It's a Wrap - Final Legislative Alert - 2014
So now we know.
When Speaker Mattiello took over the reins as the leader of the House, Rhode Islanders heard the mantra, jobs and the economy. We thought perhaps he would be a breath of fresh air for the state. After the marathon sessions last week, we now know that mantra meant he would focus on jobs and the economy so long as the public unions received their payment.
As is typical, the General Assembly was a furious beehive of activity the last two days of the session - the same as under any other Speaker. Hundreds of bills presented to representatives, with no time to vet and very little time to debate. No good decisions come in the late night hours of horse trading. The most detrimental pieces of legislation are generally passed by bleary-eyed elected officials. No breath of fresh air this time around.
Keeping score - Public unions 4, Average RI citizen 1.
Subsidizing the bankrupt city of Central Falls has become part and parcel of the General Assembly's goal. Last week, a bill was passed to provide an additional $4.8 million for the Central Falls pension system. That's on top of the $2.6 million subsidy provided in the recent past. While we recognize that people were hurt in the bankruptcy, we believe it is not the role of the state taxpayer to bail out their pension system. Where were the brothers and sisters of the public union members? Across the state, these unions collect more than $6 million a year from employees. Charity begins at home, but not for public union employees. Charity begins with the state taxpayer, because corruption and mismanagement of a city have been determined by the General Assembly to be worthy of further subsidy.
Do you know that the you already subsidize the bulk of the Central Falls School department? This year, you paid $38 million. With a population of 19,500, you are paying about $2,000 per person in that city. That's almost double what you are paying per person in Providence and Woonsocket.
And what kind of precedent does this pension bailout set? The Central Coventry Fire District is bankrupt, but because Speaker Mattiello would not allow the Coventry residents to take that District over and partially privatize it, the District now falls under the fiscal overseer law. The Fire District is bankrupt because the public unions mismanaged that budget and the pension system is out of control. Will state taxpayers have to bail that pension system out too? There are still a number of cities that really should be, and may be, declared bankrupt - Woonsocket, West Warwick, and even Providence. Will you, as a state taxpayer be left holding the bag for those pensions too?
The public unions win, twice.
A waste of time for education reform.
Legislation was passed last week that basically guts the Education Commissioner's reform efforts. RI's Race to the Top just became RI's limp to the bottom. Virtually every education study shows that the most important tool for a good education is an effective teacher in every classroom, every year. The Speaker doesn't agree. What professional does not have an annual evaluation? RI teachers won't. Teachers rated 'highly effective' will only be evaluated once every three years. Teachers rated 'effective' will only be evaluated once every two years. RI's Race to the Top award of $75 million was based on comprehensive, annual evaluations. Will the federal government want their money back?
The public unions win.
Legislation was passed last week that delays the implementation of standardized testing as a partial requirement for graduation, even after it has been shown that school systems, knowing the consequences of failing to improve standardized test scores, began to align their curriculum with the state's standards. The Providence Journal pointed to Tolman High School in Pawtucket as a school that "turned around almost overnight" in response to the NECAP being used as a graduation requirement. Apparently, Speaker Mattiello was for standardized testing to improve the standards by which our children are measured and provide meaning to a high school diploma, that is, until he was against it. That goes against both the Education Commissioner as well as the Board of Education. Why maintain either the Commissioner's position or the board if the General Assembly, not experts in the field of education as a whole, make laws that oppose the years of work of these two bodies and fly in the face of experience?
The public unions win.
We can rest easy knowing that our energy bills will continue to grow. RI hasn't even seen the adverse economic impact of DeepWater Wind yet, and now, numerous bills have passed that continue the pretense that RI can have an impact on global climate change (H 7727 Distributed Generation; H 7904 Resilient RI Act 2014; H 7991 Expansion of renewable energy infrastructure; S 2952 Agency and departmental considerations for climate change). The problem with this fairy tale is that we are so small, not just relative to the country, but relative to the world, that anything we do is inconsequential to carbon emissions or any impact on climate change. The promise of 'green energy' job creation is a fiction as well. RI once had a subsidy for solar projects, years ago. Once the subsidies dried up, so did the solar jobs. Passing legislation just for bragging rights to say "RI is a leader in renewable energy" is just too costly. Unfortunately, H 7791, which would have required a biannual review of power purchase agreements, went no where. Ultimately, all this legislation will do is significantly increase the cost of energy for businesses and individuals and in the end make RI uncompetitive. Another death knell for creating new jobs and improving the economy.
As we spoke about the budget last week, we won't go into it again. Suffice it to say that any budget projecting $1 billion in deficits in its 5 year plan, is no plan at all.
Good bills left flapping in the wind.
Why is it that our General Assembly does not want to confront fraud, waste and abuse head on? This session, the House passed H 7941, a bill to combat the abusive uses of EBT cards. Do you think the average Rhode Islander already assumes that the use of welfare funds for things like tobacco, alcohol, gambling, adult entertainment, firearms, tattoos, jewelry, cruises, etc. is prohibited. Well, with the close of the 2014 session, the legislation to prohibit the use in venues that sell these goods and services did not pass. That bill was left on the cutting room floor. The House had the good sense to pass it but couldn't get Senate President Paiva Weed to buy it.
Or how about S 2219, a bill to help reduce fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicaid system? The Senate had the good sense to pass it but couldn't get Speaker Mattiello to buy it. Perhaps next year, an Inspector General bill will pass and that office will, like the Massachusetts Inspector General, detect and help prevent fraud in the future.
The 2014 wrap up.
So in it's infinite wisdom, RI's General Assembly voted to gut the Education Commissioner's reforms, stamp out democracy in Coventry, give your tax dollars to further subsidize the Central Falls pension system, continue to let fraud, waste and abuse in our government systems go unchecked, increase the minimum wage in a state that has the highest unemployment rate, refuse to pass a meaningful Ethics Reform bill, add hundreds of millions more in debt to RI's balance sheet, increase auto-related fees, along with the gas tax, and increase the fee on one of the few industries remaining in the state, tourism. Yes, the General Assembly felt that increasing cruise ship fees would help steer RI out of its economic doldrums.
While the General Assembly did not pass the $39 million subsidy for the Superman building, beware, it did provide a commission to study the issue.
What to do given the baby steps forward and giant steps backward that our legislators took at the close of session?
During this election cycle, show your support for fiscal conservatives who also understand the value of delivering a quality education for all of our children without pandering to special interests! It's time we elect folks who live in the world of small business in Rhode Island who will bring a healthy dose of reality to the hallowed halls of our State House.