Monday, April 28, 2008


As noted before, our Rhode Island veterans need to be recognized for their sacrifices regardless of how one perceives warfare. These folks have been assigned a duty and they have performed it. If people have a problem with those duties, it should be addressed politically and not individually.

That said, we need to seriously consider what we are doing as a state to aid veterans and their families. The most glaring area is the way we provide health care to those who have served.

As a state we operate veterans’ homes, a system by which those who have served have the ability to receive health care in a retirement setting. While we are making an effort, we are not operating up to par.

The problems of funding and care are often raised. This demonstrates the fact that the state cannot really operate a health care system for veterans. If this is true for this small group, how can the state even possibly consider a full blown universal health care program?

The needs of returning veterans are often taken care of on the federal level through veterans’ hospitals operated by the federal government. The state is largely left to supplement this care, largely through a nursing care facility.

The state has an obligation here, especially where there is a need created by service to the state and country.

But with tightened budgets and the need to minimize staffing, the care of this group may be falling into a state of disrepair.

While the goals of these programs are most noble, the state has failed in its end of the bargain. By not recognizing the obligation it was undertaking, the state’s politicians wanted to woo the veteran vote by making promises to them. Such promises were little more than political pandering, but they are still state obligations that must be met.

The fact that budgetary constraints are pressing makes this even harder. Either the state must take the position of triage funding or it must make cuts that expose it to the reality that political actions are not good faith promises.

Of course, there is always the possibility of tax increases to cover these costs. It is a strong tug at the heart. No one wants to make cuts in programs designed to help the young or infirm. The problem is indicative of the nature of politics. The guy who gives away the money is remembered fondly, but the guy who is saddled with the reality of making tough cuts is damned.

Still, I am of the position that promises are to be kept to the extent that they are realistically capable of being kept. People have relied on these promises, although likely in a very unwise way.

This said, we need to continue to fund our veterans’ programs, making cuts where appropriate with a spirit of keeping the unrealistic promises made by politicians. We own these veterans that much and more.


Saturday, April 12, 2008


Given the current budgetary problems facing Rhode Island it is time to consider whether or not there are any savings that could be had as a result of consolidation of our higher education system.

Granted, as it currently exists, our higher education system functions, but the issue is whether or not it functions at its optimum efficiency. The real issue is not the delivery of education but whether we are doing it is the most cost effective manner.

The consolidation of the system of higher education has had its fits and starts in the past. Each school or univeristy in the state system has a different mission and therefore, it is not as easy to consolidate the system without forethought.

We have a community college system. That system functions to get students into a college mode. It provides education services at a more local level to those in need of education but are either not fully prepared for college or for those who have other obligations that prohibit them from taking a full college load.

Similarly, Rhode Island College has emerged as a commuter school, having its roots in a normal or teaching school. From its beginning, Rhode Island College has been a school that prepared many of the state’s, and nation’s, educators. While it’s role has expanded, it is still in that mode of providing a solid four year program that caters to the needs of a commuter student base.

The University of Rhode Island is more of the traditional institution of higher education. The mission of URI is more aligned with those of other state universities.

Acknowledging the differences in the populations served makes this discussion a bit easier to understand in terms of consolidation. It does not preclude any benefits from consolidation however it makes the task far more different and difficult.

The savings could be found in examining duplicate efforts and programs that are not carrying their weight. The reality is that savings are usually found in consolidation of administrative staffing. This should be examined first.

Duplicated efforts in course offerings, program sharing between the institutions, the interchangeability of programs within the system, and a serious need to prove the worth of each offering should be examined.

Of course, the latter requires contractual flexibility. This perhaps would be the thorniest problem in that there would likely be some staunch opposition from the labor unions, but it is not insurmountable.

If we can maintain the missions of each of the state’s institutions, we have an opportunity. Will the savings end the budget crisis? Hardly. It is unlikely that these changes will produce enough savings to salvage a sinking budgetary ship, but it is just one area where minor changes can make a difference.

The old saying is that if you watch your dimes, dollars will take care of themselves. This logic needs to be the dominate logic in all state programs.

Further, by initiating consolidation on a state level much can be learned that can then be applied to the public education system that direly needs direction and consolidation on a statewide basis.

The system is not broken. The system merely needs tweaking. While this is perhaps the harder task, it is time to do it. A leaner more effective system of higher education in Rhode Island would not only better service its constituents, it would better serve the taxpayers of the state.


Saturday, April 05, 2008


The trend of legislative interference with the judiciary is still troubling in Rhode Island. The idea of having magistrates instead of judges appears on its face to be a method of the legislature taking control from the judicial branch.

Magistrates, while they do have a function, are appointed through a legislative process and not through the traditional appointment from the executive branch.

Now this does not absolve the Governor’s office from its foot dragging in the appointment to fill judicial vacancies. The slow as we go approach has put great strain on the judicial system.

But, even with that said, the underlying argument still exists. Rhode Island is over burdened by the fact that it is over regulated. The need for the court system exists as a direct result of the legislature criminalizing all sorts of behaviors. The underlying reason for the judicial burden is the fact that every legislator wants to politically demonstrate he or she is “tough on crime”.

The judiciary must deal with the fallout of those legislative actions. The fact that the judiciary is little more than a processing factory for the most part is a clear tribute to the legislature’s over-extension.

The naming of magistrates is a solution to the problem, but it is not getting at the root. The addition of several more judges does little more than the same.

There is a place for the third branch, but the problems plaguing it are not necessarily of their own devise.

This is not a defense of the judiciary. They have stood silent as the cottage industry of crime has expanded. They have shirked responsibility to call the public’s attention to the fact that the legislature is being too active. This silence, while self-serving to the judicial branch, is a disservice to the people it was designed to serve.

The needs of the judiciary need to be met, but the judiciary cannot see itself as a tool of either the legislature or the executive branch. This sadly has been the history of the Rhode Island judicial branch.

Still, by letting the legislature name magistrates with sweeping powers, the legislature is knowingly crossing over into another branch of government. Separation of powers, a long standing Rhode Island concern, oddly doesn’t really speak to this issue.

The judiciary is also to blame. The allowance of administrative law to grow is at the door of a lazy judiciary. Instead of hearing legal matters, it has become customary to allow for administrative hearings, and those results are then limited on appeal. Is that real justice?

The fact that the judiciary has deferred to the executive in administrative hearings is equally as dangerous as the legislative interference into the appointments to the courts.

It is time to untangle this Gordian knot. Until this occurs, there is little chance of having a free and independent judiciary.

While it is hard to argue that the judiciary is not doing its job, it is easy to see that the problems in the system is a direct result of the judiciary’s failure to maintain its integrity in light of the executive and legislative branches.

The judiciary can claim its independence all it wishes, but until it is truly free from the executive and legislative influences, it is only free in its own words and not in reality.


Saturday, March 29, 2008


The last time I wrote on this topic, I reported that the situation of personal liberties under the Rhode Island Constitution was limited. While the document purports to grant various rights and freedoms, the Rhode Island Supreme Court through various opinions has limited the scope and application of those provisions.

As I wrote before, former Supreme Court Justice Flanders was very active at that time attempting to sound a call to action to allow for these constitutional rights to be enforced by anyone impacted, however, such calls seemed to have subsided as he now focuses on education in Rhode Island and the reality is that the party will go on as usual.

The idea that a constitution fixes rights but only allows them to be claimed if specific legislative action allows for an individual to bring action seems on its face a ludicrous position, but such is the case.

Given Rhode Island’s historical development as a state government, this interpretation of law is not so far fetched, but it is certainly dated. Still, since the near omnipotent legislature controls the gates, it is beyond the average citizen to gain entry. This is bad policy in this day and age, but enough said.

The Rhode Island Constitution is in itself an interesting document. It is not a verbose text. It is quite clear and to the point on several areas and it has a reasonable provision for its amending. The problem is that the people governed by that document haven’t the slightest clue as to how it interacts in their very existence.

Far be it from me to attempt to educate the public on this matter. I have tilted at that windmill for over two decades. I have worked the mines of public edification only to come up with a mere handful of fool's gold.

The people get a government they desire and one they deserve. While I do not personally agree with the people who enjoy the status quo, until the public can muster enough support to make something different a reality, it will continue to exist, much to my consternation.

There have been various constitutional conventions, most of which were really puppet shows in which the legislature played a significant role behind the scenes. Many elected as delegates were thinly veiled representatives of the legislator in the district being represented at the convention.

Additionally, on several occasions there has been a rejection of the ballot referendum that would call a constitutional convention. I suspect that much of this was the work of special interests and lobbyists who have much to preserve by keeping this system as it is.

The fact is that if the people aren’t bright enough to get out of the rain, why spend time trying to sell them umbrellas? Even in the times that presently exist, with a full blown budget crisis, the people are living in ignorance. The only time that there was ever a near revolt was when people were personally short-changed by credit unions. This shows that people really do not care for the system, they care about themselves.

Until the people of Rhode Island wake up and demand constitutional changes that would create a more functional government, the situation will not improve. Electing a new face does not alter the underlying structural problems of Rhode Island government.

The reality is that structural reform is needed, but the reality also is that it will never occur. The powers that be have no real interest in relinquishing control for the betterment of the state. A true constitutional convention, with real reform, would be the perfect physic for Rhode Island. The likelihood, however, is zero.


Thursday, March 20, 2008


As the budget mess unfolds and the legislature is working to plug gaps instead of correcting the problems, we are now looking at a situation, which was predictable, in which public labor is pitted against social programs for government tax dollar funding.

It is interesting as to which group will have greater sway over the legislature. In the past the two groups co-existed, however, as of late, the two groups are now fighting each other for the precious few dollars that are on the table, that is, unless there is a sweeping tax increase.

The lobbying efforts of public sector labor and their infiltration of the General Assembly through holding elective office seems to put them in better stead to take the few dollars that are available, but there is a great push from social service groups. Their lobbyists are not slouches either, especially when they can pull on the heartstrings of the public.

But the reality is that there is not much money and that public sector labor must concede some of its benefits.

The reality is that by creating this bureaucracy in order to feed political supporters, the legislature is directly responsible for the over-sized government labor. Additionally, it should be noted that by granting various benefits under state law, the legislature has also strapped the hands of local municipalities that are fighting the same battle.

Whenever there is a cry for more government action, a legislator thinks of how many jobs it will supply for friends and campaign supporters. There is very little concern as to whether or not the program is needed or whether it is merely a knee jerk response to some perceived problem in society. The legislature rarely finds a program it doesn’t like.

Therein lay my concern. I have long advocated for a smaller more effective government. I have long noted that the intrusion of government has been the bane of Rhode Island’s existence, even if the electorate is too ignorant to acknowledge it. But, saying it doesn’t solve the problems.

The public sector labor interests cannot be easily avoided. They have a large voting network. Politicians are fearful of this voting strength and therefore avoid angering the base. The irony is that they created the monster they now fear.

Public sector labor was once a secure refuge. It rarely paid well, but there was a great deal of job security and benefits. Now that we are paying public sector on a scale similar to that of the private sector, the added protections and benefits are making it cost prohibitive.

There is a viable need for public sector employment. The issue is just how far the government needs to extend itself and to what extent it will tax its residents for the providing of government jobs.

We also must note that government jobs do not bring new money into the state. It does have a circulation impact in that the people earning the money pay taxes and buy locally, but the reality is that such use of public funds is not growing an economy. By adding public sector employment, we are not doing much to increase the tax base, and, may in fact be creating a situation that has a negative impact.

In days past, government labor forces would shrink when there were times of prosperity in the private sector. Because they were under-paid, these employees would be seeking to get a private sector job. But now that wages are comparable and the benefit packages too good to leave, even if there were private sector jobs available, many would not leave. This only compounds the problem.

As we have seen in former Governor DiPrete’s early retirement plan and recent attempts at early retirement in New Jersey, the savings that are often assumed never materialize. In going down that road, we are not looking at ways to correct a bloated government, but rather we are looking, like Rhode Island legislators often do, to plug a gap and pass the buck to the next generation.

As I have indicated on many occasions, I do not fault the public sector laborites for their tenacity and their seemingly undying effort to secure pay and benefits for its membership. I personally place the blame on spineless legislators and the fact that they will put political careers and personal interests over the general welfare of the people of the State of Rhode Island.

I will discuss this further the next time I write on labor. In the meantime, don’t hope for much in terms of real or structural reform emanating out of the legislature. The monster is bigger than they can handle on their best day.


Thursday, March 13, 2008


The last time I wrote about this topic I indicated I would try to better link the need to balance the environment with the needs of economic development. This balance is what will make or break the state.

To under-develop is to miss various opportunities. To over-develop means that we are sacrificing our natural wonders on the altar of the almighty dollar. Neither is a wise nor winning approach.

Balance is the key in this particular area. The lack of restraint is equally as dangerous as complete control. Thus, we are in a particular subject area that requires the most give and take and a keen eye focused on the long term and short term needs of the people and of the state.

We are all desirous of maintaining the beauty that is Rhode Island, but to what extent must we suffer economic depravity to achieve that result? Similarly, if we just develop for the sake of creating work and pay little heed to the needs of our environment, we are doing a complete disservice to ourselves and those who will inherit our bounty.

We must consider smart growth concepts if we are to continue to grow and maintain our beauty.

The problem with this area is that is can be seen in very polarized terms. There are groups that will give no ground to development, and there are developers who will pay no heed to the environment. Both share in creating a problem rather than focusing on a mutually acceptable solution.

More than any other area, there is a need to have all minds sit at the table.

The problem is that Rhode Island and its law makers have long failed to pay much attention to the problems that surround this. It is too often used as political fodder to enhance candidacies rather than be treated with the seriousness it deserves.

Too often the approach here is that the environment will take care of itself, much in the manner that water seeks its own level. The reality is that there are many positive steps that can be taken in the area, and, if there were a more comprehensive planning approach, Rhode Island could have a much better grip on this problem.

There is little need to reinvent the wheel. But there is a need to pay attention to the person who has developed a better wheel. We need to get our state to have a more focused approach in this area. We need to realistically project a five and ten year plan for where we need to grow and how much growth is really necessary to sustain the state’s viability without impacting on its beauty.

To divide ourselves on these types of issues is a disservice to the state and to our fellow citizens. We need to communicate and resolve differences if we are ever to make Rhode Island a place that will have both growth and charm.


Thursday, March 06, 2008


When I speak of government affairs I am always aware of the need for Rhode Island to have a system of voter initiative.

While there are many that have vested interests in keeping the present system of legislative exclusiveness due to the fact that they can better control the legislature through paid lobbying efforts, there is a real need in Rhode Island to allow for the citizen to propose change.

Certainly a citizen can ask that a Representative or Senator introduce legislation on a particular subject, but even if the politico is responsive to the constituent, it is frequently, if not always, lost in the legislative maze.

There is little support for citizen initiated bills in the General Assembly. There is a closing of ranks that makes the voice silenced.

To counter this there should be a system of voter initiative. It works in more than half the states, and, to many people’s surprise, it is available to many Rhode Islanders on a municipal level.

The reason it is allowed on the municipal level and not the state level provides much for questioning. If it is good enough to propose municipal law, then why is it bad to propose state law?

The answer is that municipalities are weak in Rhode Island. Any effort that passes in a municipality can easily be trumped by the state legislature, assuming that the municipal law is within the realm of the restricted area of municipal regulation.

The fact is that politicians fear voter initiative. So do lobbying groups that are primarily concerned with maintaining their spot at the budgetary trough.

Those opposing voter initiative frequently use the fear card to scare these politically vested interests into having their constituents lobby against such efforts.

Statewide voters want voter initiative. They have said so, but the politicians turn deaf ears.

I would venture to say that if voter initiative had been enacted when I first spoke about it twenty-five years ago, there might have been a far different governing system today and we may well have avoided the budget crisis we now face. But it just didn’t fit in with the political games that are played out on Smith Hill.

Instead of having a government responsive to the people, we have a self-serving bunch that answer only to lobbying interests. The whole system, much like a fish, rots from the head down.

The fears of bad voter initiative had been ironed out in the legislature, and yet the bills recently proposed have all gone down in flames. The voter initiative movement has been thwarted by the very people we have elected and the people now suffer. Interestingly, we fought a revolutionary war over the issue of taxation without representation. The irony is that taxation is no better with the respresentation we have.

Voter initiative is not anywhere near as ominous as the opponents suggest. In fact, the concept itself came about when business dominated legislatures were denying various rights and privileges to its people. One example is how Wyoming used voter initiative to secure voting rights for women prior to the United States Constitution being amended.

The point is that the people who control the government fear voter initiative, and probably rightly so. True voter initiative would keep politicians in their places and protect the people from a runaway government.