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justinkatz-portrait

Known mainly for espousing conservative views in a state where they are not encouraged, Justin Katz is a Roman Catholic Christian husband and father of four who currently works as Research Director for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and Managing Editor of Anchor Rising & the Ocean State Current, where he writes daily.  Believing that thought and action are inextricably linked, the former carpenter also indulges in creative arts as a writer, musician, and designer and is active in local politics with the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, for which he maintains Tiverton Fact Check and acts as treasurer for the associated charity, Tiverton Cares.  As he’s able, Justin also strives to capture the daily pleasures of life through photographs on RI Is My Home.

July 2, 2016

2016 marked the third year in a row that a budget for the Town of Tiverton, Rhode Island, submitted by Justin won a majority of the vote at the financial town referendum (FTR), despite the presence of a third budget — 1,224 versus 885 and 101.  The 0.9% Budget #2 elector petition set expenditures for the town and schools at $48,688,418, resulting in an estimated tax levy increase of 0.9%.

Click here for the 0.9% budget petition.

April 27, 2016

To provide a more-significant, less-volatile measure of Rhode Island’s economic and employment well-being, Justin developed the Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, with 13 separate data measures, mainly involving the economic health of Rhode Island’s private sector versus the dependency of its people on government.  Because it is a national ranking to be updated monthly, JOI incorporates techniques for collecting nation-level data.

Find out more about JOI.

April 13, 2016

‘Cooler and Warmer’ sets the tone for economic development in Rhode Island

The administration of Rhode Island’s Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo was in for a shock on Thursday, March 28, when it unveiled a new logo and slogan for the Ocean State. The state’s quasi-public Commerce Corporation had been planning the release for months; the ridicule began on social media within minutes of the unveiling.

Mockery of the ambiguous “Cooler and Warmer” tagline and Photoshopped satire with the logo were still sweeping across the local internet when other components of the campaign hit the ground with a thud. Similar mockery of a promotional video scarcely had time to begin before somebody noticedthat one clip actually showed a skateboarder in front of a landmark in Iceland. A related website was riddled with errors, including promotion of restaurants across the border in Massachusetts and a well-known chef who had died some time ago.

The administration’s response compounded the marketing failure. The governor initially defended the campaign, chastising Rhode Islanders for being so negative, but the next day she changed her tone to be more receptive to the criticism.

Continue reading on the New Boston Post.

March 13, 2016

Shout Down the Hate

Lyrics

A-well, we walked on over from the university,
Got a blister along the way
There’s a political speaker at some right-winger rally
Don’t wanna hear what he’s got to say

And it’s hard
Oh, it’s hard
You gotta go so far to show you’ll tolerate
Everyone
And anyone
You gotta scream so loud to shout down the hate

Well, that guy was so persuasive with his facts and polite tones
If they hear him, folks might think he’s got a clue
That’s why we’ll silence them all (and make them pay our student loans)
When the foot is in the other shoe

And it’s hard
Oh, it’s hard
Collecting signatures to make divestment fate
For anyone
We wanna shun
You gotta scream so loud to shout down the hate

So now we’re back on campus, chilling in our own safe space
Being affirmed via wireless network
But it’s so exhausting fixin’ up the human race
Glad the dean gives extensions for homework

‘Cause it’s hard
Oh, it’s hard
When we’re so perfect now, but still we have to wait
For everyone
To say we’ve won
And until they do, we’ll shout down the hate

March 13, 2016

In March 2016, I was one of four “presenters” at an event titled “Cocktails & Conversation: Celebrating Strategies for Our Local Economy,” which was organized by Main Street Resources and ecoRI. The following is a transcript of my comments.

Transcript

My instructions were to spark conversation among you in a way that is forward looking and positive, so I’m not going to tell my own story.  I’m going to tell an optimistic story.

Two months in the future, this May, the stock market’s going to crash.  All of the artificial mechanisms of the grand masters of the economy will fall apart and plunge the United States into a recession at least as deep as the last one.

Rhode Island will be very hard hit.  We’re in the bottom four when it comes to recovering employment after the last recession, and our slow improvement came to a complete halt early last summer.

The pension fund is already underperforming, so after the crash, it will lead the way opening a giant hole in state and local budgets.  This hole will force the governor to abandon many of her economic development schemes and put the brakes on the state’s K-12 funding formula.  Expanding charter schools?  Fuhgedaboutit.

Forward looking and positive.

June 2017.  A boy who lives in a low-income development in Providence will celebrate his fourth birthday with his single mother and her single mother.  The family is black, so according to Brookings, he has less than a 50% chance of getting out of the lowest 20% income category.  By the time of his birthday, the boy’s mother has been out of work for almost a year, and she’s pregnant with another child from a different father.

As they get the birthday cake, his mother and grandmother discuss the failing school to which he’ll go the next year.  During the prior decade, Rhode Island students’ scores on the Nation’s Report Card tests had been steadily improving, especially among minorities, but when Governor Chafee and the legislature started thwarting and reversing accountability reforms, improvement stopped.

But the boy blows out the candles.  It takes him two tries.  And the next day, two miracles happen.

First, his mother stumbles on a prayer group in a common area of their development.  This group leads her toward a new way of thinking about life, and she marries the father of her second child. The couple will stay married, which just about doubles the boy’s chances of reaching at least the middle income group.

The second miracle is that the General Assembly passes legislation creating education savings accounts.  So, the following year, the boy doesn’t enter the failing school, but a Catholic school that his mother picks because she believes that a faith-based moral environment is important for her son’s future.

Unfortunately, federal and state subsidies for higher education have been inflating a giant bubble for decades, and it bursts just as he graduates high school. His family can’t make the numbers work for college.

However, the continuing recession has forced the State of Rhode Island to roll back some requirements on businesses, notably the minimum wage.  So, a small construction company is able to hire an additional laborer, and with the young man’s positive outlook and strong work ethic, he quickly works his way up to carpenter’s helper and then carpenter.

Meanwhile, he meets a wonderful young woman.  They get married before they’ve had any children, and they buy a small house outside of the city.  His wife works an entry-level job with a caterer, and being part of a married team gives them a little room for risk.  Because the state has also lightened up on licensing, the young man’s next step is to try working for himself.

ObamaCare has been rescinded and other reforms have made it easier for him to find motivated people who are willing to work for what he is able to pay, so he hires employees who grow with the company.

His wife is able to stay home with their first child, doing some administrative tasks for his business.  But she still has enough extra time to start playing with a very small pastry and catering operation, mostly online.  Here again, they are fortunate that the state government has been repealing regulations.

Almost as important, the state’s RhodeMap Rhode Island plan was never implemented, so there isn’t a bright line between subsidized, high-density housing and expensive unsubsidized housing. The couple is able to find a house nearby that’s just right for their growing family and businesses.

One evening at the dinner table, while talking about their work challenges, the couple comes up with an entirely unique business model for the woman’s company.  Because the state has stopped trying to define and control innovation, and because they’ve been able to save up money after cuts in taxes, licensing, fees, renewable energy surcharges, and all the rest, they take a chance and invest in their new idea.  It takes off.

At this point, Rhode Island is no longer one of the worst places in the country to set up a business, so they are able to stay local despite their success, and their company becomes a homegrown jewel of the Rhode Island economy.  The Commerce Corporation never saw them coming.

Here’s the most hopeful part: The state doesn’t have to suffer a calamity to set this story in motion.  We just have to have the courage to let Rhode Islanders build their own lives without having insiders act like some sort of all-powerful corporate board designing the lives of everybody who lives here.

February 28, 2016
February 12, 2016
February 4, 2016

P3 PayGo Testimony, House Finance 2/4/16

Transcript

Good evening. My name is Justin Katz.  I’m the research director for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.

The amazing thing about infrastructure, and this whole issue, is that we’ve got roads that need repair, we’ve got workers who want to repair them, we’ve got a public that wants to pay to fix the roads — the problem is we’ve got special interests who already have the money we’re already paying to fix the roads that won’t let us do it.  They’re holding that money hostage; they’re holding our roads hostage and holding the jobs hostage, saying, “You can’t do this unless you come up with new money somehow in your economy to fix this problem.

It brings to mind, actually, something a former chairman of this committee said recently, Steven Costantino, when somebody had suggested that he was in on the scandal of 38 Studios, and he said, “Well, look, I was just doing what I was tasked to do by my superiors,” meaning legislative leadership.  That’s not how representative democracy works.  The people upstairs are not your superiors; the people in Rhode Island are.

So, I’m basically here to give you the message that you have options. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to go out and say, “We had to fix the roads.”  A lot of the benefits everybody agrees on: We need new infrastructure; we need repairs; we need maintenance.  Don’t expect you’re going to be able to go out and say, “Well, we had to do it, and this was the only option,” because there are other options.

A few years ago, we released a report, Spotlight on $pending, in which we came up with — pretty easily — about a quarter billion dollars of worth of reductions in the proposed budget at that time, and in fact, y’all actually followed some of that advice, whether we inspired it or it was just that obvious.

So, at the first mention of this toll proposal last spring, we came out right away with a PayGo idea: “Hey, why don’t we just pay for this with the money that we have.”  And judging from the governor’s budget just released — spending item after spending item — the state apparently has money coming out of its ears.  You can find money to pay for infrastructure, whether it’s the Republicans’ plan or some other plan, and once you find that money, like the tolls, it’s never going away, because you’ve saved that money — you’ve adjusted your budget.

The big argument against that is that we need this surge — we need the money upfront to pay for quick repairs — which is why we at the Center began to look into the P3 model, which comports with the legislation that Representative Nunes has submitted.  In our vision of the use of this model, you don’t need public debt, and you don’t need tolls.

Representative Nunes described the concept pretty clearly, but to make it very clear, the partner is more like a contractor; they’re hired to do the job.  This is what happened in Pennsylvania with the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.  This isn’t privatizing roads; it’s hiring a contractor to do the job.

So our basic idea was a PayGo P3, or P3 PayGo, where you would free up the money, which is in the budget already — we’re already paying to repair our roads — and you guarantee that money to a private contractor who uses it to find their own financing over time, and there’s lots of flexibility you can give them in order to find a package that works for them.

This leaves no additional risks to taxpayers beyond whatever the payment that’s agreed for the long term is, and you contrast that with the inherent risk of things like revenue bonds.  The bonds are no longer reliant on the tolls, but they’re reliant upon revenue in the future; there is some risk there.

You contrast also the risk of the truck diversion and other problems.  We talk about these gantries as if they’re just going be up there and have no problem.  There’s going to be maintenance.  It’s $43 million in the first place, and you have to maintain them.  I drive by, frequently, the windmill in Portsmouth, which is now down because it fell apart just as it was about to make a profit, and it’s been sitting there idle for years.  These are the risks that taxpayers will bear, but that a private partner could also bear.

And frankly, you do have the benefit of removing the project of this size from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.  Listening to Director Alviti for several hours, it seemed like the message was basically, “We failed miserably for decades; we’re making changes now that only 10 other states do; and, trust us, it’s going to work.  But in the meantime, before we’ve proven ourselves, give us hundreds of millions of dollars and tolls forever that at the whim of the legislature could become tolls on cars.”

This could all be put aside with private partners on a PayGo plan.

Looking at Pennsylvania, what we found was that there are a lot of extra incentives you can put into these programs.  There are milestone payments, fees if they miss deadlines; there are also fancy financing ways to ensure that they hit those deadlines.  But the real key is that the government is on the taxpayers’ side against a private entity, so you’ve created incentives where you’ve got your actual representatives and the people who work for you have incentive not to hide anything, not to try to slip anything by anybody, but to be on top of the contractors.

To wrap up, well managed, this massive infrastructure project that we all agree needs to be done will be a great boon to our economy no matter the funding mechanisms.  You’re still going to get all the improved infrastructure; you’re still going to get all the improved quality of life; you’re still going to get all the construction jobs.  You’re not going to get the damage of increasing the burden of what we have to pay for infrastructure, for our government — increasing taxes, increasing tolls, increasing the risk.

If I were a business looking at Rhode Island, I would be very nervous that my business… we do this every year.  I read all of your legislation.  It’s great, riveting stuff.  Every year, it’s like another little interest group that we go after them and say, “Hey, we’re going to tax you, now.  We’re going to give you a toll.”

If I were a business, that’s what would scare me.  If I move into Rhode Island, how long until this spotlight — this Eye of Sauron, if you’re a fantasy fan — focuses on me and says, “You’re the industry, now, that’s going to be responsible for our mismanagement for decades.”

Poorly managed, this project is just going to be another gift to special interests and insiders who prosper from corruption and mismanagement.  You think of being paid to fix damage on the iWay.  So going through with a P3 PayGo or PayGo — however it could work for the legislature — would take the risk and the burden off of the people whom you’re actually supposed to represent.

January 28, 2016

Finding Purpose Through the Zombie Apocalypse

AMC’s hit television series, The Walking Dead, is probably not a go-to resource for many Rhode Island Catholic readers in search of spiritual insights. The show, as its title hints, takes place in a world in which some sort of disease causes corpses to come back to life — just enough to wander the Earth in search of still-living people to consume.

In keeping with the entire zombie genre, it’s gory fare. Also in keeping with similar stories, its monsters are more creepy than scary. For the most part, they stagger along making easily identifiable groaning noises. They aren’t quick or stealthy. What they are is relentless, and the dread that they instill has mainly to do with their status as harbingers of the end of the world.

Zombies, as a threat, turn out to be relatively manageable; the dread comes from the question: What now? A central theme of the series is the problem of what meaning there could possibly be in a world overrun with such creatures.

Continue reading in Rhode Island Catholic.

January 20, 2016