June 30, 2011

UPDATE: Providence Schools at the Center of the End of the Legislative Session

Carroll Andrew Morse

Earlier today, Providence Mayor Angel Tavares came out in favor of an amended version of the 195 Commission bill being considered in the RI House of Representatives.

This evening, the 195 bill passed, first the House Finance committee, then the full House. The Senate vote is still pending.

On the very next floor vote following the 195 commission vote, the House passed a bill granting mayors of cities with appointed school committees the power to directly negotiate teacher's contracts, relieving the school committee of power in this area entirely. The Senate vote on this bill is also pending.

The city of Providence has an appointed school committee.

Remember where you read it all first.

UPDATE: For Binding Arb, as the Magic 8-Ball Might Say, It's Very Doubtful

Carroll Andrew Morse

Lisa Blais of the Rhode Island Tea Party just posted the following to her Facebook page...

League of Cities and Towns received assurance that binding arb. will not be a problem tonight. RI School Committee Association Exec Dir. given same assurance but will not leave the State House until the session is officially closed. We may indeed be out of the woods for this year.

Jennifer D. Jordan has a story up at 7-to-7, including an official quote from House Speaker Gordon Fox...

House Speaker Gordon D. Fox announced at 7:45 Thursday evening that a bill that would expand binding arbitration for teachers will not move foward, ending one of the most contentious battles of the last days of the legislative session.

Providence Schools at the Center of the End of the Legislative Session?

Carroll Andrew Morse

At 10:22 this morning, notice was posted of a bill (S1062) to be heard by the House Finance Committee at noon today which would grant "the chief executive officer of any municipality having an appointed school committee" most of the same contract-negotiating powers that are held by elected school committees.

Some pure speculation on my part: In return or going along with the I-195 bill, could the powers-that-be in the Providence Mayor's office (and their allies in the RI House) be asking for much more direct power over the Providence school system?

And some speculation-squared: Would those same powers-that-be in the Providence Mayor's office be happy getting what they asked for, only to immediately lose it to a binding arbitrator?

All You Need to Know About Binding Arbitration

Justin Katz

GoLocalProv puts the added price tag of binding arbitration for teachers at $2 billion (albeit with few specific details). For my part, I'd say that National Education Association of Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh tells us all we need to know about binding arbitration:

Expanding the binding arbitration law to teachers and other school employees would mean "no strikes, no work-to-rule, no disruption of the education environment," Walsh said. "It will bring labor peace and let teachers teach and just focus on the kids."

Take a moment to roll that statement around in your mind and consider its various angles. People who are willing to "disrupt the education environment" and the communities that they supposedly serve to secure high pay raises and low copays are willing to give up their weapons for binding arbitration. That's how much they expect binding arbitration to work in their favor.

Evolving Arbitration

Marc Comtois

Sam offers Fred $10, but Fred wants $30. To solve the problem, they call in their buddy, "The Arbitrator", who decides $20 is fair. Sam pays more, Fred gets more.

The next week, Fred asks Sam for $30 again, but Sam says he's only got $13 in his wallet. Fred says Sam is holding out. They go to The Arbitrator, who says Sam isn't holding out, but he should check back at the house and he could probably come up with more than $13. To be fair, The Arbitrator says Sam should give Fred $17.50.

The next week, in anticipation of the request, Sam offers Fred $10 and explains that's really all he can afford, assuming he gets paid next week. Fred still wants $30, but says he can live with with $20 so long as Sam kicks in an extra $.30 a week to help him buy a pack of gum. They turn to The Arbitrator, who thinks Fred is asking a bit much, given Sam's current financial situation, but in the spirit of cooperation agrees that Sam could handle $12.50 along with the $.30 per week.

Then, The Arbitrator says from now on, he'll take the last best offer from each of them and pick one.

Sam prepares for Fred's next request. Based on past precedent, the Arbitrator has never awarded exactly what either of them has proposed before, but "compromise" always results in Sam paying more than he offered. Sam assumes he'd better build a compromise-type number into his next offer so that it has a realistic chance of getting picked. As usual, Sam expects he'll have about $10 in his wallet when Fred comes calling, but he scrapes together a few more bucks--some from his kid's allowance--knowing that, based on past transactions, Fred will want more and will get more--he always has.

When the time comes, Sam offers Fred $15 and the $.25 gum subsidization and crosses his fingers. Fred asks for $20 along with $.30 per week for gum--the price has gone up. The Arbitrator looks at both offers. The price of gum has gone up and Sam and Fred are only $2 apart as far as the main nut. Besides, Winston, their friend from East Greenwich, has been loaning their other friend James $25 regularly since last year and Sam makes almost as much as Winston. And Sam has always managed to come up with more than his original offer.

The Arbitrator sides with Fred.

Sam moves out of state.

Fred walks up to Winston...

Arbitration and History

Justin Katz

Marc and Matt Allen continued the conversation about binding arbitration on last night's Matt Allen Show and went on to talk a bit about Michelle Bachmann. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 29, 2011

UPDATE: Binding Arbitration Passes the Full Senate

Carroll Andrew Morse

The binding arbitration bill has already passed the full Senate, 20-17.


According to the information of the General Assembly website, Senator Frank Lombardo voted for binding arbitration in committee, in a 5-3 vote for passage, but against the measure on the floor. With the ex-officio votes available (Senators Paiva-Weed, Ruggerio and Algiere can vote in all committees), Senator Lombardo's vote didn't necessarily impact the outcome, but if he is unable to provide a good explanation for why he flip-flopped in the span of several hours, he should from now on be dubbed "The Johnston Joker".

Status of I-195 and Binding Arb Bills in the House

Carroll Andrew Morse

As indicated earlier in the evening, the House version of the binding arbitration bill has been held for further study...

House Bill No.5961
BY McCauley, Savage, Blazejewski, Lally, Carnevale
03/22/2011 Introduced, referred to House Labor
03/29/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
03/29/2011 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
06/29/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/29/2011 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
Interestingly, the I-195 bill was also held for further study earlier in the evening, but has already been scheduled for another hearing and vote tomorrow (notice of a Thursday 12:00 PM meeting posted Wednesday, at 8:54 PM)...
Senate Bill No. 0114 SUB A as amended
BY Ruggerio, Goodwin, Jabour, Perry, Ciccone
01/27/2011 Introduced, referred to Senate Housing and Municipal Government
04/14/2011 Scheduled for hearing
04/14/2011 Committee continued
05/26/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
05/26/2011 Committee continued
05/31/2011 Scheduled for consideration
05/31/2011 Committee continued
06/02/2011 Scheduled for consideration
06/02/2011 Committee recommends passage of Sub A as amended
06/07/2011 Placed on Senate Calendar
06/09/2011 Senate passed Sub A as amended
06/14/2011 Referred to House Finance
06/29/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/29/2011 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
06/30/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration

FLASH: Senate Committee Adjourns Arbitration Hearing...then Quickly Reconvenes and Approves

Marc Comtois

Monique called into Matt Allen to report that the Senate Labor Committee had approved binding arbitration after having ended the hearing, clearing the room and then quickly reconvening to vote.

Voting YES (to pass the bill)

Voting NO

There is still hope in the House, which is hearing testimony as we speak (though supposedly no vote will happen tonight).

Burgundians in the Mist : The E-book

Marc Comtois

Old history in a new format: I'm happy to announce that my historical book Burgundians in the Mist is now available in a variety of e-book formats--including Kindle, Epub (supports Nook, Sony, etc.) and even PDF--for only $2.99! The neat thing about the Kindle version is that the footnotes are hypertext, so you can select a note, read the supporting sources and notes and then return to the main text.

You can still purchase a dead-tree version for $8.99 via the publisher (more $ for me!) or Amazon.com. Thanks to those of you who have purchased BitM already and please let me know what you think!

About the book

The Burgundian Kingdom of the sixth century occupied dangerous territory. Caught between powerful neighbors, it was doomed to attack and the Burgundians vanished into the mists of time, consigned to the annals as just another victim of history.

The Burgundian society of the fifth and sixth centuries successfully integrated both Roman culture and societal institutions. The result was an amalgamated Romano-Burgundian kingdom that had laws for all and tolerated two forms of Christianity. In this, the Burgundians, particularly the kingdom of Gundobad, provided a brief foreshadowing of the culture that would eventually emerge from the intermixing of Gallo-Romans, Christians and Germans.

The Burgundians have often been cast as bit players in the history of the Merovingian Franks. This book attempts to put them at center stage within the context of recent scholarship.

About Bachmann's "Founding Father's fought Slavery" statement

Marc Comtois

Apparently we're at the point in Campaign 2012 where we play the game of dissecting political statements for "gotcha moments." The pols have to be ready for the questions, so they should work to make sure they mitigate damage by reading up beforehand. That being said, of all the things to talk to a Presidential candidate about, why focus on interpretations of who exactly was a Founding Father? But, since it was broached....

The question, from ABC's George Stephanopoulos, and Bachmann's answer:

Stephanopoulos: [E]arlier this year you said that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence worked tirelessly to end slavery. Now with respect Congresswoman, that’s just not true. Many of them including Jefferson and Washington were actually slave holders and slavery didn’t end until the Civil War....

Bachmann: Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true. He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary. He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery….

Stephanopoulos: He wasn’t one of the Founding Fathers – he was a president, he was a Secretary of State, he was a member of Congress, you’re right he did work to end slavery decades later. But so you are standing by this comment that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery?

Bachmann: Well, John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.

First of all, because "some" Founders had slaves doesn't mean that "some" didn't fight against slavery. This isn't an "either or" kinda thing. Besides, someone else offered an opinion on this (H/t)
Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the "thirty-nine" who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. It is almost exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at that time. Their names, being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to quite all, need not now be repeated....

In 1784, three years before the Constitution - the United States then owning the Northwestern Territory, and no other, the Congress of the Confederation had before them the question of prohibiting slavery in that Territory; and four of the "thirty-nine" who afterward framed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on that question. Of these, Roger Sherman, Thomas Mifflin, and Hugh Williamson voted for the prohibition...[t]he other of the four - James M'Henry - voted against the prohibition, showing that, for some cause, he thought it improper to vote for it.

In 1787, still before the Constitution, but while the Convention was in session framing it, and while the Northwestern Territory still was the only territory owned by the United States, the same question of prohibiting slavery in the territory again came before the Congress of the Confederation; and two more of the "thirty-nine" who afterward signed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on the question. They were William Blount and William Few; and they both voted for the prohibition...This time the prohibition became a law, being part of what is now well known as the Ordinance of '87....

In 1789, by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution, an act was passed to enforce the Ordinance of '87, including the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. The bill for this act was reported by one of the "thirty-nine," Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both branches without yeas and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, Wm. S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thos. Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufus King, William Paterson, George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel Carroll, James Madison.

Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Lincoln.

Is this a stretch? Perhaps, but no more, really, than the gymnastics that Stephanopoulos went through just to get to this point.

Matt Allen on Binding Arb

Carroll Andrew Morse

Matt Allen of WPRO (630AM) is on top of the binding arbitration issue, via his Twitter feed...

Gop State Reps Watson and Ehrhardt send an open letter to the Speaker to adjourn tomorrow and forget binding arb.
15 minutes ago

Larry Berman says the Speaker wants to review the new binding arb bill and review testimony.
1 hour ago

House Speaker's spokesman Larry Berman tells me there will be no vote on Binding Arb. tonight in Labor Committee. Only testimony.
1 hour ago

Re: Binding Arbitration Bill Made Public

Carroll Andrew Morse

This is the current language in Rhode Island law on the right of public school teachers to strike...

"Certified School Teachers' Arbitration", 28-9.3-1(b) It is declared to be the public policy of this state to accord to certified public school teachers the right to organize, to be represented, to negotiate professionally, and to bargain on a collective basis with school committees covering hours, salary, working conditions, and other terms of professional employment; provided, that nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to accord to certified public school teachers the right to strike.
This is the proposed language in the binding arbitration bill being heard in House and Senate committee hearings today...
28-9.3-9.2 Conduct of teachers during arbitration -- Proceedings -- (a) No certified public school teacher shall participate in a strike.
There is very little difference.

The deal being offered to RI taxpayers is that, in return for being stripped of their rights to have democratically accountable representatives determine how money is to be spent on public schools, they will receive absolutely nothing. This is, of course, what RI teachers' unions refer to as taking a "bargaining" position in good faith.

Binding Arbitration Bill Made Public

Marc Comtois

The arbitration bill has been made public (PDF) along with a press release explaining the rationale. A "Last Best Offer - Final Package" model has been added:

The legislation changes the arbitration process to one in which the complete “Last Best Offer” from both teachers’ unions and management is considered in its entirety, as opposed to the current approach in which various elements of proposals are considered individually. It extends matters eligible for arbitration to wages, and changes the manner in which arbitrators are selected. Under the current system, one arbitrator is chosen by each side in negotiations, and the third arbitrator is selected from the American Arbitration Association. The new legislation proposes that the third arbitrator would be selected instead by the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court from a list of retired judges and justices.
The legislation also outlines what the arbitration panel is supposed to consider before making a decision:
28-9.3-9.2.1 Factors to be considered by the arbitration board. – The arbitrators shall conduct the hearing and render their decision upon the basis of a prompt, peaceful and just settlement of wage or hour disputes or working conditions and terms and conditions of professional employment between the teachers and the school committee by which they are employed. The factors to be considered by the arbitration board shall include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) The interest and welfare of the students, teachers, and taxpayers;
(2) The city or town’s ability to pay;
(3) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for other Rhode Island public school teachers;
(4) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for the same or similar skills under the same or similar working conditions in the local operating area involved; and
(5) Comparison of education qualification and professional development requirements in regard to other professions.
According to various reports, mayors, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, RISC, the Moderate Party, the RI Tea Party and others are against the legislation. For example:
The bill’s opponents say they are concerned that the expansion of binding arbitration would instead place job protections for teachers ahead of sound educational policy.

“The temptation for an arbitrator to look at financial issues — to the detriment of the contract overall — is overwhelming,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

“If the union says they are willing to freeze pay and give an additional 5 percent to health care, but insist on no changes to existing language that protects, for example, 30 paid days of teacher sick leave each year, will an arbitrator say, ‘Well it’s a good financial deal?’ ” Duffy said.

“Our concern is, the unions understand the difficult environment for wages right now, so what they will use binding arbitration for is to dig in on the contract language they want to protect....We know teacher unions are worried about teacher seniority and teacher evaluations,” Duffy said. “Binding arbitration is a way of handcuffing the entire education-reform movement.”

The only apparent supporters of this legislation are teacher unions. Why?

Are pensioned and retired judges the best people to assess whether the contract proposals offered by municipalities are a result of fiscal reality? Will communities be more generous than otherwise in hopes of possibly "winning" the "last best offer" showdown? What will inevitably happen is that both union and community proposals will mean more dollars for the unions. Like I said before: binding arbitration = tax hike.

Finally, the whole concept of binding arbitration provides an "out" for our elected officials, making it easier for them to avoid really negotiating when that is a major part of the job that we elect them to do. "It wasn't us, the arbitrator made the decision."

The Wrong Starting Point on Pensions

Justin Katz

See, this is exactly the wrong starting point for resolving the state's pension problems; indeed, it's indicative of the wrong approach to government in general:

All of these ideas and more were batted about on Monday during the first meeting of the new Pension Advisory Group that state Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo, a Democrat, created in consultation with Governor Chafee, an independent. ...

... with Rhode Island's state-run, government-employee pension systems' $7.303-billion hole, the panel set itself a handful of seemingly simple goals: figure out how what a fair pension for a government worker should be, and then figure out how the state and its cities and towns should pay for those benefits.

No rational understanding of "fairness" is possible without prior knowledge of how a particular benefit is going to be funded. But it's just that backwards construction of pay and benefits in government, with its absence of market forces, that has moved the shovels of those who've dug our hole.

Real Person Account of Pension Advisory Group

Marc Comtois

G.B. Short's letter to the ProJo is worth highlighting. He went to the Pension Advisory Group meeting about which I've already expressed some skepticism. Let's just say his first hand, real person account does little to alleviate my reservations. First, about the makeup of the members:

Early on in the meeting it was stated that this board was set up "to represent the interests of all Rhode Islanders," a sentiment the organizers expressed more than once. With that, my first instinct was to look at the makeup of the board as members introduced themselves. Of those appointed, four are union leaders from the public sector -- a disproportionate weighting at the outset, even acknowledging that labor will have to participate in the final solution and should have a voice.

There was not one clearly identified advocate for the taxpayer, while there should have been several. There were advocates for business and industry. And as the three academic members of the board are probably slated to receive pensions from their institutions I cannot count them to be unbiased....There was not one advocate for non-public union retirees...Certainly non-public union interests should have been present, as well, since many of these wage earners will also be substantially impacted through taxes on their income. One member of the board is retired, but his role as a president of the North Providence Federation of Teachers certainly disqualifies him as an independent advocate for retirees. When I questioned the board's makeup after the meeting, I was told he was proposed to fill that [ie; the "retiree's"] role.

Short also provides some context surrounding the line I focused on in my prior post, “I don’t think the private sector is what we want to emulate.”
[M]ost of the board's members, if not all, based on their current employment status, will likely draw a pension from their institution or union. This is an educated guess. As potential pensioners, board members quickly showed a bias in their expectations of what the benefits of a pension should be.

For instance, the discussion came up early on as to what income a retiree should expect a pension to provide for the rest of their lives. It was quickly settled by common agreement that about 80 percent of previous income was the expected norm...I can tell the board members that as one who had to provide for his own retirement, an 80 percent salary drawdown on your investments is an astoundingly good return, if not reckless, on your lifetime savings and investments going forward for the rest of your life, and one most of us who worked for a living privately can only dream about.

Amazingly, in the early phase of the meeting, I heard one expert participant from academia reject any alternative to a defined-benefits plan (a plan where the employer guarantees your future income for the rest of your retired life), declaring that employee contribution plans (i.e., a 401 [k]), which most of us in the private sector have, are "not anything we want to duplicate," as Ms. Gregg reported.

I waited for someone on the board to challenge that statement. Not one single board member commented!


Last Again, Naturally

Marc Comtois

CNBC has ranked Rhode Island as the least business-friendly state in the country. #50. Dead last. I know the yabuts will be out, but--to coin a phrase--"perception is reality" and when a business channel reports that your state is the worst, well, what do you think the business people watching that channel are going to come away with? The rankings are here and were derived following this method:

This year’s categories and weightings, for a total of 2,500 points, are:

* Cost of Doing Business (350 points)
* Workforce (350 points)
* Quality of Life (350 points)
* Infrastructure & Transportation (325 points)
* Economy (300 points)
* Education (225 points)
* Technology & Innovation (225 points)
* Business Friendliness (200 points)
* Access to Capital (100 points)
* Cost of Living (50 points)

Rhode Island's best rankings were in the middle of the pack in the categories "Quality of Life" and "Education" (24th), "Workforce" (26th) and "Technology and Innovation" (27th). Two of the four where we showed best were among the highest weighted categories, but that wasn't enough to make up for our abysmal showing in "Cost of Business" (46th), "Business Friendliness" (48th) and "Infrastructure & Transportation" (49th). Do you think giving control of prime real estate in Downtown Providence to an unelected-but-well-connected commission will help the negative perception any?

Standards for State Employment? Who'd Have Thought?

Justin Katz

An op-ed from Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion raises one of those issues that is apt to make the average Rhode Islander wonder why things don't work that way already:

The key to solving this [hiring] problem [in the General Assembly] is to put in place sound human-resources practices — in this case an employee-classification plan. This plan would contain a salary structure to be used to guide who is paid how much, and for what work. With this plan in place the public could hold the General Assembly responsible for any raises that deviated from the salary structure for any given job. ...

Determining what is necessary to do a job requires you to look at the job content, the job context, the intensity of the mental processes required and the effect of the work on results. The content of a job includes which knowledge and skills are necessary to complete the work, including any specialized knowledge. The job context includes the conditions the person works in, such as the seasonal nature of different tasks. Looking at those factors you can create a job description to then be used in recruitment or performance evaluation for that position. Those who do the hiring, in this case the leadership of the General Assembly, would have to justify hires, raises or promotions on the basis of objective qualifications for the position.

In areas dealing with union labor, the contracts do some of that work, but that only highlights additional ways in which such a system would benefit the public — by moving matters of employment further from the negotiating table.

In any event, the reform is so obvious and straightforward that it would surely require a concerted fight over at least a decade to even bring it into the realm of possibility. For the time being, we should just try to make names like that of Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's special assistant, union-boss son Stephen Iannazzi infamous.

June 28, 2011

Binding Arbitration: Tomorrow's Schedule; Committee Contact Info; a Little Background on the Dangers of B.A.

Monique Chartier

RI Statewide Coalition's press conference is at 3:00 in the State House Rotunda. RISC points out that


RI Tea Party's press conference is at 3:30 on the Smith Street side of the State House. The Tea Party sez

If these bills pass this session, they will decimate any perception that pension reform will save RI!


There is NO compromise that any bill could provide that makes binding arbitration and perpetual contracts taxpayer or student friendly!

Committee hearings (scheduled to be held simultaneously in both Chambers, making it nice and convenie ... wait, how could a concerned party attend both hearings???) start at the Rise of the House - around 4:00 pm.

List of House Labor Committee members. Phone numbers here.

List of Senate Labor Committee members. Phone numbers here.

And, if all of this hasn't convinced you, in a ProJo OpEd late last year, Steve Frias outlines how Cranston, through the joy of binding arbitration, came to have some of the highest property taxes in Rhode Island.

Just as Rhode Island’s textile strikes of 1922 and 1934 altered the course of Rhode Island’s history, so would the enactment of binding arbitration.

Binding arbitration would lead to many of the benefits that Cranston’s police officers and firefighters currently enjoy. In 1975, the firefighters union, through binding arbitration, began receiving longevity-pay bonuses that give employees additional pay raises the longer they work in government.

In 1980, a binding-arbitration decision required Cranston to provide Blue Cross to retiring firefighters for the rest of their lives even though firefighters could retire in their early 40s after 20 years of work. Today, Cranston’s unfunded retiree-health-care liability stands at $50,136,114.

In that same decision, the arbitrator established a minimum-manning requirement for firefighters, which required hiring more firefighters and increased firefighters’ ability to obtain overtime. A year later, in 1981, another binding-arbitration decision required that holiday pay be “included in determining a retiree’s pension.” What the firefighters won through binding arbitration, police officers in Cranston gained by contractual agreement out of a sense of fairness and a feeling of futility in contesting the issues in binding arbitration.

If you believe that history repeats itself, you may just learn something about what could come to pass by reading a little bit of Cranston’s past.

In point of fact, rather than expanding binding arbitration to school contracts, the General Assembly needs to revoke binding arb from the municipal side. It is one of the measures critical to backing Rhode Island's state and local tax burden down from the fifth highest in the country.


And Dan makes a couple of excellent points under Marc's post.

... the entire arbitration selection system guarantees compromises and meet-in-the-middle decisions even when compromises are not the fair and just solution. When a city is bankrupt and a teacher's union demands 8% pay increases, giving the union 3% pay increases is not justice - it is financial madness. Any arbitrator who rules in favor of the city will be blacklisted by the unions and will never be selected as an arbitrator again.

Everybody Wants Action

Justin Katz

Everybody's telling us to call our legislators. An email from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC):






Later, from Ken Block and the Moderate Party:

Binding arbitration is back - and the stakes are huge.

There could not be a worse time for our legislature to consider tieing the hands of local elected leaders by removing from their toolbox the ability to negotiate local labor contracts.

Binding arbitration places the responsibility for negotiating local labor contracts with an unelected third party. We can ill afford to allow an outsider to determine local tax rates, which is in effect what will happen if the expansion of binding arbitration is allowed to proceed.

In a sane polity — and I offer this as a suggestion to those who remain sane around here — any legislator who plays any role in advancing binding arbitration would be considered forever unelectable no matter what he or she might subsequently say or do. But this isn't a sane polity; it's Rhode Island, and if (as rumors suggest) Democrats and labor leaders exchanged a mere wince at the end of state-employee longevity payments for binding arbitration, then they've merely found another variation of the one-time fix.

With binding arbitration, your elected officials cease to be the ones with the final say on expenditures of your money confiscated via taxation. If this is the deal that's been struck, then all Rhode Islanders for whom leaving is a realistic possibility should probably do so.

That conclusion comes, not the least, because only with the death of binding arbitration can there be considered to exist a glimmer of hope that the the state's civic culture could right itself. If binding arbitration comes to be, the wave of groups — from RISC to the Moderate Party to the Ocean State Policy Research Institute (OSPRI) to the RIGOP to Anchor Rising — are no longer "reform groups," but must be considered the voices of a subversive minority, fighting a rear-guard action mainly so that historians can report that some lone voices warned the state.

John Ward: Binding Arbitration Makes Local Governance Unaffordable and Nearly Impossible to Fix

Engaged Citizen

Dear Representatives and Senators representing Woonsocket:

I write today to express my strong opposition to the H5961 and S0794, teacher binding arbitration bills to be heard in each chamber's Labor Committee on Wednesday. Representative Phillips and Senator Picard, as members of the labor committee in each chamber, I am asking that you vote in opposition to sending these bills to your respective chambers for a floor vote. To the rest of the delegation, I expect that should these bills be brought to the floor for a vote that you will vote NO.

It should be clear to you all by now that your community has suffered from the effects of the existing binding arbitration statute. Benefits, once granted by arbitrators and not negotiated for, become virtually impossible to negotiate away. It is being rumored that this is a "payback to labor" as part of some quid pro quo. If so, who negotiated that deal on behalf of the taxpayers of Woonsocket? Passage of a bill like this will be the same as passing an unfunded mandate! You will be causing an increase in property taxes and then blaming the local officials for "negotiating away" the benefits that will be granted by someone else! Let's not go there.

The House Commission on Municipal Financial Integrity heard the appeal of local leaders from across the state. The common thread running through their pleas for help was the desperate need to remove binding arbitration from the state law. It has made local financial governance unaffordable and nearly impossible to fix. It has actually been the cause for reduced public safety staffing because of an inability to undo the high cost of benefits granted by arbitrators. It's already tough enough to make ends meet when developing our local budgets, PLEASE DON'T MAKE MATTERS WORSE!

Do not vote on this bill until you have done you duty and called your Mayor to hear first hand about the services we no longer provide because of our financial problems.

I am asking all that I have copied with this email to personally contact their representatives and senators to demand that they vote in opposition to these bills and support the taxpayers they represent.

John Ward is President of the Woonsocket City Council.

How the Economy Would Recover

Justin Katz

It's kind of surprising to see this reported as news, but perhaps it's been so thoroughly forgotten among politicians and in the culture that it's actually a new discovery for journalists:

You get laid off. Your job search goes nowhere. Your savings dry up. Now what? The answer for many is as old as capitalism: Start a business.

This isn't the new Google, here. This is Bob's Landscaping and Junk Hauling or Alicia's Cake Baking and Daycare — whatever it takes to bring in a serious income. It might be a hobby or side business that morphed into a lifeline, but the key for most people is starting with relatively little capital — a lawn mower, computer repair tools, a sewing machine, all of which they might already own.

That's why the best approach to repairing the economy isn't to soften the experience of unemployment while throwing wads of debt-derived dollars into the economy. Rather, what's needed is to maintain a reasonable safety net while easing regulations.

Rhode Island especially needs to learn this lesson. Not only does the General Assembly look likely to tax new items (albeit many fewer than the governor wanted), but we frequently see the state and municipal governments ratcheting up fees, expanding fines, and otherwise making it more difficult to negotiate the economy.

Binding Arbitration = Tax Hike

Marc Comtois

The House and Senate Labor Committees will be conducting simultaneous hearings and votes on binding arbitration laws tomorrow. A fait accompli? Probably.

Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, whose organization opposes the legislation on grounds that it would make local taxpayers liable for the decisions of an unelected panel, said the move by both labor committees to act on the same legislation on the same day "does not bode well for our ability to stop its happening."

"It indicates a deal has been cut between the House and the Senate leadership to pass a binding arbitration bill," Duffy said. "It seems that the teacher unions have convinced legislative leadership that since the fiscal 2012 budget ended longevity bonuses for state employees they should be awarded binding arbitration as a concession. The state gets $4 million in savings and local government gets to pay for it with a new unfunded mandate."

Quid pro quo (OK, enough Latin)...no one should be surprised. We've been warning about it for a while. Why is it so bad, you may ask? Because it basically takes away the ability of school committees or city and town councils to actually negotiate with unions. Instead, the unions can play a waiting game, go to an arbitrator (or arbitration panel) who will, in the best case scenario, cut the baby in half between two proposals. Arbitrators are wont to look at so-called "comparables"--contracts and compensation data from other communities--that inherently benefit unions (someone, somewhere is always paying more) all while ignoring the actual ability of communities (ie; taxpayers) to pay. The end result: taxes go up.

Pension Panelist: “I don’t think the private sector is what we want to emulate.”

Marc Comtois

So said Alicia Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and one of the 12 appointed to the RI Pension Advisory Group. Munnell elaborated further:

“I strongly believe that [the private sector model shouldn't be followed],” she repeated after the 2 1/2 -hour meeting, “because what you have seen in the private pension system is movement from the old-fashioned defined-benefit plans to 401(k) plans. The [hypothetical] employer puts in 3 percent; the employee puts in 6 percent” and, in the end, “people have such inadequate balances in those accounts. ... That’s not anything we want to duplicate.”
No kidding. That's why the solution is to take even more money from the poor private sector saps to continue insulating public sector pensioners from economic reality, right? Look, I understand (as NEA's Bob Walsh states) that the majority of the public sector pensions aren't "gold-plated," but let's stop acting like pension promises of the past are sacred blood oaths or that modest changes will result in people living in the poor house. The private sector model may not be great, but it's what present and future taxpayers can afford.

An A Priori Ruling from RIDE

Justin Katz

Every year, for the past several, Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting has made a distinction between the amount that it was appropriating from "local funds" and the amount that it expected from state and federal aid. For fiscal year 2010, the state aid came in $367,165 less than predicted, and the school department took the money out of the town's general fund, anyway, even though it had a surplus that year.

The town treasurer at the time, Philip DiMattia, returned the money to the town, and the school committee sued. Not surprisingly, given that this is Rhode Island, the first step in such litigation is with the state Department of Education, and even less surprisingly, RIDE ruled in favor of the government body more directly under its control:

In her summary, [Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist stated that "[w]hen state aid does not materialize in the sum expected, a city or town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made."

In other words, she said, the Town of Tiverton is required to hold the school committee harmless for the total appropriation if the anticipated state aid does not materialize. The law requires a single sum ("an amount") to be appropriated, she ruled.

In a broad context, the ruling illustrates a huge problem with our modern bureaucratic system of government. The elected legislature passes laws, and the elected governor appoints bureaucrats to implement those laws, but often those bureaucrats make significant changes to those laws while acting as all three branches of government in one unelected body: legislature (by creating specific "regulations"), executive (by implementing the laws), and judiciaries (by, as in this case, ruling on disputes related to its execution of the regulations).

There are two relevant statutes containing the reference to "an amount." 16-7-23 doesn't refer to "appropriations," but to "provision":

The school committee's budget provisions of each community for current expenditures in each budget year shall provide for an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.

The law goes on to say that the "community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year," with certain exceptions, and to say that additional state funds cannot displace local funds already appropriated. The simple reading of this statute is that the town's appropriation of its own money must take into account revenue from other sources and then provide enough funding to meet the state's basic education plan (BEP). That this is the appropriate reading is solidified when "an amount" appears again in 6-7-24:

Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available to the school committee for approved school expenditures during each school year, to be expended under the direction and supervision of the school committee of that community, an amount, which, together with state education aid and federal aid: (1) shall be not less than the costs of the basic program during the reference year, (2) plus the costs in the reference year of all optional programs shared by the state; provided, however, that the state funds provided in accordance with § 16-5-31 shall not be used to supplant local funds.

There's no way around the fact that the law draws a distinction between what a town appropriates and what it receives in state and federal aid. It cannot do otherwise, because a town cannot appropriate money from other, higher government entities. In the case at hand, the schools did not prove that they need that $367k to meet the BEP; it was, after all, a surplus.

So now, to force the law to be applied accurately, the town would have to appeal the commissioner's ruling to the Board of Regents, which is just as likely to be in schools' camp, and then to the state judiciary, all while paying the lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Little wonder citizens become apathetic; the law, as Tiverton's school and municipal government entities have proven repeated over recent years, is whatever you can get away with.

June 27, 2011

Teacher Union Logic... Maybe It's Me

Justin Katz

There are a number of weird statements in this article about the Providence Teacher Union's attempts to protect seniority-based hiring. First is this statement, which I'm not sure is entirely meant to say what it does but indicates a mentality that surely exists in the public school system:

The new BEP is designed to ensure that the most effective teachers are placed in classrooms of students who have the most need.

If the "most effective" teachers are serving the children "most in need," what about the other students? Somehow our system seems to favor hard cases, which is fine, to an extent, but it doesn't seem like the best strategy for building a globe-leading advanced nation.

Then there's the peculiar union worldview:

[Union lawyer Marc] Gursky says it makes no sense to talk about seniority before the state has rolled out a new system for teacher evaluations, which will begin to take place statewide this fall.

"To say that seniority can't be a factor before you have an evaluation in place is like putting the cart before the horse," he said.

Evaluations and minimizing seniority-based decisions would seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, one way to find a merit-based system that works is to let administrators begin experimenting.

But the weirdest statement may be this one, in reporter Linda Borg's paraphrase:

The PTU argument is similar to one made by the Portsmouth School Committee two weeks ago. In a lawsuit filed against the Portsmouth Teachers Union, the School Committee claims that it has final say over how teachers are assigned. The committee, in April, approved a new hiring process that diminishes the role of seniority in staffing decisions.

The Providence Teacher's Union is arguing that the state can't insist on an end to seniority, and the Portsmouth School Committee is arguing that it has a right to end seniority in contravention of contractual habits. How are those the same?

Belatedly on the budget

Marc Comtois

Real life took me away for the better part of the last week, but major kudos to Andrew and Monique for having the stomach to both watch and blog about the annual 11th hour House budget hearings on Captitol TV. I watched a little of it, but it was late, I was sick and they had it covered. Truth be told, as Justin pointed out earlier last week, it's hard to get excited when the budget "cuts" can only be called such when viewed as relative to the Governor's proposal and not to prior year's spending. The budget was also helped by better "revenue" projections than before. With the exception of the change in medical coverage for state retirees that shifted costs over to Medicare, no major structural reform really happened. I suppose we wait for pension (and OPEB?) reform in the fall. Or maybe we just wait for things to get magically better--or not quite as bad. You know, tolerably bad in the miserable Rhode Island sorta way. That's our General Assembly: marking time, as always.

ADDENDUM: Commenter "RodneyR" reminds me I forgot to mention the ending of longevity and says that should qualify as a "structural" change. Yup (for now).

The Value of a Dream Job

Justin Katz

An agreement appears to be near completion that would prevent the layoffs of 75 Providence police officers, but Friday's human interest story in the Providence Journal — highlighting young officers' sense of their "dream jobs" — touches on broader considerations pertaining to public-sector workers:

By March, [Sean Lafferty and Matthew McGloin] were named Officers of the Month for their numerous arrests, which contributed to a 50-percent drop in drug-related calls in the West End.

"We love coming to work. We know in our hearts that what we're doing is good. We're proud to be here," Lafferty said. "We don't want to leave."

Added McGloin: "This is our dream."

How bizarre is a system that places such men in the first wave of layoffs? And how much more productive would the police force be if they set a bar with which other officers felt at least some tangible incentive to compete? As with much else in the public sector, the rules appear designed to force the administrators and the public to make the worst decisions if ever they seek to rein in expenses.

Another point worth salvaging from the article is that jobs can have value beyond their pay:

[Donald] Castigliego had given up a well-paying job in the mortgage industry for this, spending months in the academy at minimum wage before hitting the streets as a rookie officer. "Other than my son, it's probably the proudest thing in my life," he said.

The layoffs have left him heartbroken, Castigliego says.

"I think people should realize — and I speak for my class — there's 25 guys who didn't take that job for a paycheck. They all gave up a lot to take this job," Castigliego said. "And every single one of those guys loves this job, and is here for the right reasons. We're not just a number."

Just because a job is fulfilling doesn't mean it shouldn't pay well, but the fact that people want a job is clearly an aspect of compensation. What's happened over the past half-century is that public-sector unions have taken advantage of the fact that they can appeal to voters, not to mention apply political weight to elect friendly bosses, so as to skew all such calculations. A fulfilling job that pays very well, with great benefits and uncommon job security, is not just a dream, it's a fantasy.

As reluctant as we may justifiably be to push back the expectations of motivated and well-meaning young men and women, there is no alternative, because the perpetuation of such a system cannot but come at the expense of others' dreams.

June 26, 2011

"You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things."

Monique Chartier

Now here's a concept too often missing in politics. It was spoken by the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, on the Today Show Friday. (Lauer was interviewing the Dreamy One about the public pension and health bill just passed by the NJ Assembly.)

Matt Lauer: Your approval rating -- 47% of the people in New Jersey disapprove right now of the job that Chris Christie is doing in the state. Simply go with the territory?

Gov Chris Christie: Yes. You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things. And what makes what happened in New Jersey different than what happened in other places is, we did it in a bipartisan way. This is not just a Republican plan or a Democratic plan. It's a bipartisan plan where we compromised to put the people first, Matt. This is ... the taxpayer is going to be saved $130 billion over the next thirty years.

"You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things." Like saving public pensions. Like not viewing tax dollars as monopoly money, to be casually spent and mandated on budget items of dubious public (in the broader sense) benefit. Like creating a business climate that doesn't chase the golden-egg-laying goose around with a tax-and-fee hatchet but rather, welcomes businesses - and jobs - to the state.

Like focusing your legislative efforts on putting "the people first" and your own re-election second. In the end, is there any point to getting re-elected if you are not achieving big things?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bills Posted Yesterday (Yes, Saturday) For Hearings on Monday or Tuesday

Carroll Andrew Morse

On Saturday, a bunch of bills were posted for RI House committee hearings on Monday or Tuesday. Many of the bills, on the surface, look somewhere between innocuous and silly (e.g. H0623, which increases the weigh-in period for mixed martial arts matches from 24 to 36 hours), but folks knowledgeable in the ways of the RI legislature may be interested in going through the list, and letting us know if there's anything that would qualify as an attempt to slip a bill through the legislature, before the public has become fully aware of its content...

House Finance Bills
House Health, Education and Welfare Bills
House Corporations Bills
House Environment and Natural Resources Bills

June 25, 2011

Can We Please Deduct $142,000 from East Providence's State Aid for the Next Two Years?

Monique Chartier

It's already a lot that we send money for the salaries of municipal and school staffers who actually, you know, come in and work. To send money for someone to involuntarily "sit home, eating ice cream sandwiches" for absolutely no reason is a bit much.

The East Providence School Committee decided to keep School Superintendent Mario Cirillo on paid administrative leave in a split vote Tuesday night. ...

School committee chairman Charles Tsonos had a statement explaining his stance behind continuing the paid leave.

"In supporting the motion to continue the superintendent on administrative leave, I believe that we need to set a new course to constructively address the difficult and unresolved issues that lie ahead for our schools,” reads a portion of the statement.

Actually, Mr. Cirillo had worked hard and quite effectively for the East Providence school system during very difficult times recently. So that's clearly not a reason to bench him.

In fact, what is happening is that certain members of the new school committee view Mr. Cirillo as anathama to their masters (whose contract will soon need to be re-negotiated, by the way) and, in a very strange kind of political pay-back, are getting rid of him any way they have to. No matter the cost to the taxpayer or the effect on EP schools.

Most municipalities eschew no-show jobs. Those (few if any) that surreptitiously hand them out do so to political supporters. How absurd and wasteful that the EP School Committee is giving a no-show job to a political opponent -- at everyone else's expense, to boot.

June 24, 2011

B-Day Casino Article

Carroll Andrew Morse

Introduced by Helio Melo.

It would be Twin River only. The operator versus the state's take would be decided by the legislature next year.

Brian Newberry states support for a Casino in principle, but has concerns about this article. Because of Federal law, if RI opens itself up to "Class 3" gaming, than Indian tribes gain certain rights with regards to Class 3 gaming.

Newberry begins to discuss the 195 land. John Carnavale raises a point of order, saying it's not relevant. Fox upholds the point of order.

Peter Petrarca says anyone could have come to the Finance Committee meeting and heard the content of this bill.

Rene Menard says we have has to pass this to help our pahtnah make money and raise revenue for the state.

Joe Trillo says the place for a casino is Quonset.

Mike Chippendale says 50% of the language in this new -- it hasn't been seen by the Reps before. And why are we going to put on the ballot what been on the ballot 4 times before and never won?

Helio Melo: You didn't get the bill an hour-and-a-half ago, you got it a couple of hours ago. And the only reason we're voting on this late in the night is because you insisted on debating other bills.

William San Bento asks for no more debate tonight. Not passing this would be stupid.

Michael Marcello: My constituents oppose this.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: An incremenal approach won't work. We need to build a destination resort, with a coherent plan. We are puting something before the voters, without giving them the information that they need. Plus we need a plan that we are absolutely sure is constitutional.

Pat Morgan: She wants to vote for this, but expresses concern about the interaction of this law and Federal Indian gaming law and what it might enable the Narragansetts to do.

Peter Palumbo: Quotes B. Cianci as saying "Rhode Island will get into the casino business when it is no longer profitable", and doesn't want to see that happen.

Peter Martin: Why do we have to vote tonight on something that won't be voted on until 2012? And we need a better answer than predatory gambling to our fiscal problems.

Nicholas Mattiello: We need to protect our 3rd largest revenue source from competition from Massachusetts. And the referendum changes the Constitution.

Brian Newberry expresses concerns about unintended consequences with this bill.

Charlene Lima says the job of the legislature isn't to protect Twin River or the state's "partners"; it's to protect the taxpayers.

J. Russell Jackson supports the bill because it is equitable to Newport, despite his reservations about gambling in general.

The Article passes, 62-9.

B-Day Bombshell: Casino Article to be Introduced During the Wee Hours

Monique Chartier

With apologies to Andrew for breaking in here.

Just returned from the State House. The House had broken for dinner when I arrived shortly before 8 pm. So, in lieu of watching the budget action on the floor, I had the pleasure of conversing at length with a gaggle of good government types - with good government reps stopping by our group to share battle stories and the latest they had heard about the budget.

A couple of people confirmed that leadership plans to trot out a budget amendment late in tonight's session that would put a casino on the ballot. Not a casino at Twin River, as has been discussed. A casino in Providence on some of the former Route 195 land. [This was wrong; see correction below.]

One of the many unknowns is whether the land would be turned over to the Narragansett for them to operate the casino. This would present a revenue complication for the state because apparently federal law dictates that 60% of the revenue generated by casinos operated by native Americans must go to them. The state is well accustomed to receiving 60%+ of the take at Twin River and Newport Grand.

Stay tuned. If this turns out not to be a crazy rumor, it might explain why there has been a Napoleonic grab on Smith Hill for these twenty acres.


It was a semi-crazy rumor. Casino, yes. Route 195 land, no. See Andrew's post above - it's a gift to Twin River, with compensation to Newport Grand.

It's B-Day, Part 2

Carroll Andrew Morse

[9:18] Ian Donnis tweets...

Reps are wondering what they'll be voting on with the Twin River amendment.

[9:22] Article 19 is up. This is the bulk of tax and fee changes, including some business taxes and the sales tax changes...

[9:24] Speaker Fox to William San Bento after he seconds a motion: "You don't get up very often, I didn't even know you could get up".

[9:26] Helio Melo offers an amendment clarifying that a) the tour tax only applies to tours in Rhode Island, not tours bought in Rhode Island of places outside RI b) the digital download tax applies mainly to pre-written software.

[9:29] Bob Watson: Out of a 7 billion dollar budget, we can't find 17 million more to cut, to avoid raising any taxes at all?

[9:31] Charlene Lima: What's the logic in taxing something like Norton, which is almost a necessity for computers, versus taxing iTune song downloads, which is a luxury? Melo reiterates the pre-written distinction, and that it matches Massachusetts tax policy.

[9:39] Pat Morgan asks if we could run the Convention Center more effectively (and not lose $25 million a year on it) could we avoid raising taxes? Helio Melo answers he had not considered this in the context of Article 19.

[9:42] Lisa Tomasso asks about the insurance proceeds tax. I can't say that I fully understand how it works, based on Melo's answer.

[9:49] Peter Petrarca is trying to convince Charlene Lima that the state will get its insurance proceeds tax, but the consumer won't feel any impact. I still don't get this.

[9:51] Mike Chippendale proposes eliminating the over-the-counter drug tax (8.6 million dollars), and making up the difference with a cut to departmental operating budgets and grants.

[9:55] Melo speaks against the amendment. Departments have already been cut enough (10%), plus it's really 12 million that would need to be cut, based on a full year worth of spending.

[9:57] Amendment fails 21 - 43. (And 43 reps go on record, specifically as being in favor of taxing over-the-counter drugs).

[9:59] Joe Trillo offers an amendment to eliminate the $17 million in tax increases, by cutting $17 million from uncompensated care to hospitals. And by the way, an exec from Lifespan got a $9+ million severance package. Also, he believes hospitals game the prices they charge for uncompensated care.

[10:06] Amendment fails 7-60.

[10:07] Karen MacBeth: Will the tour-tax apply to children going to see Santa Claus on the polar express? Helio Melo: Yes. MacBeth: Do we want to be known as the state that taxes Santa Claus?

[10:12] Article 19 passes. Now back to Article 13, some changes to vehicle registrations. It gets passed without debate.

[10:15] Article 20, changes to corrections policy, mostly relating to allowing medical paroles for prisoners who are severely ill.

[10:24] Doreen Costa says the AG oppposes Article 20.

[10:25] Article 20 passes, 43-26.

[10:26] Weird (to my mind) admonishment from Speaker Fox. If you are in your seat, it is your duty to vote. If you don't want to vote, get up and leave. No voting "present" says Speaker Fox!

[10:27] While I was writing the 10:26 entry, Article 24 was read and passed, 66 - 1.

[10:32] Article 22, which is supposed to begin to eliminate the state's dependence on bonded debt for paying for transportation projects, is on the floor. Jerimiah O'Grady mentions that 50% of gas tax revenue is now going to pay for debt service.

[10:39] Article 22 passes after a short debate.

[10:45] Article 12, amongst other things, allows cities and towns to require their retirees to enroll in Medicare, changes disability appeal procedures, places a 3 year moratorium on library construction, and requires municipalities to inform the state if they are likely to incur a debt.

[10:48] Jon Brien says the Medicare provision means that local taxpayers won't have to subsidize lieftime retiree healthcare benefits -- and that is real savings for cities and towns in the future.

[10:51] Rene Menard wants to know how this Article will impact the Blue Cross for life he receives as a retired, disabled firefighter. Helio Melo says he could be changed to Medicare by age 65.

[10:53] Menard takes exception to communities saying they cannot afford their disability costs anymore. Don't blame the people receiving disability benefits, blame the administrations awarding them.

[10:56] Brian Newberry discusses how healthcare for life was awarded by arbitrators in the 1980s, when its true cost was unforseen, and this article begins to undo a burden on the taxpayers that was never intended.

[11:06] House members are now debating the provision in the Article eliminating the requirement that school committees publish notice of their meetings in a newspaper.

[11:19] Dan Gordon just got applause for saying "I've been uncharacteristically silent this evening", beginning his statement on the subject of the library construction moratorium.

[11:22] Roberto DaSilva says the Medicare provision is an attack on collective bargaining. This is at least the third budget item he has described in that way. Scott Slater and Arthur Handy challenge DaSilva's perspective.

[11:25] Jon Brien: We need to provide what we can afford, and we cannot afford locally-funded healthcare for life.

[11:27] Article 12 passes in sections, on separate votes.

[11:28] Article 23, changes to various human services programs. Floor manager Eileen Naughton offers an immediate amendment related to prescription drugs for the elderly.

[11:30] Maria Cimini objects to a cut in supplemental security income payments to elderly recipients.

[11:31] Article 23 passes, 60-8.

It's B-Day!

Carroll Andrew Morse

Just got in front of a TV showing RI Captiol TV, showing the House Floor budget debate. We're in the middle of Article 8, the budget article on longevity payments.

[5:58] Article 8 passed -- blatantly stealing a description from Ian Donnis' Twitter Feed...

Article 8 cutting new longevity pay for RI state workers passes, 43-27

[6:07] Article 9 is being discussed now. It involves some structural reorganization of state government.

[6:11] Charlene Lima is questioning the wisdom of placing the state's sheriffs under the State Police, which this bill does. Helio Melo answers that they're all under the Commissioner of Public Safety anyway.

Greg Schadone wants to vote on the provision concerning the Sheriffs separately from the rest of the bill. Speaker Fox says "we'll get back to you"...

[6:17] Alert commenter Ken. Dan Reilly just stated that the only other state in the US with a statewide Sheriff's Dept. is Hawaii. Also, Reilly is opposed to putting the Sheriff''s under the State police. Speaker Fox is still trying to figure out if they can vote on that part separately. Apparently, the Sheriff's stuff is comingled with some Elderly Affairs reorganization stuff.

[6:22] Hey, RI legislators, if you actually conducted your business in the sunlight, you'd actually catch some of these problems in committee, before the floor vote.

[6:27] I think the whole article passed, including the Sheriff's dept. reorg, but on separate votes.

[6:28] Article 10: Changes in school bus regulations and funding for Davies technical academy...

[6:30] Edith Ajello wants an amendment to make sure potential bus drivers who fail a criminal background check can discuss and/or appeal the decision. Stephen Ucci thinks this is already covered in other areas of the law, and the amendment should be rejected.

[6:34] Frank Ferri thinks this amendment should go through the committee process. Perhaps a theme emerges...

[6:39] J. Patrick O'Neill says the issue is who is responsible for explaining the details of a criminal background check, the person doing the check, or the person being checked out?

[6:45] Ajello's amendment gets crushed, 7-63. You never would have guessed that was coming, from the preceding debate.

Article 10 passes unanimously. Article 11 is under discussion, which increases an annual assessment on insurers used to pay for children's health services, i.e. it is literally for the children.

[6:53] Article 11 passes. We jump ahead to Article 14, which changes nursing home reimbursement.

[6:55] 14 passed. On to Article 15, which fixes Medicaid payment rates. Speaker Fox blitzes through an amendment which only James McLaughlin votes against.

[6:59] Samuel Azzinaro introduces an amendment saying don't raise "certificate of need" requirements right now. Leo Medina says, I think, raising the CON requirement reduces the bureaucratic hurdles RI hospitals have to jump through, in order to grow.

[7:06] Teresa Tanzi thinks we may have too many hospitals in this state. Don't you just love progressive attitudes towards healthcare? Can you even understand them?

[7:07] Nicholas Mattiello makes the same argument as Medina, let hospitals purchase equipment without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Pat Morgan, who has been on the right side of most issues since being elected to the House, is arguing that we need more central planning for our medical system, to keep costs down. Helio Melo argures this is just an adjustment for inflation.

[7:14] OK, what am I missing? Mike Chippendale, who has also been very good on many issues, argues that we shouldn't raise the size of equipment purchases that require state permission. Leo Medina says the Massachusetts CON requirement is about $15 million. Pat Morgan says Massachusetts is not RI, because it has universal healthcare.

[7:23] Article 15 passes, with the raised limit.

[7:29] Article 16, "The department of humans services will make the necessary changes to raise the RIte Care monthly cost sharing requirement to five percent (5%) of family income"... passes 49-20.

[7:33] Article 17, relating to DCYF is up. This content of this article seems less like a budget article than some general changes in DCYF policy to me.

[7:40] Article 17 passes with two votes against.

[7:45] Article 18 paying for uncompensated care at RI hospitals is up. An amendment rejiggers the amounts specified in the initial bill. Helio Melo answers a question from Joe Trillo, as to why amounts for South County and Westerly hospitals are being adjusted -- the answer is that the bureaucratic formulas for Medicaid uncompensated care unjustly punish these two hospitals.

[7:52] Article 18, with the South County/Westerly amendment, passes.

[7:53] Dinner break.

Maybe It's Your Philosophy, Ben

Justin Katz

There's an army of right-leaning and libertarian bloggers who would be willing to offer this puzzled economic power broker a pointer or two:

The economy's continuing struggles aren't just confounding ordinary Americans. They've also stumped the head of the Federal Reserve.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters Wednesday that the central bank had been caught off guard by recent signs of deterioration in the economy. And he said the troubles could continue into next year.

What's the quote from Keynes? "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood." Maybe Mr. Bernanke needs to question whether he's getting something wrong from the point at which he makes assumptions about how the world works.

Not a Very Republican Thing to Say

Justin Katz

Ed Fitzpatrick quotes Brendan Doherty as follows, from the Congressional candidate's initial fundraiser:

Doherty said his campaign theme will be "America First" (which is going out on a limb given the strength of the "Liechtenstein First" lobby).

In emphasizing that theme, he said, "We need to reassess the billions we are spending on other countries — other countries you'd have to find a map to find out where they are." As a caveat, he said, "I understand our special relationship with Israel" and "I understand what is going on in the Arab Spring and the tenets of soft power and smart power and diplomacy." But, he said, "Some of these countries, folks, you may not have ever heard of them, and we are spending billions of dollars there. What about spending that money here in Rhode Island, here in America?"

Or how about not spending the money at all? The federal government spends billions of dollars per day that it does not have. It seems to me that any policy that reduces the government's expenditures in one area should just, well, reduce the government's expenditures.

Obviously, I don't have enough information to know whether Doherty will run on a plank of bringing home the bacon for Rhode Island or he just hasn't spent enough time tracing individual policies and slogans through to his political philosophy (whatever it is). Either way, I'd be more comfortable with his candidacy if he displayed more-Republican instincts.

It doesn't help that he apparently cited Froma Harrop approvingly...

In and Out of the Public Sector

Justin Katz

The conversation was mainly of Esserman and arbitration when Monique called in to the Matt Allen Show, on Wednesday. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 23, 2011

Has Any Governor Refused to Turn a Suspect Over to the Feds?

Monique Chartier

... 'cause that's what Governor Chafee has done today.

Governor Chafee declined on Thursday the U.S. Government's request for temporary federal custody of Jason W. Pleau, charged with murder in the case of a Woonsocket gas-station owner killed on the steps of a bank.

Here is the statement from the governor's office:

Mr. Pleau is incarcerated in the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) and currently stands untried for the September 20, 2010 robbery and murder of David D. Main. A transfer of Mr. Pleau to temporary federal custody would potentially expose him to the death penalty, a penalty consciously rejected by the State of Rhode Island, even for those guilty of the most heinous crimes. ...

[Gov's full statement after the jump.]

Is this a common occurance? I'm not a fan of the death penalty but does he even have the right to do this? The first impression is that this is a country to country refusal to turn over a suspect (i.e., France refusing to turn someone over to the US because we have the death penalty) but that is erroneous; this is a matter of federal vs state purviews within the United States.


... ahem, I swear I saw William Jacobson's commentary at Legal Insurrection on this matter, in which he characterizes Rhode Island as "France", only after this post went up.

Professor Jacobson also points out that this is not the first federal law that Gov Chafee has declined to observe.

Ever since Independent and former Republican Linc Chafee was elected Governor of my home State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations last fall, Chafee has implemented an interesting twist on states rights by refusing to participate in federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Now Chafee has taken it one step further, refusing to turn over a murderer to the feds because of the mere possibility that the defendant could be subject to the death penalty:


Further to my exchange with Warrington, the ProJo reports that US Attorney Peter Neronha

said it was too early to determine whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty in the case.

So Governor Chafee is acting pre-emptively to shut out a course of action against a man charged with murder that may or may not even be on the table.

Yet, with his refusal to participate in the Secure Communities Program, the Governor is not willing to pre-empt the distinct possibility of crimes against innocent residents of the state by undocumented immigrants with outstanding federal warrants. (Tangent: in the Governor's mind, it's fine for citizens and legal immigrants taken into police custody to be screened for federal warrants, etc, but illegal aliens should inexplicably be held harmless from such a measure.)

Does anyone else see inconsistency here??? How about pre-emptiveness across the board or no pre-emptiveness at all? Phrased another way, can we average residents please have the same concerned foresight from the Governor as someone in custody for murder?

Mr. Pleau is incarcerated in the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) and currently stands untried for the September 20, 2010 robbery and murder of David D. Main. A transfer of Mr. Pleau to temporary federal custody would potentially expose him to the death penalty, a penalty consciously rejected by the State of Rhode Island, even for those guilty of the most heinous crimes.

'My disapproval of the federal government's request should in no way minimize the tragic and senseless nature of Mr. Main's murder,' Governor Chafee said. 'The person or persons responsible for this horrific act must, and will, be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. I extend my deepest sympathy to Mr. Main's family for their unspeakable loss.'

'Despite the horrific nature of this crime, however, the State of Rhode Island would not impose the death penalty,' Governor Chafee continued. 'In light of this longstanding policy, I cannot in good conscience voluntarily expose a Rhode Island citizen to a potential death penalty prosecution. I am confident that Attorney General Kilmartin and Rhode Island's criminal justice system are capable of ensuring that justice is served in this matter.'

Rhode Island Budgeting: Increases Mean Cuts

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi's post, "What the heck is going on inside the new House budget?" prodded me to take a little bit of a closer look at the state's latest budget proposal, particularly when I read the following:

The House doesn't cut social services much more than Chafee. The Finance Committee budget would cut human-service programs like Medicaid by $78 million from this year's level; Chafee wanted to cut them by $71 million. So the House only made $7 million more in cuts than Chafee did in that area.

I just don't believe that the state government would do any such thing, so I asked Ted for his source, which he kindly forwarded: it's a hasty sheet that House Finance Chairman Helio Melo provided explaining his deficit solution as compared with the governor's. The $78 million, that is, doesn't appear to represent a cut from last year, but a reduction according to the department's initially requested budget for FY12. As Melo notes:

Deficit is difference between current law revenues and expected expenditures with no changes.

An excellent example of what this means is available with the first specific claim supporting that $78.1 million reduction: namely, that $19.1 million of it comes from the Department of Human Services. According to the supplemental midyear budget act (PDF), the state government appropriated for that department $2.285 billion in FY11, which it reduced to $2.223 midyear. Governor Chafee's FY12 budget act (PDF) brought the number back up to $2.240 billion, and the House Finance Committee (PDF) pushed it all the way to $2.368 billion — more, even, than last year's initial appropriation.

In other words, the House Finance Committee had to cut $19.1 million from the Dept. of Human Services in order to increase its budget by $83 million. Put more plainly, the department simply didn't get its full budget request, but will get 81% of the increase that it wanted, which amounts to 6.5% more than it received last year.

That method doesn't apply across the board, for every department (if I had the time I'd go through line by line), but as I noted to Ted, it is well worked into government processes to make budgets as confusing as possible so that nobody knows what's going on. There are multiple funds, multiple revenue sources, various forms of aid coming and going, everything's broken up differently in every list; one doesn't know if increases are compared to last year, the governor's proposal, or some requested budget proposed by department heads; and so on. Moreover, there isn't much transparency into the justifications for various estimates of revenue and requirements.

The following bullet list provides the bottom line for statewide totals:

  • FY11 Enacted:
    • General state revenue: $2,942 million
    • Federal funds: $2,903 million
    • Restricted receipts: $180 million
    • Other funds: $1,838 million
  • FY11 Revised:
    • General revenue: $2,965
    • Federal funds: $3,011 million
    • Restricted receipts: $179 million
    • Other funds: $1,956 million
  • FY12 Governor's Budget:
    • General revenue: $3,170 million
    • Federal funds: $2,557 million
    • Restricted receipts: $209 million
    • Other funds: $1,725 million
  • FY12 House Finance Budget:
    • General revenue: $3,145 million
    • Federal funds: $2,606 million
    • Restricted receipts: $189 million
    • Other funds: $1,763 million

When it comes to the amount that Rhode Islander's pay for their government (excluding the amount that we pay through the federal government), the House Labor Committee changed Governor Chafee's $4 million increase to a $3 million decrease. Removing the ambiguously named "other funds," it's increases from both: $235 million proposed by the governor, and $190 million by the legislators.

This is how our elected officials ought to look at their budgets, rather than the current scheme of requesting as much as politically feasible and calling smaller increases "cuts."

June 22, 2011

Municipal Bankruptcy Accelerant: Binding Arbitration Prowls the Back Rooms of the State House

Monique Chartier

The RI Tea Party sent out the following alert yesterday.

Union leaders are behind the scenes looking for their quid pro quo as a result of the budget freeze on longevity payments. They are lobbying the Senate Labor Committee and all members of the Senate for the passage of binding arbitration on fiscal matters in our school systems as a payback for the freeze on bonuses for seat time! What does this mean? Public sector unions want binding arbitration on fiscal matters when school districts reach impasse with the local union leaders. They want to strip elected officials of their democratic rights to regain control over unaffordable and unsustainable contracts. They don't care that your property taxes will only increase as a result of their ultimate control via an arbitrator. Since when should a private citizen, earning a living as an arbitrator, have the right to set the very cost drivers that suck-up the majority of property tax revenue? Since when has arbitration ever had any positive effects on student achievement?

And this critical point:

There is NO compromise that any bill could provide that makes binding arbitration and perpetual contracts taxpayer or student friendly!

Correct. In fact, on the procedural level, it is misguided compromises like these that have bestowed upon Rhode Island its chronic budget shortfalls, bad economy and anti-business (therefore, anti-worker) environment.

On the macro level. There are some legislative initiatives that continue the state's march towards financial extinction - but slowly. (The poor business climate. Ever more taxes. Refusal to grant cities and towns the tools they need to control their own budgets - actually, that's probably not so slow.) Then there are the fast track proposals: lack of real pension reform. "Perpetual" contracts. And this, binding arbitration.

To trade longevity bonus give-backs for binding arbitration is kind of like a cancer patient getting one chemo therapy session in exchange for a dose of poison. Let us hope that Rhode Island's medical proxy sees the destructiveness of this absurdly disproportionate trade-off. Or better, perhaps the Tea Party is correct and this needs to be specifically pointed out to members of the House Labor Committee.

Rhode Island Hurts Famlies

Justin Katz

In a moving letter (that does not appear to be online), small-business-owner David Durfee of North Scituate tells of his historical need to work harder to "overcome the obstacles created by the General Assembly" but expresses gratitude for having been able to be nearby for his father during his final days. He goes on:

It was then that I realized what the politicians in this state have taken from us. How blind I was to a problem I could not resolve with just hard work!

It is that our sons and daughters see no future for themselves in Rhode Island. My two oldest children have already moved out of state. I now realize the increasing likelihood that the pleasure of having my children around me as I age has been stolen from me. More friends are talking about moving to be with their children. With them will go their wealth and businesses.

Such are the effects of bad governance. I continue to fear that a line may have already been crossed: That enough families have up and left over the years that there is no longer a voting base to turn the situation around. Still, except for those few who are well enough connected to secure employment for their entire families (such as the Iannazzis and Ruggerios), the damage described by Durfee is applied to most of those who benefit from Rhode Island's bad governance as well as those of us who don't.

Looking for the Cuts

Justin Katz

First above-the-fold headline in yesterday's Providence Journal: "Cuts trump expanded sales tax in House plan." The lead is: "Finance Committee's $7.7-billion budget trims spending by $160 million, curtails sales-tax growth." The only cut that the story provides as an example, however, is $1.6 million "in state spending from programs affecting low-income families, the disabled and the elderly."

The rest of the story describes tax increases and budget increases (as to education) that are still planned. Where's the other 99% of the supposed cut? Well, here's a clue:

It also takes advantage of improving revenue projections and makes cuts to close next year's projected budget gap. While details remained unclear Monday, the cuts include some $160 million in reductions relative to Chafee's proposal, including $31 million in transportation, higher education, corrections and human services, said House Finance Chairman Helio M. Melo.

The "cuts" are mostly to the governor's wild-spending proposal.

And even so, it appears that the largest part of the General Assembly's adjustment to Governor Chafee's budget came in not finding new expenditures to eat up improvements in revenue projections. Legislators cover another big chunk with $17 million from newly taxed sales items (e.g., over-the-counter drugs, digital downloads, insurance proceeds, and travel tours).

In other words, the Providence Journal is mainly passing along the spin of politicians who want to appear more responsible. Little wonder the general public is so ill informed.

June 21, 2011

Rhode Island is the Place Small Enough for Netroots Nation?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Professor William Jacobson of the Legal Insurrection blog has compiled several mainstream media sources saying that Netroots Nation has selected Providence as the site of its 2012 convention of progressive activists and new media participants, because the small size of the Providence convention market will prevent the annual RightOnline convention from being held simultaneously nearby. For several years now, RightOnline has scheduled its convention in the same city, at the same time as Netroots Nation.

If I may inject a randomly local suggestion, if the organizers of RightOnline are searching for a venue for their 2012 annual convention, one place they may want to look is the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, RI. The Crowne Plaza advertises meeting facilities able to hold up to 2,000 people, is a traditional gathering place for Rhode Island Republicans on election evenings, and has hosted a number of events put on by the Rhode Island chapter of the Republican Assembly. The Crowne Plaza is also about 10 minutes by car away from downtown Providence, and there's plenty of cheap parking at the Providence Place Mall, near the Convention Center, for RightOnline conventioners who might want to visit Rhode Island's captiol city for whatever reason...

Help Wanted: Dem Opponent for T. Paiva-Weed

Monique Chartier


Someone posted an advertisement on the free classifieds website Craigslist this month seeking to enlist Democratic challengers to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat up for reelection in 2012.

The person who posted the ad was identified only by the e-mail address automatically generated by the website: comm-rmdy8-2436493850@craigslist.org

But the person did offer to financially back any candidate.

“She has done more damage to our state with her total lack of leadership (despite what RI College has said), her self-serving attitude, and her tolerance and acceptance of corruption, than all previous Senate presidents combined,” the ad reads. “If the Senate does not have the chutzpah to do anything about her ... Let’s get her out of office through the election process.”

The ad is still up as of this afternoon.

Yes, Let's Address the Problem

Justin Katz

I have to express agreement with this comment that Project Future 2000 and Beyond founder Osiris Harrell made during discussion of the proposed Cranston mayoral academy:

"Public schools can be fixed if you people focused on what's wrong with the public schools, instead of spending all this time in trying to reinvent the wheel," Harrell said.

The difference is that many of us believe that the underlying problem with public education is the unioniized, bureaucratic morass into which it's been dragged, and by layering in some degree of competition, to highlight the problems of the public school system by contrast, charter schools can at least begin to change the discussion from the well worn rhetoric of unions and other entrenched players.

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Sunday, June 12

Justin Katz

This year's Portsmouth Institute conference changed things up a bit by eliminating the one or two presentations from Thursday and lining up three for Sunday. It definitely made sense to better utilize the second weekend day, although the talks came in such rapid succession that a second viewing with time to ruminate is in order.

The speakers each took up a different play and offered some suggestion about their basis and meaning. First, Dr. Gerard Kilroy, of University College, London, assembled linguistic and thematic cues to suggest Romeo and Juliet as an allegory for believers and the Catholic Church, respectively:

The next speaker, Dennis Taylor, took a more historical approach in his review of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, tracing Catholic links to early efforts to explore the Americas. Apparently, some of the initial ventures in that effort carried with them the prospects of founding a refuge for English Catholics.

Closing out the day and the conference, Fr. David Beauregard took a religious and philosophical look at relationships, charity, and the development of virtue in The Tempest. (I apologize for the technical lapse in the middle of the speech.)

As always, I left the Portsmouth Abbey campus with a bit of melancholy that my annual taste of a more refined and intellectual life had come to a close. Was Shakespeare Catholic? Well, he was certainly sympathetic to Catholics' plight and had personal connections to people who were persecuted for their faith. Moreover, in the artist's quest for the profound, the tremendous religious turmoil of his day would have been a ready well.

With such venues and events as presented by the Portsmouth Institute, one can draw a sip and begin to see the deeper threads through the human experience, into our own day. Whatever the topic when next year comes around, it is always regenerative to find that the complications and labors of passing life are not all.

By Contrast with Common Sense

Justin Katz

The stunning thing about this pension reform proposal from Republican state representatives Patricia Morgan and Michael Chippendale is that it wasn't the way the system was set up to work from the beginning:

With these two objectives in mind, we have introduced HR-6193. This legislation lets an injured employee receive a disability pension under the current rules. However, if he or she is fortunate enough to rehabilitate the injury, or find other employment that is unaffected by it, then the rules change slightly.

The disabled retiree can work and earn an amount of money that, when added to the disability pension, will equal 100 percent of their pre-injury salary. However, with each additional dollar, they would lose one dollar from the disability pension. This method lets each retiree be made whole, while at the same time protecting taxpayers from abuse.

At this point, with the history of abuse, I'm not sure that Rhode Island could afford to stop there in its reforms, but it's a marker of the lunacy by which the state operates that reforms so distinctly sound like policies that one would assume were already in place.

June 20, 2011

GoLocal's Rankings

Marc Comtois

So GoLocalProv is trying to find the "Best Community" in Rhode Island, huh? I suppose it is a clever way to drive website traffic (and media discussion) throughout the week by releasing your findings in pieces. Especially when you put each ranking as it's own discrete web page, thereby amplifying web clicks, page views, etc. But when you try to quantify such things, you end up relying on, well, what's quantifiable and ignoring aesthetics and the like. That's how you end up with a list that says Central Falls is "better than" Block Island. Yikes.

Not So Much a "Skills Gap" as a Motivation Gap

Justin Katz

Count this on the list of problems that will likely never be solved unless we change our approach to solving them:

On Monday morning, about 70 people — educators, government bureaucrats, elected officials and business representatives — gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island to discuss a problem that is only expected to worsen unless deep changes are made to the national system of education.

In the keynote speech at the Rhode Island Pathways to Prosperity Summit, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Brenda Dann-Messier said that the technological revolution over the last generation has transformed the employment environment.

"Gone are the days of the well-paying job requiring low levels of education," she said.

Although the article doesn't go into too much detail on the matter, one can infer the general character of the solutions that such a gathering would pursue. They'll seek to pour additional money into secondary and post secondary education, taking money out of the economy in order to make it as easy as possible for young adults to stumble into the jobs that they want to fill. But the underlying problem is much deeper, as one can begin to see in this quotation:

State leaders have long known of a skills gap in Rhode Island and have been working to find solutions, said Ray Di Pasquale, CCRI president and state commissioner of higher education. But, he acknowledged, the state needs to do more to cater to student needs to keep them in school.

Why should we devote resources begging people to act in their own self interest? They ought to want to pursue a path that leads them to high-paying jobs. If the route to a comfortable life is to stay in school, all that ought to be needed is for young Americans to be made to understand that — and to understand that hard work, dedication, and sacrifice on their own part is going to be required.

If we're getting a contrary message from younger generations, then clearly, we're allowing them to develop a faulty sense of life. Perhaps it's the emphasis on self esteem. Perhaps it's the rhetoric of entitlement that characterizes our public discourse. Or perhaps the eagerness of adults to make kids' path to adulthood seem easy conveys the impression that the world owes them something.

Whatever the case, what's needed are clear, direct incentives tied sharply to candidates' successes. The difficulty may prove to be that only adults will respond to such stimuli. The solution, that is, may be to let kids taste adult life and figure out that they're actually going to have to earn their employment.

June 19, 2011

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry's View of the Budget

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island House of Representatives Minority Leader Brian Newberry (who prior to the last election, by the way, scored 10 out of a possible 10 in the Anchor Rising legislative ratings, which were based on fiscal and governance issues) has posted a review of the state budget to his State-Rep Facebook site.

Rep. Newberry offers this official position on the budget in its current form...

As I write this I have not yet had the opportunity to consult with all the members of the Republican caucus. I think it would be improper as the Minority Leader to take a public position on the budget at this time. As noted, there are many things about this budget that are a net positive for the state. There are also things that are a net negative. The biggest negative lies not in what the budget does but in what it fails to do. The ultimate question is whether should this budget fail to achieve the necessary votes in the House for passage, the resulting alternative would be an improvement.
Here is a large-size excerpt on what the Minority Leader sees as the major substantive points. All of the details are relevant, so it is worth reading, as is the entire FB post...
I begin with the conclusion because this update will be lengthy. As detailed below, I believe this to be a flawed budget. That said, there are numerous provisions in this budget which represent sound public policy. There are indeed several items in this budget that Republicans have been pushing for, in some cases for years. There are also some not insignificant social services spending cuts in the budget. They are not as deep as I would advocate. Nonetheless, they are a step in the right direction. There are also certain structural reforms that will allow municipalities more flexibility in their budgeting. There is also an end to the "longevity increases" paid state employees that have been the subject of so much controversy this spring.

Most importantly, this budget completely rejects the philosophy of Governor Chafee. His $165 million proposed sales tax increase has been eliminated. Unfortunately, there are $17.3 million in proposed tax increases related to several relatively minor items. Considering that the projected deficit two months ago was $331 million, it is hardly a bad thing (if imperfect) for a budget proposal to close that gap while including only $17 million in tax increases.

Finally, unlike far too many budgets passed by the Assembly in recent years, this budget (for the most part) does not rely on one time revenue sources and gimmicks. All budgets seem to have some, shall we say, rose colored projections on the margins, but there is no tobacco money, no so-called “stimulus” funding, no sale of state properties, no sin taxes that will raise less money than projected because they kill the affected industry etc. etc. Instead, it is an attempt to begin to grapple with some long term issues.

Unfortunately, there are several items missing from the budget that I would have liked to see. To use a cliché, the proposed budget closes the deficit primarily by taking a scalpel to any number of different state programs and agencies where in my view a meat cleaver would have been more appropriate. For example, based upon information we obtained through the Department of Health and Human Services, changing RIte Care eligibility for adults from 175% of poverty level to 133% of poverty level would have saved $15 million in the coming fiscal year (originally incorrectly reported as $26 million) with larger savings in projected years. Likewise, cutting a variety of optional Medicaid services and providing Medicaid in accordance only with federal mandates, would have saved $75 million in the coming fiscal year with again increased savings in years to come. Other potential savings included nearly $11 million with widespread cuts to the legislative and departmental grant programs. These include not only the notorious "legislative grants" but cuts to a number of community service grants that are routinely provided through different state agencies on an annual basis. The actual budget trims these grant programs by 10% across-the-board from department to department but elimination of most of them would have led to far more significant savings. In addition, the budget also includes increased spending in a few areas suggested by Governor Chafee. In my view some of these actually make sense from a policy point of view but I am not certain that this is the economic and fiscal climate in which to enact them. In short, the tax increases in the budget are not necessary from a policy point of view – though they may be necessary from a political point of view to get the necessary votes for passage from enough Democrats.

June 18, 2011

ProJo.com Edges Towards Subscription Territory

Monique Chartier

On Thursday, for a third day in a row, the day's on-line newspaper had not appeared until 8:00 am (versus midnight or earlier, which had been the norm). In response to my inquiry, the ProJo sent me the following.

Newspaper content is now available on projo.com at 8:00 am each day of publication. To read newspaper content prior to 8:00 am, you can subscribe to The Providence Journal with the convenience of home delivery. Home delivery is by 6am Monday-Friday and by 8am on weekends.

In general, the site is not intended to be an online version of the newspaper. There is newspaper content you cannot get on projo.com and projo.com content you cannot get in the newspaper. The news areas of the Web site are updated continuously, including braking news and sports. Some other features are updated less frequently.

Coming soon, subscribers will be able to access an exact digital replica of the daily and Sunday Providence Journal through our eEdition. More information on this new product will be available soon!

The urge to stop here and kvetch for a moment is irresistable. I, a peruser solely of the on-line Providence Journal who would be impacted by these changes, had to learn of them by asking. But subscribers of the dead tree version, who receive the paper paper and would, therefore, not be materially impacted by this change or even necessarily notice it, were informed of it a while ago (so a subscriber tells me). Hasn't the ProJo targeted the wrong potential customer base? Or perhaps the real hammer drops on us electronic non-customers when the upcoming "eEdition" turns out to have a subscription barrier 24/7, not just early in the morning.

Adding to the confusion, this message

Note to readers:

Due to technical difficulties over the weekend, some Providence Journal newspaper stories did not publish on projo.com. That issue is being addressed, and all content will be published on the site.

has been on the main Opinion page for months. Okay, so today's paper hasn't appeared on line yet this morning "due to technical difficulties"???

Mixed messaging asite, democratic (small "d") government is healthier and more accountable in the presence of a robust, inquisitive press. It is in everyone's best interest that the Providence Journal and other information outlets, traditional and not (ahem), find secure financial footing for their operations. Accordingly, I wish the ProJo nothing but the best as they roll out this new approach.

Another Rabbit Hat Budget

Justin Katz

The late-Friday release of the RI House's budget proposal is in keeping with the overall impression one gets at first glance. At least Gov. Chafee's budget tried to do something. The General Assembly looks most inclined not to ruffle the feathers of any significant (read: "powerful") constituencies, and thereby continues the ratcheting effect that has brought the Rhode Island to its current condition.

Most sharply, that observation arises from the high-profile matter of the sales tax: with no reductions in rates, but with nonprescription drugs, digitally downloads (including software and other downloadable goods, travel agency services, and medical marijuana added to the list of taxable items. One can discern that the budget is a fraud simply by the fact that no controversies are immediately sparked, as if there really is no systemic problem with the way in which Rhode Island does business.

That mirage comes at the cost of gradual dehydration of our lives, as it were. Yes, that means the incremental increases in taxes and fees. It also means the way our laws affect our lives. If you find yourself unemployed, for example, the amount of the unemployment payments that you can expect are set to decrease by about one fifth. Currently, the weekly payable benefit rate is 4.65% of your highest-paid calendar quarter. Thus, if you were earning $45,000 per year, you would receive $523 per week when unemployed. This budget decreases that percentage to 3.85% over a couple of years such that, if you lose that same job after July 1, 2014, you will receive $433 per week.

What if you decide to join with an acquaintance and start a new business? Well, the budget avoided implementing combined reporting for multistate companies (although it greased the skids for future imposition). But it also adds limited liability partnerships and limited partnerships to the list of entities subject to the state's $500 minimum corporate tax. Thus, the risk, expense, and complication of directly growing the state's economy from the bottom up is increased at a time when people not employed by others are being pinched by high unemployment and (potentially) decreasing unemployment benefits.

If the General Assembly had attempted to pull a rabbit from its magic budgetary hat, it might have sparked some outrage and effected change (or, less likely, actually changed the state for the better). Instead, the trick is to create the illusion that nothing significant has been done at all. The danger is that, when it comes time to get off the stage and go about the business of life, the people of Rhode Island may find the rabbit dead, and of a communicable disease.

June 17, 2011

The Budget Emerges...

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ted Nesi's Twitter Feed is one of the places to be for emerging details on the budget.


And Philip Marcelo has the Projo's report already up.

The Long Reach of Educational Inadquacy

Justin Katz

Here's a little nugget of insight that deserves broader comment. Apparently, Rhode Island is having a difficult time filling the open position of Director of Health:

In a phone interview, [former director David] Gifford said that a number of prospective applicants had contacted him with questions. The salary, he said, is an issue, but not the top one.

Instead, doctors considering moving their families from out of state were concerned about the quality of public education in Rhode Island, which some found to be below par, he said.

No doubt, progressives will be chime in to declare this as evidence that people don't migrate on the basis of taxation, but that would be a distraction. The point that must be understood is that progressive policies — educationally and as a matter of civic structure — have brought us to this point. On the educational side, the emphasis of public schools has shifted toward catering to disadvantaged and challenged students to the detriment of the broader mission, and curricula have been politicized both in the content and in the amount of time that schools spend concentrating on what might be termed institutional parenting (the focus being on imparting self esteem and teaching behavior).

More significantly (and harming Rhode Island disproportionately to its competition) is the structure of the system. Centralization toward an educational bureaucracy has left municipalities less able to address the communities that they actually serve, and the unionized workforce, with the advantages that it has secured through hardball negotiations and state-government advocacy, has driven up the cost of public education to the degree that programs must be cut and schools operated inefficiently.

The pervasiveness of that problem can be observed by expanding the above quotation by another paragraph:

Additionally, continual funding cutbacks will make it hard for any director to take on new initiatives.

As a small-government type, I don't take it to be inherently a bad thing for government departments to be constrained in that way. The point is worth making, though, that limits in what they can do and the ways in which they can experiment to become more effective and efficient are sure to be imposed when an ever-growing portion of their budgets must go to labor — both current and retired.

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Saturday, June 11

Justin Katz

The Saturday sessions of the Portsmouth Institute's conference, this year, began with Clare Asquith, speaking on "As You Like It and the Elizabethan Catholic Dilemma":

Mrs. Asquith's acute thesis is that Shakespeare wrote the play with a particular Catholic family in mind — indeed, perhaps under that family's patronage. Her broader suggestion is that the religious atmosphere of the time couldn't help but permeate the plays. For one thing, the various religious identity groups created character types who would have to appear in order for the play to seem authentic; for another, religious images were very useful for drawing characters and creating allegory.

One interesting example of the deep questions and interesting dynamics that were practically in the air for the plucking was the conflict between those who favored light and those who favored dark. The "Golden Bride," for example, could be seen as desirable because pure or otherwise because phony, thus creating a fabulous literary device that depended on perspective — say the distinction between Roman Catholics and Calvinists.

At any rate, there persisted, at the time, to be a sizable class of wealthy Catholics from whom Shakespeare could have derived patronage.

Next up was Dr. Glenn Arbery, of Assumption College, talking about "The Problem of Catholic Piety in the Henry VI Plays":

As you'll note from his accent, Dr. Arbery is a Southern man, and it's therefore not entirely surprising that he drew parallels between Shakespeare and William Faulkner, both of whom wrote at times of social adjustment, with all of the anxieties and changing orders that such times bring. When a society is thus shaking at its core, authors come to realize more deeply what its characteristics are — who its people are — and observe what it is being urged to become. There are good and bad in both, of course, just as there are positives and negatives in both the dark and the light (as Asquith put them), and part of what makes contemporary literature so rich is authors' inclination to highlight aspects of each, explicitly or inherently as a means of encouraging their societies to preserve or discard certain aspects.

Reading between the lines of Arbery's speech, one can discern inchoate buds of a distinction being made between what makes a good man and what makes a good leader (in the context of religion and monarchy). Secular democracy, though still a good distance off, was on its way — an excellent development, to be sure. But Shakespeare's history plays warn of the sorts of men and women who will strive to be the alternative to the "good man" who is not such a good king.

After Arbery's talk (and lunch) buses took us down the length of Aquidneck Island to Stanford White's Newport Casino Theater, which has not been entirely completed, yet, but which hosted the next presentation for the conference, scenes from Hamlet performed by
Theater of the Word Incorporated interspersed with analytical narration by Joseph Pearce:

The method of presentation was an excellent and entertaining method of explaining a thesis (although it was dark and so entertaining that I didn't take notes). And the theater itself was sufficiently compelling as to make me wish I had time to write plays again.

Back on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, Saturday finished with a dinner talk by Father Peter Milward, whom I understand to have led the charge of research into the Catholic dimension of Shakespeare's plays.

Fr. Milward made among the most interesting points of the weekend when he noted that persecution of Catholics had gradually increased over the 1500s, climaxing during Shakespeare's time. Ever since, the Protestants have written the history, as it were, making Shakespeare seem to be a secular writer. Now, as Milward puts it, England "is not so much anti-Catholic as anti-Christian."

So it goes. See it as evolution or progressive devolution, a society that teases its profundity away from the underlying conclusion that made it profound in the first place will drift until its philosophy is hollow and its language unable to support the many layers of true depth.

June 16, 2011

Factional Definitions

Justin Katz

Two interesting threads have emerged in the comments to my post on Republican factionalism. They're on entirely different topics, but I think there's something similar in the way they hinge on what I see as erroneous definitions. Quoting me, commenter Mangeek takes up the question of abortion:

"I find the 'personally pro-life; politically pro-choice' position (which Doherty professes) to be among the most disturbing... The only way to hold such views sincerely (and not be a monster)..."

I don't know, I know plenty of women (possibly a majority of the women in my life) who have had an abortion only to come out the other side holding this exact same view. They wouldn't get another one, but they felt they did the right thing, and want to preserve the right for their daughters, should they someday find themselves in a similar situation.

That's not really a pro-life view, is it? Being pro-life means believing that human life begins at conception and is at that point worthy of protection against being killed at another's whim — or even another's fervent desire, if "whim" seems too light. Either the majority of women in Mangeek's life have killed their children in the womb or they've discarded some foreign cells from their bodies. One can have aesthetic or even mildly moral objections to discarding foreign cells, but to hold a pro-life view as I've just described and yet to believe that others' choices cannot be curtailed on its basis is, as I've said, monstrous.

In a completely different direction, former RIGOP Chairman Gio Cicione writes:

Let's not confuse factionalism with healthy inter-party competition. While we may not be used to having a bounty of options for statewide and federal races, it's not a bad thing.

Factionalism comes later, if the folks who chose the losing side are so bitter about it that they can't let go for the good of the party.

For some, that's all they know, and we can't expect them to change. However we can grow to the point where the factionalists are such a small part of the center-right scene that they go unnoticed.

I'd suggest that, with regard to factionalism, Gio has his cause and effect backwards. The reason the folks on the losing side of "intra-party competition" are "so bitter that they can't let go" is that they feel as if they're not really competing on an equal footing within the party because a particular faction favors its own. It's a similar principle to the genius of democracy: People won't pursue civil war when they feel as if they've a reasonable chance of enacting changes through the democratic process, but when they feel that their opposition holds power for extra-democratic reasons, they'll resort to whatever strategies give them the advantage. (You may control the money and infrastructure, but we've got the numbers.)

I'm not saying this is what's going on, but it wouldn't be entirely unreasonable for conservative Republicans in RI to suspect that the GOP power brokers (such as they are) were content to let John Loughlin run for Congress when victory seemed unlikely. But he did surprisingly well, and Democrat David Cicilline is surprisingly weak, so the leading faction has brought forward one of its own, even though it might be more appropriate, from the perspective of the party's overall strategy, for him to run for Senate.

Again, I'm not putting that forward as my interpretation of current events, but noting that it's a likely suspicion that can fester depending how things progress rhetorically and politically.

Bruins Win the Cup!

Marc Comtois

Welcome to the party B's!!!!


It's official: in this century, Boston is the Hub of Champions!

What We Expect from Our Leaders

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Matt and I talked about expectations for the forthcoming budget, speeding tickets, and things on the blog. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 15, 2011

The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had "dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time". Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion").

Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn't already heard and isn't likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that "the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools" and that students need a "coherent curriculum" instead of a "marketplace". But why a "coherent curriculum" should be posited as the alternative to a "marketplace" is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering -- especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.

* * *

Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn't want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.

However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological -- which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.

One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term "accountability" in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a "professional education paradigm" that included the idea that professional educators should be "insulated from public pressure" and was "suspicious of the intervention of policymakers". After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is "no word in the Finnish language for 'accountability'", while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.

Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…

* * *

If both markets and accountability are to be rejected, then how can parents and students gain access to an improved education, when evidence appears that the education system is not working for them or the people around them? For those who oppose accountability and market mechanisms in education, this question is without meaning. Progressives say there are no visible, definitively meaningful signs that can tell a parent if an education system is working or not. No system of student or teacher evaluation can provide a picture accurate and reliable enough to be useful, because observing authentic educational progress and aligning progress with potential are processes too "complex" for anyone uninitiated into the education profession to command, and even if an effective accountability system could theoretically exist, there is still nothing can be done with many students to improve their educational performance, because socio-economic status is unalterable destiny. There is simply no information adequate to the task of helping a parent or student determine on their own if they need to move to a new system, or make a major change in their existing system, that can lead to better outcomes than simple deference to the professionals in the education field.

If changes to the education system do need to be made, it is members of the education profession who will identify the key problems (using their methods that can't be wholly explained to those outside of the profession -- after all, if they could be explained, they could be built into a system of accountability) and who will make the necessary changes, because that's what professionals are supposed to do, and professionals must always be trusted to do what they are supposed to do. This, in turn, defines a proper role for those outside of the education system. Theirs is not to try to hold those responsible for education "accountable", or to ask for some freedom to make their own choices; the role of non-professionals is to assume that the people on the inside of the education profession are delivering the best education possible (at least within existing resource constraints), and therefore to give the people on the inside whatever they say they need.

Degeneralize this non-market, non-accountable system from the specifics of education field -- while holding on to the idea that the education of children is a critical task in society -- and you are left with a small, mostly self-identified, group of people assuming the right to take a critical role in bringing society forward in a way that they themselves decide, regardless of what the broader population thinks should be done. As a guiding principle for social and government organization, this may sound familiar to you...

* * *

Another education reformer, E.D. Hirsch, has noted the strong impact that "romantic" ideas, rebranded in contemporary dialogue on intellectual history as "progressive" ideas, have had on the American education system. Hirsch's primary interest in romanticism is on how its ideal of doing things in a "natural" way has appeared at various times and places in progressive education reform movements; one of his interesting observations is that justifying something as being "natural" takes on a role today that a justification of pleasing the divine once took in earlier ages.

But the rejection of a broad based notion of accountability makes obvious that educational progressives have absorbed romantic ideology not only in defining their goals, but also into their organizational ideas for achieving them. Romantically-influenced ideologies, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's original writings, through the tragically influential Marxist variations and into modern progressivism, have stressed that average citizens are impeded from achieving their full "natural" or "human" happiness by societies that have been fragmented by competing, selfish interests, and that the only way to bring the great mass of citizens out of their confusion is to cede sweeping powers to a chosen group who has gained a true understanding of the natural order of the universe, so that they may structure a society that presents people with the proper, though limited, set of choices for fulfilling their potentials.

Of course, in none of its historical forms has romanticism/Marxism/progressivism solved the problem of actually identifying the group of people who can wield this considerable power over others. Romantics of various stripes have tried historically to fill this gap with a secular mysticism, assuming a "first legislator" (Rousseau's concept) or a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (the Marxist concept) possessing superhuman judgment and uncorrupted motives will appear when needed. This has been a key place where romantic ideas have met the less-romantic human reality, history having shown that giving one group of people unaccountable power over another never results in a system that works in the best interests of everyone. Still, the lessons of history have not dissuaded progressive education advocates from holding tight to the core romantic social and political concepts; i.e. a public trapped by a false consciousness and likely to be deceived by false choices, needing to be saved by an elite that possesses an unrivaled and authentic understanding of the natural, perhaps even divine, truths about the best ordering of society; in order to dismiss the significance of "accountability".

Take the false consciousness to be the idea that our schools could be doing better at their existing resource levels; take the false choices to be options for charter schools or cross-district choice, and take the divine truth that only the initiated can see about the natural order of society to be that top-down bureaucracies is the only viable way for organizing a school system, and you have a pretty accurate description of the position of contemporary progressive education reformers who reject both markets and accountability.

* * *

Understanding what possibilities remain, after progressive education reformers have taken both markets and accountability off the table, helps make sense of Diane Ravitch's out-of-proportion reaction to Deborah Gist's participation in the meeting with Governor Lincoln Chafee. Dr. Ravitch was eager to take an opportunity to pass along truths that she has spent a lifetime understanding, to an earthly authority that could reinforce their application on a broad scale. But the presence during her meeting of someone from outside of the educational elect introduced confusion into the communication stream. Dr. Ravtich felt her opportunity to share secrets with a high political authority was being compromised by pedestrian ideas that she and her elite had divined were distractions from the deepest truths of education like markets and accountability, and she worried that the Governor was losing his opportunity to hear an unfragmented message about the one true and natural way he should proceed reform for the good of all in the realm of education reform. Dr. Ravtich thus grew frustrated, and wrote her blog post lashing out at Commissioner Gist.

But in the end, markets and accountability cannot be simultaneously dismissed, to be replaced by monopoly leadership who claim they just understand more than the common people ever can. And the more that romantically-inspired education reform proponents claim that the results observable by the general public shouldn't matter, and that stagnation or decline in observable measures of educational achievement must simply be accepted, the more the result is a movement that marginalizes itself.

The Return of Republican Factionalism

Justin Katz

It had seemed to me that Chafee's senatorial defeat and subsequent departure from the Republican Party eased the factionalism that had previously played a role in Rhode Island Republicans' tendency to trip over each other. It merits watching to see whether the congressional district 1 race brings that division back, and who will be on whose side

Former Republican Gov. Donald L. Carcieri will be the headliner at former state police Supt. Brendan P. Doherty's first big fundraiser as a congressional candidate. ...

The 56-member host committee includes former state GOP chairman John Holmes, former Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders, former Lt. Gov. Bernard Jackvony, public-relations adviser David Duffy and Carcieri's political ally and State House legal advisor Kerry King.

One possibility is that the key figures previously leading the more conservative charge, in contrast to the Old Club GOP led by Chafee, were just a different faction from the old club. It's too soon, of course, to determine what Doherty will look like as a candidate. I will say, for my part, that I find the "personally pro-life; politically pro-choice" position (which Doherty professes) to be among the most disturbing on the political menu. The only way to hold such views sincerely (and not be a monster) is to be pro-life more as a matter of aesthetics than principal.

Attention, Rep Diaz: In-State College Tuition Is Not Free (... to the Taxpayer, Anyway)

Monique Chartier

For the seventh year in a row, Representative Grace Diaz (D-Providence) has submitted a bill that would, as the bill language euphemistically phrases it, "exempt" illegal immigrant students "from paying nonresident tuition at Rhode Island public universities, 8 colleges or community colleges". In other words, illegal immigrant students would be permitted to attend Rhode Island colleges and universities and pay tuition at the much lower rate of an in-state resident.

In announcing the filing of the bill in February, Rep Diaz stated that

This does not represent any financial burden to the taxpayers

This is false. The in-state college tuition rate does not cover the cost of educating that student. The shortfall is picked up by the Rhode Island taxpayer.

At Rhode Island's largest state university, this shortfall is considerable. In-state college tuition at the University of Rhode Island represents an unfunded gap of $12,500+ per year which must be picked up by the Rhode Island taxpayer. So we're clear, $12,500 (the actual figure is a little higher) is just the shortfall. Add in the tuition ($9,014 for 2011) that the in-state student pays and you get $21,500+, the total cost of educating a student at URI.

Now, setting aside the larger issue of whether it is wise to create yet another enticement for people to come here illegally, let's go back to Rep Diaz's representation that

This does not represent any financial burden to the taxpayers

A little research quickly determined that this is untrue. Presumably, she did not deliberately lie. So the question is, why would the rep put up a bill and then make statements about its cost to the taxpayer without ... you know, actually checking the facts first?

ADDENDUM - the Info Source

To clarify, the source of this data - that the shortfall of in-state tuition at URI is $12,500+ - is first hand; it came from the Provost of the University of Rhode Island, Donald DeHayes.

A Glimpse Behind the Union Curtain

Justin Katz

We've all made such mistakes as the Internet allows... replying too quickly for rationality to assert itself, sending mail to the wrong person, accidentally forwarding a conversation thread to parties with whom we shouldn't share them. When RI AFL-CIO President George Nee accidentally replied to an email by Providence Journal columnist Ed Achorn that he appears to have intended to forwarded to somebody else, however, he gave us a glimpse of labor's backroom exchanges.

Achorn had expanded his inquiry into the matter of Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's hiring of Stephen Iannazzi, a union colleague's college-dropout son, at $90,000 per year to include Nee, and subsequently received the following reply:

the man has little to do with his time, i will not reply or speak to him, you can send this to marl if it helps but it doesn't appear that they can back him off, great reporter he just figured out i am the chair of the baord

"Backing off" may refer to a threatening email that Achorn mentions earlier in the column, or perhaps it refers to some other strategy. After all, Achorn's long been a target of the local labor hierarchy, which sends minions to disrupt his public speeches and such.

Whatever the case, it's surprising that the entrenched union powers would allow the cracks to begin showing over such a minor matter as a near-nepotistic job swapping, especially at a time when the spotlight is already on the unsustainability of their sweet pension deals. Even a mild inquiry into union-backed scholarships that Iannazzi had received from the Rhode Island Institute for Labor Studies begins to reveal the deeper game: The Institute's executive director, Robert Delaney ($113,822 total compensation, plus benefits), comes into the public eye by refusing to answer Achorn's basic questions and brings with him Carolina Bernal, who also works for the Institute and whom Governor Chafee appointed to his newly labor-friendly Board of Regents for Elementary Secondary Education.

That dot connects to Board of Regents member Colleen Callahan, who would be Mrs. Delaney if she'd taken her husband's name and who works for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and health Professionals, taking home $183,971, plus benefits.

An interesting task for somebody with the time (which would be me were I able to make a full-time job of Anchor Rising) would be to create a chart of the various union positions and their associated salaries, as well as the personal links of the people who hold them. Such a resource might shed some light on the environment in which young Iannazzi procured his job and why powerful union leaders might want to back people away from the house of cards, lest they breathe a bit too heavily on it.

June 14, 2011

The Media Style Book on "Rights"

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal reprint of this article has the headline "Gay rights: The backlash" and the following lead:

Some who oppose gay rights say their views are targets of discrimination.

I'm not sure I've ever seen such an excellent example of the way in which media bias begins even at the level of the style book. With one exception, every example of the "rights" in question is same-sex marriage. The one exception isn't even about any kind of rights, but about a group encouraging gays to change their orientation.

In other words, an objective media would have characterized it as same-sex marriage opponents who are the targets of discrimination. That doesn't quite have the same propagandistic ring, though.

Presidential Narcissism Takes a Weird Tack

Marc Comtois
I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign.
I keep hearing that soundbite on WPRO this morning. It sounded strange to me that President Obama chose to frame his disapproval of Rep. Anthony Weiner's actions in just that way. It doesn't seem, well, Presidential to project oneself into that sort of situation (unless you're Bill Clinton) as a way to help explain your disapproval. It wasn't necessary and it isn't politically astute.

I believe it was a rhetorical misstep: it can plant into the mind of the listener the idea--even but for a moment--that President Obama could be capable of tweeting his junk. Or worse. (Take it easy, I'm not accusing the President of having "lust in his heart" or harboring imprurient twitter thoughts, just thinking aloud about the impression his statement can have.) Yet, this rhetorical choice isn't so surprising, coming as it does from a president who routinely views everything through his own "I's". Maybe it's such a natural thing for him to view the world as his stage that, even when confronted with an incident as unseemly as this, he just can't stay in the chorus.

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Friday, June 10

Justin Katz

As always, the Portsmouth Institute's annual conference was an edifying and relaxing taste of high intellectual pursuit, and one can only wish such events were more regularly available... and more broadly pursued by the general public.

Rt. Rev. Dom Aidan Bellenger, the Abbot of Downside, set the scene with the opening lecture on Friday afternoon. He described the religious upheaval during Shakespeare's time, during which "targeted attacks on tradition [cut] the culture adrift from its ancient moorings." Thus Shakespeare worked in an atmosphere of "creative tension of religious uncertainties."

Following Fr. Bellenger, Dr. John Cox, an English professor at Hope College, surveyed the use of prayer in Shakespeare. Specifically, Cox addressed the question of whether the prayers in Shakespeare's plays are notably Catholic, coming to the conclusion that they certainly show him to be knowledgeable of Christian practice and not unsympathetic, but that there was nothing strikingly Catholic about them. Overall, Shakespeare appears to have taken prayer seriously, and presented it as a sort of functional activity within a comprehensible moral framework, but he's dealing with characters (many unseemly), not with exegesis.

Later in the conference, I had occasion to mention to Dr. Cox my observation that prayer is very much like play writing in that the author is composing words to be spoken to convey some idea to an audience. He offered St. Augustine's Confessions as essentially a very long prayer, and I noted somebody's comments during Cox's Q&A session citing a character's use of the word "indulgence" when petitioning the audience for applause, as if the audience were a collection of saints available for appeal.

His reply was that some critics conclude that Shakespeare began to empty the language of profundity by using such words in light theatrical context and thus diminishing their utility for describing religious concepts. I wondered if that's led to a modern period in which the language provides the author no inherent profundity at all. But it also occurs to me that the double meaning of words is a very Catholic idea — not to say that Catholics invented the device, but that (as with Transubstantiation) the religious significance of words exists as a real, almost tangible thing however used.

After Dr. Cox's talk, however, deep thoughts were swept away for the time being with a specially collected orchestra's fantastic performances of Sir William Walton's Henry V Suite and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, under the conducting of Troy Quinn:

Then, after a typically excellent Portsmouth Abbey meal, three students from the school offered the nightcap of some scenes from Romeo and Juliet:

June 13, 2011

Coming up in Committee: Thirteen Sets of Bills Scheduled to be Heard by the RI General Assembly, June 14 - June 16

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here's your warm-act for the presentation of the budget. Note that at the time of this post, there are no committee meetings scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

13. H6104/H6222: Changes in regulations regarding distributed generation of electricity from renewable sources. (Senate Environment and Agriculture, June 15)

12. Traffic law changes, including making seat-belt violations a primary offense (S0022), license revocation for two years for "leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury" (S0027), and a ban on the use of non-hands free cell phones by minors while driving (S0346). (Senate Judiciary, June 14)

11. H6188: "Notwithstanding any state law, resolution, rule, regulation or code to the contrary, the city of Pawtucket may use money in its Fire Prevention Fund and its Cemetery Perpetual Care Fund for deficit reduction purposes in Fiscal Year 2011". (House Finance, June 14)

10. Three bills from the department of I wonder exactly who it is that they have in mind: "No individual or entity shall own or have an interest in an entity or entities that own more than twenty-five percent (25%) of the boat slips located in the State of Rhode Island" (H6203, House Corporations, June 14); a bill keeping some old rules for judicial nominations in place for another year (S0686, Senate Judiciary, June 14); and a bill requiring sellers of "tools or electronic equipment readily identifiable with a serial number" in Rhode Island to have a license from the Attorney General. (H5807, House Judiciary, June 15)

9. H5161: Several changes to campaign finance law, including making the qualifying rules for matching funds for independent candidates identical to those for party candidates, and the elimination of a section of the law entitling candidates who comply with the public financing of election campaigns "to accept a contribution or contributions that in the aggregate do not exceed two thousand dollars ($2,000) from any person or political action committee within a calendar year". The official description of the bill describes this last section as the removal of a limit. (House Finance, June 14)

8. S0289: Subjects the appointment of the state education commissioner to the advice and consent of the Senate. (Senate Education, June 14)

7. S0658: According to the official description, "this act would allow the family court judge who finds a minor delinquent for the commission of a gang-related offense to order the minor's parents or guardian to attend anti-gang violence parenting classes". (Senate Judiciary, June 14)

6. H5276: A pilot project for "Patient Centered Medical Homes". This bill appears to be founded on the assumption that system failures created by regulation can be fixed by piling new regulations on top of the broken ones. (Senate Health and Human Services, June 15)

5D. S0399: Moves-up vaarious deadlines in the process of qualifying for a Presidential primary. (House Judiciary, June 15)

5C. S0341/H5661: Polling hours in every place in RI not named "New Shoreham" would be between 7am and 8pm. (Currently, polls close at 9pm, with opening times that vary by community. New Shoreham polls would open at 9am under both the old and the new law). (House Judiciary, June 15)

5B. S0924: Establishes the electoral reapportionment commission for Rhode Island (House Finance, June 14)

5A. H6176: A study commission on a system for determining "the winner of [an] election by majority vote" including but not limited to "instant runoff voting, approval voting, range voting, and proportional voting". (Senate Judiciary, June 14)

4. S0867: Requires all Rhode Island hospitals to submit "evidence of participation in a high-quality comprehensive discharge planning and transitions improvement project operated by a nonprofit organization in this state" or "a plan for the provision of comprehensive discharge planning and information to be shared with patients transitioning from the hospitals care" to the director of the state department of health. (House Health, Education and Welfare, June 15)

3. H5644: Creates a new section of the law regarding "crimes against the public trust", including sections on "bribery in official and political matters", "selling political endorsements", "speculating or wagering on official action or information" and "theft of honest services", as well as the creation of a "public corruption and white collar crime unit". Introduced at the request of the Attorney General. (House Finance, June 14)

2. S0483: Changes the scope of the "Teachers' Health Insurance Board" -- half of whose membership is appointed by directly by labor organizations -- from being able to impose binding rules on elected school committees, to a purely advisory capacity. (House Health, Education and Welfare, June 15)

1. H6052: Would limit the powers of a municipal receiver to those powers "related specifically to the fiscal stability of the city or town", and would prohibit a receiver from "from preventing or prohibiting a city or town's elected officials or city or town manager, or administrator from conducting their ordinary and customary duties with respect to the daily operation of the city or town". (House Finance, June 14)

It Isn't a Jobless Recovery...

Marc Comtois

...if it's a recovery at all...it's a "Jobs lost" one.

Only 58.4 percent of Americans are employed, the fewest since the 1980s. Corporations have recouped 100 percent of profits lost in the recession. GDP has regained its pre-recession level with 7.3 million fewer workers.
I think baby-boomers leaving the workforce at least partially accounts for the first number. Regardless, companies aren't going to add jobs back "just because." They will only do so if the growth justifies it. Instead, during this recession, companies learned that fewer workers can do the same work (or more) as before.
It’s easy to criticize corporations for raking in profits while millions of workers go unemployed or underemployed. However, the bottom line is that companies have adapted to the changing structure of the U.S. and global economies a lot faster than the American workforce has, and a great number of those workers have a lot of catching up to do.
Companies have adapted and streamlined and become profitable at current employment levels.
The push to bolster profitability has permanently altered the employment needs of many corporations, especially the mix of skills companies require. "We believe a large proportion of today's high unemployment is structural in nature, resulting from a huge skill mismatch between the jobs being created and the existing skill sets of jobseekers," says Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner.
In other words, as the aforelinked article is titled, "some jobs are never coming back." Now workers have to adapt or be left behind, never to recover.

Not Positive Stories, but Stories of Debt

Justin Katz

Everybody wants to get in the picture and to appear involved in such transfers of federal money to local communities:

The state's political establishment turned out in force Friday to announce a $400,000 federal grant that will help lead to the cleaning and development of Rhode Island brownfields. They came to Meeting Street school, built with earlier state and federal assistance on nearly nine acres of one such formerly polluted site.

Let's stipulate that recovering defunct industrial sites is worthwhile and might even justify some government involvement. One wonders, though, from where the money is coming. In the near view, the money is nothing but debt — $400,000 that the federal government will borrow and that the American people will have to pay back with interest. What uses will that money not be put to in order to create this photo op? It's not inconceivable that this review of the state's blight will come at the cost of further blight in the future.

Mark Steyn's Saturday column resonates on this topic. Noting the dominance of McDonald's in recent anemic job growth, the apparent ability of the Dept. of Education to execute search warrants, and the unaccountable incompetence of the TSA, Steyn writes:

The American Dream, 2011: You pay four bucks a gallon to commute between your McJob and your underwater housing to prop up a spendaholic, grabafeelic, paramilitarized bureaucracy-without-end bankrupting your future at the rate of a fifth of a billion dollars every hour.

In a sane world, Americans would be outraged at the government waste that confronts them everywhere you turn: The abolition of the federal Education Department and the TSA is the very least they should be demanding. Instead, our elites worry about sea levels.

The assembled politicians at the Meeting Street school presented their efforts as pointed toward job growth, and the school's President and CEO, John Kelly, emphasized the point. That presentation is a little misleading, though. For one thing, Meeting Street already existed, just in a different location. Did a better location and facility result in higher revenue and more employment? Perhaps, but it's not as recovering the brownfield created something that had not previously existed. Moreover, the facility is a tax exempt non-profit, which isn't quite the same when it comes to economic activity and public revenue as a for-profit enterprise would be.

They might take longer than top-down government decrees, but at this point, the Rhode Island and American economies would probably do better to find other methods of economic development than borrowing money to renovate abandoned industrial land for use by non-profit organizations

Zero-based budgeting

Marc Comtois

Looking at RIPEC's state budget projections, Ted Nesi explains how a "budget on autopilot" is untenable no matter what the entity--towns, cities, states, the country. You can also read "autopilot" to mean "assumptions." Yet, the assumptions built into these budgets--3% raises, increase in program costs, etc.--aren't even enough to cover the rate of growth, which far outpace the ability to tax (or "generate revenue").

Nesi provides a nice pie chart showing that 52% of the growth in the budget since FY2002 is from social services and 17.7% of the growth comes from increasing personnel costs (while the growth in personnel costs--particularly in a good economy--are probably about what we'd expect to see, keep in mind that the state workforce has shrunk). Meanwhile, as we well know, aid to cities in towns--ie, money that towns send to cities, some of which filters back to them--has been reduced by nearly 3%, which isn't a lot in the big picture, but hurts each community acutely.

Given our current straits, perhaps it's time to implement zero-based budgeting instead of the current practice of "last year + (at least) 3%". Start fresh. Look at what we spend our tax dollars on and (re)prioritize: infrastructure, economic development, providing important services at reasonable cost, etc. Now, it takes a lot of work, so perhaps we could do a zero-based budget in the first year of each new governor term and then baseline from there. It's an interesting concept, but the chance of it getting implemented is, well, zero.

Re: Man Bites Dog: School Committee Sues Teachers Union

Monique Chartier

Responding via e-mail and under comments to my question, Tim Duffy, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, kindly explains the preamble to and basis of the Portsmouth School Committee' lawsuit against the NEA-Portsmouth.

The Portsmouth school committee implemented a new personnel policy that based teacher assignments on qualifications as opposed to seniority; the union contended that the policy needed to be negotiated and filed a complaint with the labor relations board.

The committee is seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that:

1. They have a management responsibility to students to assign teachers based on student need.

2. That case law grants this right and therefore the labor board lacks jurisdiction.

(Come to think of it, does the Labor Board have ultimate jurisdiction over anything? What percentage of the complaints filed with the Labor Board have ended at that body?)

June 12, 2011

Social Hosting Tip: Chief Esserman Might Well Have Benefited If the Sarah Palin E-Mails Had Only Been Released A Couple of Days Earlier

Monique Chartier

Certain members of the msm, demonstrating an interest and a level of energy that they never remotely approached when it came to candidate and then President Barack Obama, have recruited a volunteer army of readers and are currently snuffling through Sarah Palin's gubernatorial e-mails looking for material with which to embarass and/or ridicule her.

The Telegraph's Tony Harnden points out that thirty six hours into the effort, they have not been particularly successful; in fact, rather the opposite as some of the material turns out to be mildly flattering of the governor. As an example, Harnden reports that Governor Palin

sought help from her staff in keeping the alcohol in the governor’s mansion away from young people, stating that it should be boxed up and “removed from the People’s House” – both for practical reasons and as a statement about her administration.

“Here’s my thinking: with so many kids and teens coming and going in that house, esp during this season of celebrations for young people – proms, graduations, etc, I want to send the msg that we can be – and ‘the People’s House’ needs to be – alcohol-free. There’s a lot of booze there – its too accessible and may be too tempting to any number of all those teens coming and going.”

Meanwhile, back in Little Rhody, GoLocalProv reports that, late Friday night, Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman broke up an underage party at his own residence. Now, the issue is, did the chief fall foul of Rhode Island's social hosting law? GoLocal claims to have observed the party in full swing for a couple of hours before the chief sent everyone packing.

If only the chief (not that he is alone in this lapse) had adopted Governor Palin's residential Prohibition, he could have avoided the brouhaha that awaits him.

June 11, 2011

Bob Kerr: Answers about the Iannazzi Hiring as Accurate as Blind Date Pre-Screening Information

Monique Chartier

Those like myself who are obsessed with politics to the exclusion of almost everything else can be excused for passing lightly over Bob Kerr's column yesterday; the headline

The blind date doesn’t seem to be working out

gave the impression that the topic of the column was lifestyle or culture.

Not so.

It’s like a blind date pitch: “Great personality, really funny, gets along with everybody in the dorm …”

The details are, uh, selective. A fondness for guzzling Jell-O shots and jumping on the bar screaming, “I am the love machine” is overlooked, as is the neck-circling anaconda tattoo and a tendency to describe almost everything with an f-bomb. ...

And so it is at the Rhode Island State House, where [Senate Majority Leader] Dominick Ruggerio tried to fix up a guy while going light on the details.

Kerr points out that one of the people trying to get information about this unsolicited, unposted $88,000 salary fix-up with the Rhode Island taxpayer's wallet is his ProJo colleague, Ed Achorn.

Achorn asked questions, such as “Was the job posted?” and “What qualifications does Mr. Iannazzi bring to the job?”

Ah, but such specificity does not usually go well for either blind dates or patronage hires.

Questions always mess things up: “How tall is he/she?” “Has he/she ever been arrested?” “Does he/she tend to scratch a lot?”

Indeed, substantive answers about the Iannazzi hiring either do not exist or apparently would not be flattering to those in charge as Dominick Ruggerio responded in the mode of Anthony Weiner pre-confession.

But rather than answer the questions, Ruggerio went for the redo. Iannazzi, he said on the Journal op-ed page, is “superbly qualified for this position and has a diverse skill set.” He also said that officials at the State House have praised Iannazzi’s ability, work ethic and knowledge of the issues. I think that means he gets along well with everybody in the dorm, er, the State House.

Oh, great - collegiality over qualification and even necessity: isn't that partly why Rhode Island is in so much financial trouble? (Nice job with the column, Bob.)

June 10, 2011

UPDATED: Portsmouth Institute, 2011

Justin Katz

This year's Portsmouth Institute conference takes up the topic of "The Catholic Shakespeare," and fittingly, this evening's musical interlude features music of a Shakespearean theme. Specifically, the orchestra will be playing Sir William Walton's Henry V Suite and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The performance begins at 6:15, so you've still got time to get to the Portsmouth Abbey campus if you're in the mood for a free concert.

Going into the weekend, I was curious about the manner in which the topic would be presented. The inaugural conference, two years ago, following pretty closely on his death, was mainly a forum for remembrances of William F. Buckley, Jr., with an emphasis on his religious faith. Last year, with the impending beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the conference dealt with that tremendous figure and his effect on Catholic thought. This year's topic is a very specific question concerning a mainly cultural figure.

Of course, that figure is William Shakespeare, which makes the material of its own especial interest. So far Rt. Rev. Dom Aidan Bellenger described the cultural setting in which Shakespeare wrote, with specific reference to the destruction of Catholic monasteries. The second speaker, John Cox, gave a short survey of the use of prayer in Shakespeare's plays. Both talks were certainly edifying and left plenty of room for revelations of a broader cultural significance — which shouldn't have been surprising, after all, given the subject matter. Neither Shakespeare nor Catholicism are very narrow in their application.

Addendum 7:10 p.m.:

The music at these events is always excellent (thanks to music director Troy Quinn), but tonight's performance exceeded even my high expectations. I hope to have video up in the morning.

Man Bites Dog: School Committee Sues Teachers Union

Monique Chartier

I don't fully understand the basis of the lawsuit; explications welcome. But this is a refreshing turnabout in a state where public labor lawsuits against elected bodies are filed, seemingly, as easily as shop grievances.

Portsmouth officials have filed suit against the town's teacher's union seeking to eliminate seniority as a factor in personnel decisions, including layoffs.

The suit, filed in Providence County Superior Court, asks the court to declare that the Portsmouth School Department's staffing policy is not subject to collective bargaining.

It states that a seniority dominated system ignores teacher effectiveness and student need.

You will be shocked, SHOCKED, to hear that the NEA is framing the discarding of seniority as an attack on labor, not as a change for the benefit of the students.

Susan Hatch, the National Education Association-Portsmouth's vice president, tells the Newport Daily News the lawsuit misrepresents the union's contract with the city and is an attempt to circumvent collective bargaining.

Seniority Means Efficiency in Whistleblowing?

Justin Katz

Can't say I buy the rationale that Eloise Wyatt offers for preserving seniority policies among public school teachers:

By eliminating seniority you get rid of the protection that lets teachers speak, up and stand up when an administration is hurting children. In my time as a special-education teacher in Providence, it was common for administration to save money to shortchange or totally deny students the services they were required to have by law.

Only when students had teachers protected by seniority was there someone to advocate for those students. It is not only special-needs students who can get ground up in by administration. Often students need an advocate. Sadly, any teacher who speaks out now might find themselves without jobs.

That might be an argument for tenure (although one must then wonder why every employee of every conceivable business doesn't need such protections), but seniority? What if it's a young teacher who sees the need to advocate for students? Indeed, it seems far more likely that fresh eyes in an educational system are more apt to spot the inappropriate activities that have worked themselves into the school's culture.

Of course, even by considering the topic to this extent, I'm allowing for the sake of discussion the assertion that teachers are more likely than administrators to be students' advocates. It seems to me that, in a properly run school, the principals, superintendent, school committee, and other non-teaching personnel would have at least as much motivation to ensure that students are well served and their parents satisfied with the job that the schools are doing.

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.

Massachusetts and Connecticut More Generous with Medicaid than RI

Marc Comtois

Apparently RI legislators haven't gotten updated or correct numbers when it comes to the income limits for offering RIte Care (Medicaid* in RI).

The information, presented at a public hearing on Monday, portrayed Rhode Island as more generous in its RIte Care benefits than either of its neighboring states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, citing information from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, “How Rhode Island Compares.” Rhode Island was said to allow parents to enroll at 175 percent of the poverty level, compared with 150 percent for Connecticut and 133 percent for Massachusetts.
This was important because the House is looking at making the eligibility requirements for receiving RIte Care tougher by dropping it to 133% of the poverty level. The apparent error was brought up by Mark Reynolds of the Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island.
The problem, according to Reynolds, is that the figures being used were not accurate. In Massachusetts, eligibility extends to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and the 133 percent figure is when cost-sharing premiums kick in for the participants. In Connecticut, eligibility extends to 185 percent. (See chart.)

“From what we are hearing, there is a misperception by some in the Legislature that eligibility requirements for RIte Care are more generous than those of our bordering states,” said Reynolds. In fact, both Massachusetts and Connecticut cover parents at higher incomes than Rhode Island does today.

Here's a chart that helps explain the differences. I can't track down the RIPEC report, but comparing states' eligibility isn't always apples to apples because they differ in when benefits kick in. This seems to be the case with comparing RI to Massachusetts. As for Connecticut, I wonder if RIPEC's numbers were "accurate at the time" but CT has since changed? Regardless, the important take away is that "both Massachusetts and Connecticut cover parents at higher incomes than Rhode Island does today." I'm good with that.

*Thanks to brassband for the correction.

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 9, 2011

Books and Stuff

Justin Katz

Monique talked books and happenings around the site last night on the Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Pawtucket Pension and Retirement Shortfall: $500 Million (Just Pawtucket)

Monique Chartier

... which includes $83,000 a month in disability pensions. And that item could have been even higher, if you can believe it, but Pawtucket has an enlightened - by Rhode Island standards - rule that shifts disability pensioners over to a regular pension at retirement age. (So there are cities and towns which do not make this shift but allow the pensioner to continue collecting the more generous disability pension? Why? The person is now of retirement age.)

Major kudos to Ethan Shorey at the Valley Breeze for researching and bringing these figures to light.

Documents obtained from the Pawtucket Personnel Department and state records show that the city's pension system is currently paying out $46,369 a month in long-term disabled retiree pensions to 10 police officers, two firefighters, and four other municipal workers.

Another 11 "injured on duty" employees, five firefighters, two police officers, and four municipal workers, are being paid a total of $36,548 a month out of the city's general fund.

The public safety pension and municipal health benefits funds are together an estimated $500 million under-funded, according to officials.

In other words, the retirement shortfall of just one city of thirty nine equals half a billion dollars. As Providence is starkly demonstrating, many of our cities and towns don't have the revenue to simply operate, never mind begin to cover the chasm that comprises our retirement liability

Yet, a couple of weeks ago, the Senate President almost seemed to be warning the legislature against taking up pension reform.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed warned legislators that recent attempts at pension reform had been bitterly opposed, and cost some senators and representatives their elected offices after they won passage.

So what is the alternative, Madam President? Shall we simply allow public pension checks to start bouncing in a couple of years?

More Commentary on Stephen Iannazzi

Justin Katz

My situation may be unique (although I doubt it), but one of the consequences of Rhode Island's political and economic structure is that it is so darn difficult just to get by and raise a family that little time remains to keep a consistently watchful eye on local political corruption. Such has been the case in my efforts to garner commentary on the union-rep nepotism that brought 25-year-old Stephen Iannazzi into a $90,000 State House job.

But the responses have come trickling in, nonetheless.

To recap, young Iannazzi's boss, Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio has defended the hiring in no uncertain terms. East Bay state Senator Louis DiPalma defended it, as well. Responding to an inquiry from me, several local elected officials took varying positions. Since then, Tiverton Town Council Member Rob Coulter sent the following:

Thank you for calling this to my attention. I agree that the qualification profile and the close relationships connected with such a highly paid public position are grounds for serious concern and further inquiry.

While obviously this involves a state – not Tiverton – position, we all share a common interest in transparent, efficient government. With Rhode Island suffering from the third worst unemployment rate in the nation, I’d say taxpayers, and other state employees for that matter, deserve a thorough confirmation of whether this $88,000 position was, and still is, appropriately filled. Perhaps a more thorough explanation will satisfy these questions which have been fairly raised, and I hope that our Senate delegation will take the appropriate steps to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the public hiring system and that taxpayer dollars are being spent fairly and wisely.

Coulter's fellow Tiverton Town Council member Joan Chabot looked into general salary levels:

I have reviewed the Providence Journal article that you indicated in this email and conducted some research into JCLS. I couldn't easily find hiring/compensation procedures for the JCLS, but found only that it should be similar to the procedures used by the executive branch.

I also researched salary information for a legislative assistant/legislative aide position to get an idea of the "going" rate. That research produced an average salary of $46,000 for a legislative assistant/aide at the state level.

Based on this research, I think it is very suspicious that a person with no experience and no college degree could qualify for a legislative aide position with a starting salary of $88,112. Common sense dictates that this issue deserves further explanation and scrutiny.

Many questions come to mind... What was the hiring process? Were there other applicants for this position? Were interviews conducted? What are the salaries of other legislative assistants/aides? Is this person’s salary in range of the other assistants/aides? If it is, why is the salary range so high?

This should certainly send up a red flag in government spending at a time when the state can least afford an $88K legislative aide. I’m certain we can find several college graduates that would take the job for half the salary. Our state legislators should be questioning this issue and pushing for answers from the JCLS now that they are aware of the situation. And if irregularities are found, then the situation must be addressed.

From the RI House, Representative Dan Gordon (R, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton) responded as follows:

I believe that at a bare minimum, the questions that have been posed by the media and the public regarding the hiring of Mr. Iannazzi must be answered. The lack of responses thus far are certainly lending to the cloud of suspicion.

As a State Representative and custodian of taxpayer dollars, it is troubling to me that there are obvious family and labor ties involved in hiring this young man. I’m certain the people would like to see his resume, what exactly are the job duties of a Senate Aide that justify an $88,112 salary with state benefits, how the position was advertised, and the resumes of the other applicants. I know for a fact that highly qualified degree holders have offered to do the job for half the salary. Let’s see some transparency from the Senate chamber.

And Rep. John Edwards (D, Tiverton, Portsmouth) mailed the following on House stationery:

Thank you for contacting me in reference to Senator DiPalma's remarks concerning a recent hire by the Senate Majority Leader. While I do not know this particular individual or of his qualifications, I was surprised to read that someone so young was so well compensated.

My experience has been that the level of income this young man receives is normally reserved for someone more experienced in their field. Again, I will re-iterate that I have no knowledge of his qualifications.

The hiring and personnel process in the General Assembly should be addressed to bring more transparency to it, to allow more people to apply for these positions. I have spoken to Speaker Fox, concerning the recent pay raises he has given to a number of House employees. I expressed my disagreement with his decision and shared the many outraged calls and emails I received from my constituents. The leadership of the General Assembly needs to be sensitive to the concerns of our constituents on this matter, especially in the midst of this deep and long recession.

So, I've not yet found another elected official willing to take DiPalma's astonishing step of defending Ruggerio's hire of his union pal's son at an absurdly high salary, but I've also not seen indication of any sparks for further action. I'll soon be posting a chart of people I've contacted and their responses (or lack thereof), as well as contacting more elected officials and other people involved in state and local politics.

June 8, 2011

Increase Professorial Efficiency and Tuition Costs Will Go Down

Marc Comtois

Richard Vedder, an economics at Ohio University, explains that one way to cut college tuition costs would be to ask professors to, you know, teach more.

In a study for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Christopher Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe and I concluded that tuition fees at the flagship campus of the University of Texas could be cut by as much as half simply by asking the 80% of faculty with the lowest teaching loads to teach about half as much as the 20% of faculty with the highest loads. The top 20% currently handle 57% of all teaching.

Such a move would require the bulk of the faculty to teach, on average, about 150-160 students a year. For example, a professor might teach one undergraduate survey class for 100 students, two classes for advanced undergraduate students or beginning graduate students with 20-25 students, and an advanced graduate seminar for 10. That would require the professor to be in the classroom for fewer than 200 hours a year—hardly an arduous requirement.

Faculty will likely argue that this would imperil the university's research mission. Nonsense. First of all, at UT Austin, a mere 20% of the faculty garner 99.8% of the external research funding. Second, faculty who follow the work habits of other professional workers—go to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and work five days a week for 48 or 49 weeks a year—can handle teaching 200 hours a year while publishing considerable amounts of research. I have done just this for decades as a professor.

Efficiency and higher education? Wonder if it would work...

Both Sides of the Labor Mouth

Justin Katz

This has got to be my favorite argument that labor reps are making now that the problems are no longer deniable:

"If you incentivize and stop burning your overtime, you'll get $6 million in the blink of an eye," [union lawyer Joseph] Rodio said Tuesday. Officers see the loss of prized overtime as a concession.

I think it was Rodio who told Dan Yorke, the other day, that the problem is that the city of Providence was irresponsible in the salaries and overtime that it gave to union police officers. Of course, the union has fought and will fight any attempts to achieve reasonableness, but hey, that's the system.

Burgundians in the Mist Released

Marc Comtois

As mentioned previously, I've had a book in the works. Not political; history (and ancient at that!). It's now out.

Buy a copy today!


The Taxman Cometh in Warwick

Marc Comtois

As mentioned last week, Warwick saw a re-run of last year's budget debate and now has a re-run of last year's budget: flat-funded schools but an increase in city-side spending = property tax increases AND (new and improved!) the (re)imposition of the car tax.

The council approved a budget of about $273.8 million and a new residential property-tax rate of $18.16 per $1,000 of assessed value. The council was able to trim 12 cents off Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed 80-cent tax-rate increase by substantially cutting the requested overtime budgets of almost all city departments, except for police and public works.

For the average resident taxpayer with a house valued at $168,000, the new tax rate will mean an increase of about $114. The current residential tax rate is $17.48 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The council’s budget, which passed on a 6-to-2 vote, brings higher car taxes by nearly eliminating the $6,000 exemption on auto values that was state law until last year.... The motor vehicle tax rate, which varies among communities and is locked by the General Assembly, is $34.60 per $1,000 of valuation in Warwick.

The car values are set by the state’s Vehicle Value Commission. A 2008 Toyota Corolla is currently valued at $11,275, according to city officials. A resident will now have to pay taxes on all but $500 of that value, resulting in an annual excise tax bill of about $372.82.

The other tax rates set Monday night are a commercial rate of $27.24 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from the current rate of $26.22. The tangible property tax rate will increase from $34.96 per $1,000 to $36.32.

City Councilmen Steve Merolla and C.J. Donovan (both Democrats) voted against the budget. The biggest cut made by the council was the Fire Department's allotment for overtime--which they have routinely exceeded year after year (so it's of questionable value to "cut" something that is never realistic anyway...). As mentioned, the schools were flat-funded again and will seek to cut $6 million from their budget. Merolla echoed the point oft-made by the Warwick Tea Party (download their analysis here):
The administration keeps bashing the schools for being "top heavy” and spending money, “but the School Department has been cutting costs,” he said.

Most of the tax increases in recent years are tied to bigger city salaries and higher municipal costs, he said. “At the end of the day, the kids get hurt.”

As mentioned earlier in the piece containing Merolla's comments, the School Committee have cut 150 full-time equivalent positions over the last few years. On the other hand, the School Administration didn't help themselves any by requesting a 2.75% pay increase for non-union administrative staff--no matter how deserving or how long they've gone without a raise. It just doesn't look good in these times. That being said, going forward, the School Committee does have the "benefit" of having expired contracts with both school unions (WISE and AFT), so they have an opportunity to cure many of the structural ills that contribute to these problems (health care co-pays, reform contract steps, weighting, etc.).

The city-side contracts (municipal, police, fire) expire in June 2012, so no cost-savings can (or will) be negotiated until then. There should be no confusion: the tax increases imposed upon Warwick citizens this year are a direct result of increases in city-side expenditures proposed by Mayor Avedisian and approved by the majority of the Warwick City Council.

An Acute Example of the Broader System

Justin Katz

If you skipped the historical essay to which Marc linked on Monday, give it a read. It concerns the making of the pension mess in Providence, and its most valuable insight, in my view, is the light that it shines on the entire dynamic created by public sector unions.

The defining statement comes from firefighter and Local 799 union President Stephen Day, who was a member of the 1989 Providence Retirement Board that then Chief of Administration John Simmons said "broke the city":

"All we did" on Dec. 6, 1989, says Day, "was vote in broad daylight and do what we had the right to do. If we had the authority to do this, we were going to do it. You can't fault someone for being aware" of the laws. "I don't regret it at all."

Of course, union leaders typically have good reason to be aware of the law, because they work so hard in such a long-term coordinated fashion. Step one was to give the unions the controlling hand on the Retirement Board:

During the 1970s, Senate Majority Leader John P. Hawkins, a former Providence firefighter himself, and other senators began advocating legislation that would add two union representatives to the city's Retirement Board, thus tipping the balance. The legislation eventually passed around 1977.

Step two appears to have been to insert some innocuous-seeming language in the city's home-rule charter, and step three was to lob a court case into the system (to a judge with who knows what motivation) to change the nature of the board's authority:

The [spring 1989] case involved a Providence police officer, Walter Bruckshaw, who, along with 100 other city employees, wanted to buy credit in the city pension system for work they had done for other government agencies. The Retirement Board denied them. The court ruled the city's home rule charter, which went into effect in 1983, granted the Providence Retirement Board control over city pension decisions.

And voila. Day and his counterpart in the police union, Richard Patterson, ran for seats on the board promising to "boost the pensions of current and future retirees. The result? Compounded cost of living adjustments (COLAs) of 3-6%, tripled minimum pensions for police and firemen, and reduced minimum years of service. As city administrators strove to control the bleeding, the unions maneuvered these issues into contract negotiations. Then came all of the individual Pension Board decisions:

In 1991, every police officer who retired in Providence –– 21 in all –– received a job-related disability pension from the Retirement Board.

Of the 53 firefighters leaving their jobs, the Retirement Board approved disability pensions for 48 of them.

So, yes, Day's statement about authority isn't without justification, but the authority ultimately comes not from the narrow scope of Providence politics and governance, but from the reality of public-sector unions in the first place. The unions get a seat at the negotiating table as employee representatives, and they get a hand in the political process that determines those with whom they'll be negotiating. That's simply the incentive structure of the system, and as becomes more undeniable with every passing month, the incentives are far too strong even for fiscal reality and inevitability to overcome.

June 7, 2011

NPV Would Not Make RI Any More "Relevant"

Carroll Andrew Morse

At least one motivation offered by local supporters of the the National Popular Vote compact, that NPV would lead to more attention for Rhode Island in Presidential elections, makes no sense at all.

George Will explained in a column from about a decade ago how there is no improvement in the relative importance of small states under NPV...

Were it not for electoral votes allocated winner-take-all, would candidates campaign in, say, West Virginia? In 1996 Bill Clinton decisively defeated Bob Dole there 52 percent to 37 percent. But that involved a margin of just 93,866 votes (327,812 to 233,946), a trivial amount compared to what can be harvested in large cities. However, for a 5-0 electoral vote sweep, West Virginia is worth a trip or two.
I also remember Will opining, following the 2000 Presidential election, that if the Bush campaign had had a rough idea about how things were likely to turn out that year, their best strategy for improving their odds under a popular vote scenario would have been to ramp up their turnout machine in the Houston metro area.

You could imagine a similar logic applying if the 2012 election were held under NPV rules, with the Barack Obama campaign deciding in the case of a close race not to seek extra votes in a smattering of small cities across the country, but to devote additional resources to getting every vote possible out of the President's political base in Chicago.

The Houston metro area has about 6 million people in it, and the Chicago metro area has about 9.5 million, while Rhode Island has only 1 million people. There is no serious reason to believe that NPV will suddenly make Rhode Island any less "neglected" in Presidential elections, when NPV makes large urban areas into the places that provide the most efficient possibilities for increasing electoral margins.

RIPEC's Chicken Acquiescence

Justin Katz

Following on this Projo summary of this disappointing report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) isn't quite as pro-Chafee-tax as the headlines and the Chafeedom would have us believe, but there's far too much hedging in it.

With the exception of the new sales taxes proposed for business back-end purchases, RIPEC never quite spells out what aspects of the tax scheme it likes and doesn't. Instead, we get language like this:

The "Sales Tax Modernization Proposal" is projected to generate $164.9 million in additional revenue for the state in FY 2012 and would make fundamental changes to the state's sales tax system. As proposed, the plan would increase FY 2012 tax revenue from an estimated $2,380.3 million1 to $2,545.2 million, an overall increase of 6.9 percent (see chart 5). The sales tax itself would increase by approximately 20 percent. When total revenues generated through sales taxes – including the meals and beverage tax and hotel tax, which are collected by the state and remitted to the municipality in which they are collected – are considered, projected sales tax collections would total approximately $1,015 million. This level of collections would be greater than the amount of revenue generated through the personal income tax. Such a significant change should only be undertaken after careful evaluation of the pros and cons of the proposal, particularly as they relate to the state's tenuous economic recovery.

The conclusion toward which RIPEC mildly implies — and ought to have made explicit — is that no tax increase should be included in this "modernization" effort. If the state government really wants to boost the local economy, it should lower and broaden the sales tax rate in such a way as to effect an overall tax cut.

"If You Like Your Insurance, You Can Keep It."

Justin Katz

Remember when the President of the United States repeated that promise over and over to the American people? Well quite a few of us less-lofty folks predicted this contrary outcome:

Once provisions of the Affordable Care Act start to kick in during 2014, at least three of every 10 employers will probably stop offering health coverage, a survey released Monday shows.

But that's not all:

The survey of 1,300 employers says those who are keenly aware of the health-reform measure probably are more likely to consider an alternative to employer-sponsored plans, with 50% to 60% in this group expected to make a change. It also found that for some, it makes more sense to switch.

In some cases, the lost benefit might transition to some other form of compensation (although many of us have also predicted that ObamaCare will not stop, and may accelerate, cost inflation and quality deflation in the medical industry). In the push for government control of healthcare, though, spanning its peculiar procedural maneuvers and bold flight in the face of taxpayer concerns, likely outcomes were downplayed, not thoroughly vetted.

June 6, 2011

Oh, Great. Now He Can Doze Under Cover of Darkness.

Monique Chartier

Remember that DOT staffer busted by WPRI for sleeping, eating and reading for half the work day? Well, he's back on the job - but during a different shift.

The Department of Transportation worker caught in a Target 12 Investigation spending hours on the clock sleeping, eating and reading novels over several weeks, is back on the job in the same position but now working overnights. ...

Most recently, Coulombe was assigned to inspecting construction materials used in the Barrington River Bridge project, which was the poster child for overdue, over budget state projects. Lewis said he is now assigned in the same capacity but at the Pawtucket River Bridge project.

How is it that we have zero tolerance at schools for various silly infractions by the students yet we readily bestow forgiveness towards serious work transgressions in the public labor sector?

The Fox Designing the Hen House

Justin Katz

Redistricting must occur, I suppose, and a process must obviously be in place to handle it, but Rhode Island's proposed process doesn't even have much of a pretense of different voices and token opposition:

House Bill 6096, which now goes to the House floor, places the state's once-each-decade redistricting process in the hands of an 18-member commission, with two-thirds of the seats going to state lawmakers and six to “members of the general public."

The public members would be chosen by the same people who also would choose the most of the lawmakers — House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed.

If one were writing a fictional story about corrupt government, using Rhode Island as a model would make everything seem too overdrawn. When Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion testified that "Rhode Island has arguably the most partisan process," House Finance Committee Chairman Heliio Melo "interrupted and suggested that Marion raise his concerns with the commission, once it is formed." In other words, Marion should bring his concerns to the biased, unaccountable group once it had been formed.

Such is corruption in Rhode Island: structural and rotten to its core.

Pension Blame

Marc Comtois

I heard it again this morning--on the WPRO morning show, this time--probably in relation the ProJo's latest in their pension series on "how we got here" regarding the pension mess ("They Just Broke the City"). Yes, we know we messed up in the past, goes the refrain, but what can we do to make it better in the future? It's time to stop blaming people and look ahead, etc. It's similar to the no-blame game being played by the General Treasurer. Try to shove it in the past--bury the blame--and move on.

What is missed is that it is necessary to assign the proper blame so we know how to deal with the problem. If we don't properly identify the cause, we can't come up with a fair solution. So when we learn that a union run retirement board did more than it's fair share to put Providence in it's acute pension predicament--mostly thanks to COLAs and disability retirements--then we shouldn't feel too bad when recommending reforms that take a fair amount of flesh out of current retirees. Thanks to COLA's, for instance, they've seen their pension double in 12 years. Pretty good return, no?

The unions didn't act alone, though. As the ProJo story makes clear, politicians, the courts and, yes, voters did their share and were complicit in constructing this failed system. It's a "full Rhode Island."

That's why, despite the pleas of RI cities and towns, the General Assembly isn't rushing into any fixes and seems content to sit on their hands until the fall. If they even really do anything then. We were screwed then and we are screwed now. Maybe when the checks stop coming, something will get done.

June 5, 2011

En Route to Trouble: The I-195 Redevelopment Act of 2011

Monique Chartier

One larger observation before jumping in. You know, here we are, at the point that we can see the day, in the near future, when public pension checks will bounce. Yet rather than focus on what is the state's biggest crisis in many decades (arguably of the last century or more), Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio is selfishly making a Napoleonic grab on some land in Providence. At least, when the pension checks do bounce and those that he works for (in every sense of the word) demand to know what he did to prevent the catastrophe hitting their retired ranks, he'll be able to answer to them with a clear conscience ...

Now that a Senate Committee (not the full Senate, contrary to the ProJo headline) has passed S0114, the bill that would beget the commission and the district that would develop and sell twenty acres of former Route 195 land, let us review once again (Andrew having taken us skeptically through it here and here) its fatal flaws.

From the jump, you knew that there was something special about this legislation because it

was kept under tight wraps until the hearing began.

Ah, yes, the hallmark of good government policy: it can stand but the barest minimum of public scrutiny. In fact, Thursday's hearing had been postponed from earlier in the week in part because interested parties did not have sufficient time to read the fifty page bill before the hearing began.

The main flaw of the commission, however - and this is the consensus of everyone, literally every party who would not directly benefit from the bill (or is not under orders to pass it) - is that it would be all-powerful yet independent. Now, independence can be good when the purview is sufficiently narrow and (personal prejudice) pertains to the reduction of the size of government - think BRAC. This commission's independence, however, can be categorized squarely as that of a dictator's.

In addition to deciding on all redevelopment plans for the soon-to-be-vacant highway property, the proposed quasi-public commission would have the power to buy and sell land, borrow and lend money, invest money and negotiate tax agreements — all without state or city approvals.

When this complete lack of accountability was pointed out to the committee chair, his response was laugh out loud funny.

Committee chairman Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. pointed out that the commission must make annual reports to the General Assembly.

Oooo, an annual report! They'll be quivering in their wingtips!

Accountable neither to the state nor to the city: other than two parcels to be purchased by Johnson and Wales, the district would be exempt from Providence zoning and development laws, providing the state the ability to give the new owner carte blanche with regard to use of the land, not to mention building dimensions, parking, etc, etc. (Casino? Nuclear power plant? A five hundred unit residential tower with no parking?) Common Cause and many others are correctly concerned about this ... little detail.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin makes a good point: the state already has in place a perfectly good State Properties Commission. Why shouldn't the sale of the land go through it rather than an overly powerful new commission?

One question: does anyone know why Governor Chafee's Director of Administration, Richard Licht, is enthusiastic about this project?

... Licht said it’s “not unprecedented” for other independent state agencies to be able to buy and sell land on their own without oversight by the State Properties Committee. The Economic Development Corporation does not need such oversight, Licht said, nor does the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, except in certain cases.

Umm, these commissions also do not possess the broad powers that are proposed for the Route 195 Commission, Mr. Licht.

An editorial in yesterday's Providence Journal sums up everyone's reservations well.

The overriding state interest in the land is its federally mandated sale at fair-market value. A commission is not required for that. Indeed, a commission may retard both the land’s sale and its development.

Instead, the land should be sold to be developed under existing municipal authority. Let market forces guide its progress. That would be much more efficient than seven commissioners and their train of agencies, lawyers, consultants and other hangers-on. In fact, as of now the bill looks as if it is intended to create the next secure feed bag for the well-connected.

June 4, 2011

Coming up in Committee: Twelve Sets of Bills Scheduled to be Heard by the RI General Assembly, June 7 - June 9

Carroll Andrew Morse

12. H5133: Repeals the prohibition against "classified" state employees from running for state office. (House Labor, June 7)

11. S0858: All agencies, authorities, commissions, boards, municipalities, political subdivisions, and other public units of the state would be able to contribute funds to a pool that the General Treasurer would invest for them. Introduced at the request of the General Treasurer. (Senate Finance, June 7)

10. S0699/H5944: Exempts members of the "International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers and its signatory contractors jointly participating in the IMPACT National Substance Abuse Program" from state job-site drug testing laws. (Senate Labor, June 8)

9. H6098: Tax credits for expenses incurred in the substantial rehabilitation of "a certified historic structure, provided the rehabilitation meets standards consistent with the standards of the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior for rehabilitation". (House Finance, June 7)

8. S0770: A pilot project for "Patient Centered Medical Homes". This bill appears to be founded on the assumption that system failures created by regulation can be fixed by piling new regulations on top of the broken ones. (House Corporations, June 7)

7. H6176: A study commission on a system for determining "the winner of [an] election by majority vote" including but not limited to "instant runoff voting, approval voting, range voting, and proportional voting". (House Judiciary, June 7)

6. H5225: Prohibits the state and any RI municipality from requiring an "employer to use an electronic employment verification system...as a condition of receiving a government contract or applying for or maintaining a business license". (House Labor, June 7)

5. H6193/H6209: Reduces a municipal disability pension in a given year to an amount where the sum of the pension and the other income does not exceed "the base salary rate of compensation in effect for the classification that the disability recipient held prior to retirement", and allows a disability pension to be revoked if the pensioner works a job similar to the one he or she is disabled from. (House Finance, June 8)

4. H6116: Medical contracts that include a rate of payment for a service that exceed a percentage of what Medicaid pays for the same service, said percentage to determined by the State Health Insurance Commissioner, "shall be presumptively disapproved". (House Corporations, June 7)

3. S0492/S0927: Authorizes a statewide referendum and a local referendum in Lincoln to be held as part of the 2012 general election to approve or reject adding table games to "the facility known as 'Twin River'". (Senate Special Legislation and Veterans' Affairs, June 8)

2. H5659: Joins Rhode Island to an interstate compact where the RI legislature agrees to disregard the choice for President made by Rhode Island voters, and allocate RI's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead. (House Judiciary, June 7 and it's already passed in Senate Committee)

1. H6194/H6210: "Every state or municipal retiree shall, as a condition of receiving or continuing to receive retirement payments and benefits, enroll in Medicare as soon as he or she is eligible"... (House Finance, June 8)

Five Other Sets of Bills Scheduled to be Heard by the RI General Assembly, June 7 - June 9

Carroll Andrew Morse

...and here's a few more with impacts that are less-than-clear.

H5939/H6104/H6222: Lots of technical changes to regulations over "distributed generatation capacity and resources" of electric utilities. (House Environment and Natural Resources, June 7)

H6076/S0790: From the official description: "This act would transfer many of the powers, duties and responsibilities from the [and] change the state standards for apprenticeship programs to satisfy federal laws and regulations". (Senate Labor, June 8)

H6142: From the official descritption: "This act would allow credit unions to purchase, sell, and pledge loans or groups of loans under certain circumstances and would provide for conflicts of interest provisions with respect to the foregoing"... (House Corporations, June 7)

S0288: Changes in payday loan regulations. (Senate Corporations, June 7)

S0629: "Any single family owner-occupied property which is encumbered by a covenant recorded in the land evidence records in favor of a governmental unit, the State of Rhode Island housing resource commission or Rhode Island housing and mortgage finance corporation restricting the sale price during the effective period of covenant ("affordability period") shall be assessed by taking into account the effect of the covenant on the value of the property". (Senate Finance, June 9)

June 3, 2011

Re:Who Is Michael Chippendale?

Justin Katz

Representative Chippendale responded to my thoughts on his comments related to civil unions:

Hi guys, it's the horse's mouth here...

I used scripture for 2 reasons. First, I'm a Christian and we use the word of the Lord to help guide us when making decisions. There are guiding principles that are far worse - I can assure you. The General Assembly prays every day before session... God isn't a four letter word in the State House (yet). And Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I had been receiving a lot of comments from folks who were using scripture to justify their position against the bill... so when I rose to speak (which was not planned, I figured that I would just shut up and vote, but I was compelled to engage) - I was saying (in a 'between the lines' sort of way) "I can use scripture too. And I choose to use it to offer a different perspective than what all of us (legislators) have been hearing since January!"

So don't read too much into the simple verse I used. It is not a Republican v. Democrat issue... it was an issue where everyone in the room had their own reasons and feelings behind their votes...

And as a footnote, I still can sit at the cool-kids table...

Before offering further response on the specific issue at hand, I should address a common misconception about my commentary. When I hear somebody say something that interacts with political philosophy in an interesting way, I point it out. That I think a statement represents an erroneous application of this or that principle does not mean that the speaker is thereby to be pushed into the Crowley category and ostracized. It doesn't even mean that I take the comment to be an accurate indication of the speakers whole philosophy on life.

In this specific instance, I think Rep. Chippendale's comment was not only reckless in the view of appropriate governance that it expresses (i.e., that an elected official should not feel empowered to vote a particular way on a legitimate public policy question) but also erroneous in its theology (i.e., in recasting love of fellow human beings as requiring elision of real differences between relationship types).

Now for some good news: TACO Expands

Marc Comtois

For good reason, it's easy to focus on the bad around here. But there are positive signs every now and then. As reported by WPRO, TACO, Inc. has gone ahead and broken ground on a new expansion: the "Innovation and Development Center". Obviously John Hazen White Jr., owner of TACO, is confident the budgeted costs won't increase from any tax law changes. The purpose of the expansion is important to note. Companies--manufacturers in particular--used to rely heavily on institutionalized training/apprenticeship programs.

For instance, my father was accepted to the General Electric Apprenticeship program back in the late '60s, where he learned how to do things the "G.E." way. To be sure, many companies have continued such programs, including TACO, but I think they were de-emphasized as more kids received college degrees or went to technical schools to learn skills. I wonder if the new expansion is a sign that TACO will re-emphasize getting prospective employees in-house quicker to learn the "TACO way."

True Unemployment Numbers

Marc Comtois

Unemployment is reported as having gone up to 9.1% in May. It's actually worse:

Since November, the number of Americans counted as employed has grown by 765,000, to just shy of 139 million. The nation has been creating jobs every month as the economy recovers. The economy added 244,000 jobs in April.

But the number of Americans counted as unemployed has shrunk by much more — almost 1.3 million — during this time. That means the labor force has dropped by 529,000 workers.

The percentage of adults in the labor force is a figure that economists call the participation rate. It is 64.2 percent, the smallest since 1984. And that's become a mystery to economists. Normally after a recession, an improving economy lures job seekers back into the labor market. This time, many are staying on the sidelines.

Their decision not to seek work means the drop in unemployment from 9.8 percent in November to 9 percent in April isn't as good as it looks.

If the 529,000 missing workers had been out scavenging for a job without success, the unemployment rate would have been 9.3 percent in April, not the reported rate of 9 percent. And if the participation rate were as high as it was when the recession began, 66 percent, in December 2007, the unemployment rate could have been as high as 11.5 percent.

It sure feels worse.

Nobody on the People's Side

Justin Katz

Governor Donald Carcieri was limited in what he could accomplish, given the degree to which the Rhode Island Constitution favors the legislature, but at least he offered a different view. This tidbit, from the end of the article to which I linked earlier, is apt to give a taxpayer the hopeless sense that there's nobody on his or her side:

Asked at the time if the entire tax package was dead, House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo said that was not how he interpreted Fox's statement.

More recently, Melo acknowledged the lawmakers were exploring many options, including: how much the state might raise by extending the state's narrow sales tax to items already taxable in Massachusetts, and lowering the 7-percent rate by some amount, though not as much as the 6 percent that Chafee proposed.

Increasing taxes in the current national economy, with Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders experiencing pack-leading pain, should be a non-starter. I mean:

"It seems that almost every bit of data about the health of the US economy has disappointed expectations recently," said [M&G Investments fund manager Mike] Riddell, in a note sent to CNBC on Wednesday.


"Interest rates are amazingly low and that, thanks to Ben Bernanke, is driving everything," [market strategist Peter]Yastrow said. "We’re on the verge of a great, great depression. The [Federal Reserve] knows it.

Meanwhile, indications are that the current crew running Rhode Island are exceedingly unlikely to arrest the state's death spiral.

Re-Run in Warwick

Marc Comtois

Budget time in Warwick, which means the head-butting between the Mayor/City Council and Warwick Schools is essentially the same as last year and will probably have the same results. Without re-hashing the same arguments, here's the quick version.

The schools and city disagree on the baseline number for maintaining the level of effort for school funding. (The "moe" is required by law and the situation is exacerbated by differing opinions from the Education Commissioner and the leaders of the General Assembly, each telling the respective sides what they want to hear...the city solicitor is looking into it). The Warwick Beacon provided a nice graphic to illustrate the difference:

Also still relevant to the conversation is last year's analysis from the Warwick Tea Party, which shows that the City side of the budget has seen the majority of growth--and new tax dollars--over the last few years. Here is an updated chart produced by former School Committee/City Council member Bob Cushman illustrating the budgeting trends in Warwick.

The city flat-funded the schools in 2008 and 2009, then after a stimulus bump in 2010, funded at 95% in 2011. They have again proposed to flat-fund schools this year (based on the "new" moe). Overall, the school budget has increased 20.6% since 2004 and has actually decreased since 2008 (albeit with a one-time stimulus bump). The city side of the budget has increased 49.8% since 2004. The school-side of the budget reached its peak as far as a percentage of the overall budget at 63.89% in 2007. Now it stands at 55% of the total budget, which is a trend that some favor, no doubt. However, as the Warwick Tea Party points out, the fact is that the overall budget continues to grow with new property tax "revenue" generated over the last few years going to fund increases in the city side of the budget, not the schools.

UPDATE: Bob Cushman passed along an updated analysis for this year. You can download the file here (MS Word).

To Whom Chafee Would Give a Refund

Justin Katz

Some last-minute budget amendments that Governor Lincoln Chafee has submitted to the General Assembly are telling with regard to his attitude and priorities:

In another budget amendment, [Budget Officer Thomas] Mullaney announced a "medical-benefit holiday" for state workers, that will spare them, for one pay period, of having to contribute to their health insurance benefits. ...

The reason: the state's numbers crunchers said they initially overestimated by $3.086 million how much the state is likely to need to cover the cost of the self-insured benefits.

So, in the governor's view, when the state overestimates the cost of employee benefits and budgets accordingly, it should in some way transfer the excess to employees. That's certainly defensible, and it might even be advisable, but then we move on a few paragraphs:

Asked how Chafee intends to pay for the 25 new DMV staffers and other additions to his original spending plan, spokesman Michael Trainor pointed to the recent upswing in revenue collections in the months since Chafee laid out his $7.66-billion budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. His new proposal stands at $7,753,482,420.

State budget analysts now believe revenue will run $53.8 million ahead of earlier estimates for the year that ends June 30, and $65.9 million ahead for the year that begins July 1.

That is, when the government collects more in taxes and fees than it expects, in the governor's view, it should spend every penny, mostly in ways that will build in the expenses for future budgets to, for example, pay for hired employees. As writer Kathrine Gregg goes on to note, the total increase in revenue projections is $113.3 million, which "could be used to offset the projected $331-million deficit next year."

Not if this governor has his way.

June 2, 2011

He's Been Gone Less Than Six Months But Cicilline's Raise to the Firefighters is Already Up in Smoke. (How's the Obstruction of the City Auditor Turning Out, Congressman?)

Monique Chartier

First, former Providence Mayor David Cicilline spent seven years carrying out the charade that he was being tough on the contract demands of the Providence firefighters so that he could falsely claim the title of Champion of the Taxpayer.

Then, as the end of his second term approached and it became clear that the lack of a contract would interfere with the political promotion that he badly wanted, he settled with them quicker than you could say "fiduciary responsibility".

The new contract included a phased in retroactive pay increase of 3%. Now, Mayor Angel Taveras, struggling mightily with a hefty budget deficit, has announced that unless the city can reduce the fire department's budget by $6 million - which apparently equates to the amount of the raise and other consideration in the contract - one hundred firefighters will be laid off. (WPRO's Buddy Cianci broke the news this afternoon.)

Once again, the former mayor's misrepresentations about the fiscal condition of the city have been resoundingly disproven, this time to the detriment of a group - public labor - that he purportedly champions. How did it help them to reach a contract that has turned out to be financially unsound?

And once again, Congressman, you are learning that it wasn't such a good idea to obstruct the city Auditor. If you had had accurate numbers as to the financial condition of the city rather than the willful vacuum of information that permitted you to make cheery (false) campaign statements, perhaps you would not have negotiated a contract founded in shifting sand.

Don Carcieri Not Running for US Senate?

Monique Chartier

That's what Ian Donnis is hearing.

If these murmurings are true (and I wouldn't bother to post if someone of less than Ian's credibility had reported it), no one should be more relieved than the Truth Commissioner himself because the former governor's considerable campaign strengths, pointed out by Ian,

Carcieri has some key assets that he could bring to a GOP primary, including name recognition and considerable wealth.

would certainly carry over to the general election.

From Whence the Pension Reform Problem in Rhode Island

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn's most recent column highlights how little has changed in the public discussion of pension reform. This snippet, from a 2005 column of his, caught my eye in particular:

"Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, responded to last week’s cries for pension reform by dismissing it all as a partisan plot.

"'Republicans support pension reform. Well, yeah. Where's the story? Where's the news?' he asked."

The photograph of an ostrich accompanying the essay is apt. Ultimately, there are no surprises, in this; it's just that Rhode Islanders have been told to ignore such problems until the checks are literally nearing the point of not being written and then to expect one-time fixes and tax increases. That's the cycle that our current collection of elected officials are likely to pursue now, and it's a cycle that simply has to end.

It was also interesting to come across the name of a politician whom Governor Chafee tiptoed through revolving-door ethics rules to hire, with Achorn describing a 2003 essay:

Many legislators dismissed growing annual pension costs as small potatoes. I wrote: "$20 million-plus is still worth debate in most people's books. And the costs are exploding: Pension contributions for state workers and teachers are slated to go up $60 million in the next year, says Mr. Carcieri. This would seem to present a crisis that cannot be ignored."

(Now, in 2011, of course, the state confronts pension costs growing by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.)

Steven Costantino, then vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, accused the pension reformers of trying to stir up emotions. "You simply can't cherry-pick an issue which is a hot button or a good sound bite," he said.

Frankly, the only hope for Rhode Island is if voters begin teaching politicians that there can be consequences for their actions, which lesson has thus far been left to public sector unions to impart.

Re: The 195 Redevelopment Commission Bill and the Ethics Commission

Carroll Andrew Morse

A few people that I have talked to about the proposed I-195 redevelopment commission law tell me that evading Ethics Committee jurisdiction is not as easy as I had originally thought it was.

The question of whether appointed commissioners would be subject to Ethics Commission jurisdiction over "state or municipal appointed officials", despite the proposed saying that the commission is not part of any city or the state, brings the definitions section of the current Rhode Island Ethics law (36-14-2) into play...

(9) "State or municipal appointed official" means any officer or member of a state or municipal agency as defined herein who is appointed for a term of office specified by the constitution or a statute of this state or a charter or ordinance of any city or town or who is appointed by or through the governing body or highest official of state or municipal government;
So at the state level, anyone appointed by the Governor is subject to Ethics Committee jurisdiction, even if other parts of the law say that the board on which an appointee serves is separate from the state. That actually makes sense.

A second definition applies to the question of whether employees of the proposed commision would be covered by Ethics Commission jurisdiction over "employees of state and local government, of boards, Commissions, and agencies". A more detailed definition of to whom this applies is also contained in section 36-14-2...

(4) "Employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies" means any full time or part time employees in the classified, nonclassified and unclassified service of the state or of any city or town within the state, any individuals serving in any appointed state or municipal position, and any employees of any public or quasi-public state or municipal board, commission, or corporation;
The proposed redevelopment district is formally defined as "an independent public instrumentality and body corporate and politic" that includes a "commission" with "the powers to achieve the purposes" of the authorizing legislation. Can the individual words be pieced together to reach a conclusion, obvious enough for a Rhode Island court to accept, that the 195 redevelopment commission is a "public commission or corporation", which the Ethics Commission obviously has jurisdiction over? I would hope that that the answer is yes, with the mention of "public" "boards" in the state's ethics law recognized as meaning that the legislature doesn't have the power to set-up free floating units of government -- but even if this is indeed the case, there is still a lingering question of why our legislators feel the need to create so many layers of indirection, in order to develop the former highway land.

Portsmouth Institute Conference on the Catholic Shakespeare

Community Crier

Joining the roster of the Portsmouth Institute's conference on The Catholic Shakespeare?, June 10-12, will be Dennis Taylor, professor emeritus of English and editor emeritus of Religion and the Arts at Boston College. Professor Taylor will speak on "The Tempest and Catholic Exploration of America."

"In the last twenty years," commented Institute director James MacGuire, "There has been an explosion of scholarship on Shakespeare's religion, especially in England, and we thought it timely to bring together leading scholars from our own country and the UK to discuss and illuminate this rich and fascinating subject. Dennis has been a pioneer in this area on our side of the Atlantic, and by so graciously agreeing to participate will enrich the entire weekend, not only with his talk but by contributing to panels and colloquies throughout the conference."

So far the Institute roster includes a number of distinguished speakers, including the Right Reverend Dom Aidan Bellenger, OSB, Abbot of Downside, Dr. Gerard Kilroy of University College, London, Clare Asquith, Rev. Peter Milward, S.J. of Sophia University in Tokyo, Rev. David Beauregard, OMV, dean of studies at Our Lady of Grace seminary, Dr. John Cox of Hope College, Mr. Joseph Pearce of Ave Maria University and Dr. Glenn Arbery of Assumption College.

"Father Milward is the dean of Catholic Shakespeare scholarship," MacGuire continued, "And it will be a privilege to welcome him, Abbot Aidan, Lady Asquith, Professor Taylor and all of our outstanding speakers to Portsmouth Abbey."

In addition to scholarly presentations the Institute will feature dramatic productions based on Shakespeare's plays by Theatre of the Word and other companies. One of these will be in the newly restored Newport Casino Theatre on Bellevue Avenue, originally designed by Stanford White in 1888, which will afford attendees the opportunity to tour some of the treasures of that historic city. There will also be musical concerts featuring music associated with Shakespeare and his time, including William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices.

The Portsmouth Institute is a conference, study, recreation and retreat center for all those interested in Catholic life, leadership and service in the 21st Century. "As with last year's conference on Newman and the Intellectual Tradition," MacGuire said, "In addition to the formal sessions there will be ample time for prayer, sport, music, humor and friendship. We welcome any and all who might be interested in our 2011 Shakespeare conference to join us on our wonderful campus and promise that you will leave Portsmouth Abbey refreshed, edified and inspired."

"We look forward to welcoming old and new friends alike to Portsmouth Abbey and School," said Dr. James DeVecchi, headmaster, "So that they can be better acquainted with the academic and spiritual excellence that has been nurtured here for the past eighty years on the beautiful shores of Narragansett Bay."

The complete conference program and registration information for The Catholic Shakespeare? is available at www.portsmouthinstitute.org, by calling Cindy Waterman at (401) 643-1244, emailing her at cwaterman@portsmouthabbey.org, or writing her at Portsmouth Abbey School, 285 Cory's Lane, Portsmouth RI 02871.

Accountability in Politics and Education

Justin Katz

The conversation was of the likely accountability that RI politicians will face for a vote on raising sales taxes and on perspectives on accountability in education during Andrew's call in to Matt Allen Show, last night. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 1, 2011

The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform, Part 1

Carroll Andrew Morse

In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had "dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time". Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion").

Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn't already heard and isn't likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that "the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools" and that students need a "coherent curriculum" instead of a "marketplace". But why a "coherent curriculum" should be posited as the alternative to a "marketplace" is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering -- especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.

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Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn't want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.

However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological -- which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.

One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term "accountability" in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a "professional education paradigm" that included the idea that professional educators should be "insulated from public pressure" and was "suspicious of the intervention of policymakers". After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is "no word in the Finnish language for 'accountability'", while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.

Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…

Looking at the Working Disabled

Marc Comtois

Being categorized as "disabled" regarding one job doesn't mean you can't legitimately work another (like a less physically demanding desk job). But should you be able to collect an entire disability pension AND work? Some don't think so:

Two freshman Republican lawmakers are seeking to cap the disability pensions paid retired municipal workers who have moved on to new jobs in the private sector.

Should the recipient of any disability pension "supported wholly or in part by a municipal or quasi-municipal entity be engaged in a gainful occupation,'' the bill says, "the retirement system shall adjust and at least annually readjust...the amount of his or her disability pension.''

"If the retiree is able to work and earn a salary, then the disability benefit should be decreased,'' said Rep. Michael W. Chippendale, R-Foster, of the bill that he co-sponsored and introduced on May 26, along with Rep. Patricia L. Morgan of West Warwick, a former state GOP chairwoman.

As Morgan and Chippendale explained their bill, it would allow retirees receiving disability pensions to "receive earnings that when combined with their pension equal 100 percent of their base, pre-retirement salary. For each dollar earned that exceeds this amount there would be a corresponding reduction in the pension benefit received.''

"Disability pensions are intended to provide for workers who can no longer work because they have been severely injured or have become permanently disabled. Taxpayers are more than willing to provide that benefit. Unfortunately, this system of support has been unfairly exploited,'' Chippendale said.

I'm guessing this proposed limiting of disability pension remuneration is restricted to those who matriculate into the private sector because applying it to those who move from one public sector job to another are covered by collective bargaining, which probably prevents such modifications without opening up contracts. This makes me wonder how many actually go from public to private instead of stay in the public sector, collect disability, pile up the time-in-service, etc. If the number is low, how many will stay in the public sector should this be passed. Damned if you do....

Who Is Michael Chippendale? An Elected Official.

Justin Katz

Ed Fitzpatrick highlights the reasoning that state Representative Michael Chippendale (R, Foster) offered for voting in favor of the recently passed civil unions bill, and that reasoning seems to me to be incomplete. I'll note, first, that I come to much the same conclusion as Chippendale, although I favor civil unions that build a slate of rights and privileges from scratch, rather than with reference to marriage, which is what the legislation does:

15-3.1-6. Benefits, protections, and responsibilities. -- A party to a civil union lawfully entered into pursuant to this chapter shall have all the rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under law, whether derived from statutes, administrative rules, court decisions, the common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law as people joined together pursuant to chapter 15-3.

15-3 is the chapter that describes civil marriage, and as I've said before, if as a society we're going to create a relationship that confers marriage-like rights, we ought to be explicit about what rights ought to be included and why. Marriage, as traditionally understood, still has the distinction that, by their nature, a husband and wife can create children. In terms of state law, it's absurd for Fitzpatrick to call this legislation "a weak substitute for legalizing same-sex marriage," because there are no benefits to marriage that it leaves out. It may, from his standpoint, have been morally timid not to merge the institutions, but the only sense in which the law, itself, can be said to be "weak" is that it doesn't force religious people or organizations to eliminate their own understanding of marriage everywhere beyond the pulpit.

But back to Chippendale:

Chippendale noted he'd voted against the civil-unions bill in committee and that people quoted Scripture in testifying against the bill.

"But you know what?" he said. "At the end of the day, if my Lord Jesus Christ were here, he would say what he already has said: 'What you do to the least of my children you do to me.' And who in God's name am I to stand here and push a button that would injure one of my brothers and sisters? As a man of faith, I don't have that right."

Chippendale, a Catholic whose district extends to Foster, Glocester and Coventry, voted for the bill, saying, "I'm going to have a lot of people to answer to in my district. But I'm going to say to them: What you do to the least of God's children you do to him."

Who is Chippendale to push a vote button in the General Assembly? Well, he's an elected representative voting on an issue of public policy, and if a society cannot determine through representative democracy that one relationship is different from another in a key way that suggests different benefits, responsibilities, and codification in the law, then there really is no right to self governance.

What's particularly objectionable about Chippendale's reasoning is that it is about as close to theocracy as anybody is apt to get in our time and place. The tolerance of Catholic Christianity does not negate our rights to shape our society in a way that has proven to be the most effective at growing prosperity, decreasing poverty, increasing liberty, and maintaining peace. We'll all have different notions of what that requires, but to insist that setting some small space aside in our society and in the law for the particular human coupling that tends toward the creation of children is hardly injury to our brothers and sisters. Indeed, to the extent that doing otherwise further erodes the institution of marriage, right down to the underpinnings that any traditionalist reform would require, such actions truly do harm "the least of God's children"; they just aren't there in front of us holding protests and applying rhetorical pressure..

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.

This Is Consolidation

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal editorial board highlights a piece of legislation that, while unlikely to become law, illustrates the potential consequences of consolidation for the sake of efficiency and ease:

... Sen. John Tassoni (D.-Smithfield) — a member of the state's AFL-CIO executive board, former business agent for the state's largest public-employees union, AFSCME Council 94, and the publisher of a union newspaper — wants to use his public power to oust Ms. Gallo. He also wants to replace the Board of Trustees that voted to fire those teachers. ...

Clearly, [Tassoni's rhetoric] can be taken with a grain of salt, given that he had not bothered to discuss his concerns with Ms. Gallo, and he has an obvious huge conflict of interest as a union official, elected to public office with the strong financial backing of government unions to promote their economic interests.

Hey, if the state can insert a municipal dictator (popularly known as a "receiver") to oust the elected mayor and make the elected city council less than an advisory body, then why shouldn't it also pass judgment on superintendents and school boards? That's consolidation.

The lesson extends even to less brazen steps. The farther governance moves from voters, as from local development of school policies among neighbors to regional and statewide implementation of policies, the more incentive special interests (notably unions) will have to fill elected positions with the likes of Tassoni. As the Projo editors note, Governor Chafee has already "removed several of the student-focused reformers... from the state Board of Regents," even though large segments of the state did not vote for this governor's election.