom-of-the-country infrastructure spending does as well. In that context, it seems to me, one can't tease the city and the state apart in allocating blame.

All of the bums in RI government have to go. All Rhode Islanders have to wake up, before something truly horrific happens.

December 13, 2007

This State Is in Major Trouble

Justin Katz

I just saw a report on channel 10 that there are still — at 9:00 p.m. — children on buses from schools that let out at 12:30 or 1:00. People abandoning their cars because of traffic generated during a modestly heavy snow storm? This state is embarrassing.

Heads ought to roll in government offices tomorrow (they won't), but that's not really the extent of it. Our government is a problem, yes, but so is the general infrastructure. So is the way the state has built itself. So are the culture of the state and the ways in which people act and what they prioritize.

In part, this is what happens to a state that ranks 9th in the nation (per capita) for direct general expenditures, but 45th for transportation and 46th for highways (PDF). Ranking 9th for elementary and secondary education isn't such a prize when schools can't get children home within eight hours of dismissal even during inclement weather and heavy traffic. (Where's the money going that Providence needs two bus runs?) Those #1-ranking fire protection expenditures don't mean a whole lot when a crumbing infrastructure and foolish/selfish drivers block up roads, preventing fire trucks from getting through (as I heard on WPRO on my way home).

November 8, 2007

Open Thread: The I-Way & Rhode Island Traffic

Carroll Andrew Morse

Can you name the highway project that fits this description…

It would provide urgently needed relief for I-95 and I-195 within the core of this urban area. It also will permit long-distance travelers between New York and Connecticut, and the Fall River-New Bedford metropolitan area and Cape Cod, to bypass this congested urban core.
If you guessed the I-way, you'd be wrong!

The description comes from a 1960s-era proposal for an interstate 895, which along with 295 would have made a complete interstate loop around Providence. 895 would have started at the 95/295 interchange in Attleboro (the reason why the ramps between 295 and 95 seem so overbuilt is that they were constructed with 895 in mind), headed southeast through Massachusetts, crossed 195 near the East Providence/Seekonk line, approximately followed the unnumbered connector between 195 and 114 in East Providence and then 114 itself, turned west through Barrington, crossed an Upper Narragansett Bay Bridge that was never built, plowed through several Warwick neighborhoods, hooked up with route 37 in Warwick, and rejoined 295 in Cranston.

The details of this plan, and of many other Eastern New England roads, built and unbuilt, can be found on Steve Anderson's comprehensive Boston Roads website.

895, of course, was never built. And as is typical of government, even though they knew early on they had a problem, it took them thirty years to come up with an alternate solution.

The state department of transportation is saying that the congestion problems created by the new traffic patterns associated with the I-way will be relieved when the project is complete and all of the new routes are open. Do you buy that answer? Either way, consider this an open thread on the continuing traffic situation either being remedied or exacerbated by the new construction.