Watchdog Arena Commentary

[vc_row css=”.vc_custom_1452045180749{background-color: #ffffff !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: contain !important;}”][vc_column][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]Throughout 2015, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity experimented with publishing state-level and even local content on an Arena section of its news and commentary site and published Justin’s work on an almost weekly basis.  Cycle through the tabs below to access the essays.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_tabs interval=”0″][vc_tab title=”01/20/15″ tab_id=”f7b22bb1-7033-2″][vc_column_text]

Fix-the-system education reform hits a ceiling in Rhode Island

Although the division between them has not yet hardened into antagonism, there are two branches of the education reform movement.

One seeks to fix the system that is currently in place, with minimally disruptive reforms to make government-run schools more accountable and responsive, prodded through competition from charter schools, over which government maintains a strong hand.  The other favors stronger competition through school choice, with the funds allocated for students’ education being directed by their parents to any schools that they choose.

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Rhode Island is a classic case of the problems inherent in big government energy policy

Rhode Island may not be a state that comes to mind when one thinks about clashes between environmentalism and coal. It should, however, be first in one’s mind when it comes to the problems of big government and pandering politicians.  Applied to energy policy, those problems make the state a veritable case study in the perils of green politics.

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School choice sentiments simmer in Rhode Island as politicians go about business as usual

In Rhode Island, the school choice issue is emblematic of the insider nature of politics and the mounting public frustration with it.

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Political incentive drives politicians to keep voters in the dark on the pension crisis

If more citizens–in towns, cities, and states–understood the calculations and rhetoric of the pension systems dependent on their taxes, they’d be kicking out incumbents at the nearest opportunity.

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Health care exists in a supposedly ‘free’ market where government sets the prices

The other day, my Medicare-eligible father took the position in a discussion between us that centrally managed health care was superior to free-market health care. He cited the state of American health care as his proof.

His proclamation of evidence is nothing if not debatable, but even to acknowledge that much goes too far.  The debate starts from a false premise.

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Look out for green energy scams that cost you greenbacks

For those who have remained hesitant to jump into the great green tug-of-war over climate change, the reason may be the whiff of fraud that permeates it all.  Although most scientists are, as the saying goes, hard-working and honest folks, there is bound to be some bad apples amid the bunch.

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Oversight over tax incentives has ballooned in size–and may not be effective

When one reads that Rhode Island is engaged in something that might be seen as a “public policy best practice,” cynicism is usually the appropriate response.

Such is the case with a Pew Charitable Trusts brief that cites Rhode Island as one of a handful of states implementing good-government reviews of economic development tax incentives.

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Rhode Island’s Obamacare lesson for the Supreme Court

The 2014 session of Rhode Island’s General Assembly promised to be a perilous one for HealthSource RI, the state’s health benefits exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare.

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Education savings accounts give parents choice, save public money

In February, Politico mentioned Rhode Island on a list of states considering the “radical new idea” of education savings accounts (ESAs) to provide parents with educational choice for their children.

It’s rare for the Ocean State to be mentioned among advocates for limited-government policies.  This particular list might seem even more unlikely, considering that Rhode Island has the fifth most powerful teacher unions in the country, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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A federal agency’s laundromat worker belongs to the 1 percent

Sifting through the federal payroll data available on, a service of, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin comes to mind for multiple reasons, the first of which is a modified version of his famous question about the Roman Catholic Church: How many divisions has the federal bureaucracy?

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Rhode Island is too small to sustain its Obamacare exchange, so it’s raising taxes

“Insufficient scale to justify investment.  Do not pursue.”

Such was the conclusion of a 2009 report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson’s State Coverage Initiative to investigate then-Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Robert’s plan for HealthHub RI.  This year, the first budget proposed by Rhode Island’s new governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, provides proof that the study was right.

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Rhode Island property tax targets Taylor Swift–but hits less wealthy residents too

The headline for a new statewide property tax proposed by Rhode Island’s Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is that pop star Taylor Swift will be among the hardest hit.

A few years ago, Swift purchased a $17 million mansion on the Ocean State’s coast, which means the governor is looking to cull around $43,000 from the starlet’s fortune.

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The smallest state’s big push to ensure ‘marketplace fairness’

Beware the word “fairness” when elected officials propose new laws.  Be doubly wary of the word when it appears in the name of an act, as it does in the case of the recent second attempt to pass the “Marketplace Fairness Act” through the U.S. Congress, to allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet (“remote”) retail.

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What state laws like Indiana’s RFRA tell us about the need for regulatory humility

Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen believes in “regulatory humility,” and policy makers on the state level would be wise to hear her out. The concept is one that seems like common sense, but examples in government and politics more generally suggest that humility is less attractive in practice.

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Can Lincoln Chafee beat Hillary for the Democratic nominee, or will he crumble?

A shock went through the collective psyche of Rhode Island when former governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he had formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 2016.  As governor, Chafee’s public support became so thin that he announced in September 2013 that he would not seek reelection to his office, which didn’t expire until January 2015.

Stepping back from the local incredulity, however, it’s an open question whether Chafee’s got a political sense that his critics lack.  Maybe things like experience and evidence don’t matter as much as they once did.

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Rhode Island needs to learn how entrepreneurship really works

Everybody around the table gave me that friendly look that says, “You speak eloquently and seem to care, but we don’t think you really get what we’re talking about, here.” At the “Make It Happen RI” conference, I was seated at one of about a half-dozen round tables with eight to ten people at each, assembled to talk about entrepreneurship in Rhode Island.

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Rhode Island’s return on investment for taxpayers isn’t so rosy

A report measuring state government’s return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers places Rhode Island at forty-second, overall, based on the 48th worst tax burden producing only the 32nd best results. The Ocean State is the only state to the northeast of West Virginia to fall in the bottom 15 for taxpayer ROI in WalletHub’s 2015 “States with the Best & Worst Taxpayer ROI.”

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Rhode Island’s Medicaid reforms just shift costs to balance the budget

As a state under annual threat of budget deficits that also has the country’s highest Medicaid cost per enrollee, Rhode Island can’t afford not to think about reforming the public health care program.

In the waning days of the presidency of George W. Bush and the governorship of Republican Donald Carcieri, the state experimented with a nation-leading“global waiver” to lower costs in exchange for flexibility.

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Robbing productive class Peter to pay college graduates Paul

Is the departure of recent college graduates keeping Rhode Island at the back of the pack economically?

Progressives in the state’s Legislature apparently think it would be beneficial to have taxpayers subsidize student loans. A look at student debt data suggests that would be a major burden on a population that’s already heavily taxed–and that the idea may, in fact, backfire.

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Property tax reform lessons from small town Rhode Island

At a public hearing to discuss the two budget options that would be on the ballot for local voters in the smallish town of Tiverton, Rhode Island, the town administrator shook his fist at me.  “Every single account you cut needs to have the money in it,” he said.

I’d submitted an “elector petition” budget for the town government that would hold the total tax levy at a 0.9 percent increase, versus the 2.9 percent increase proposed by the government.  The 0.9 percent budget, which voters ultimately chose with a 60:40 margin, meant a drop of the highest tax rate in the area, across two states, and savings for property owners of $39 per $100,000 of value on their home (about $100 on average).  The previous year, my proposed 0.0 percent budget had won a smaller amount of savings.

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Big obstacles to citizen engagement in small state Rhode Island’s legislature

It’s almost touching when representatives of that amorphous group known as “ordinary people” overcome the obstacles in order to testify before a legislative committee at the Rhode Island State House.  They’ve got their notes and their passion.  Sometimes they’re shaking slightly with nerves.

Or maybe that’s the fault of the air conditioning.

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Threats to charter schools suggest need for expanded school choice

Advocates for charter schools in Rhode Island have begun emphasizing that they are “public schools of choice.”  The careful balancing act in that phrase proves that such schools are treading across difficult terrain.

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Rhode Island’s fiscal ranking too optimistic among New England states

Rhode Islanders should be pleasantly surprised to find their state coming in at number 38 out of 50 on the Mercatus Center’s ranking of the states’ fiscal condition.  Any list that keeps the Ocean State out of the worst 10 is apt to be received with either relief or suspicion among the people who live here.

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Assessing Rhode Island’s ‘sanctuary state’ status left to suspicion, anecdotes

An immigrant preparing to cross the United States’ southern border illegally who looked at the Center for Immigration Studies map of localities offering “sanctuary” might notice just two bright green markers for whole states that intentionally reduce their odds of being deported.  One is North Dakota, where the official unemployment rate has not been over 5 percent since 1987, but where the nation’s second-coldest average annual temperature is only slightly above freezing. The other is Rhode Island, which is not only more temperate, but provides some of the most generous public assistance packages in the country.

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Rhode Island’s ‘Ouroboros’ approach to economic development

At the request of third graders from an elite Newport private school, lawmakers in Rhode Island this year declared the American burying beetle to be the official state insect. The designation is appropriate not only because the Ocean State is one of the few that still can claim the bugs as residents, but also because the species feeds on and breeds in carrion — i.e., “the decaying flesh of dead animals.”

If Rhode Island legislators are looking for ideas for next year, the Ouroboros should be a candidate for the official state economic symbol. Historically, the mythical snake eating its own tail has been emblematic of renewal and self-creation, but Rhode Islanders may finally answer its greatest mystery: What happens when the snake finishes?

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Study: Rhode Island’s lack of ‘star scientists’ signals tax trouble

When it comes to economic development in blue states like Rhode Island, politicians prefer to focus on subjects like “quality of life.” A recent study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research discussing the impact state taxes have on the migration of top earners should direct attention back to the basics of economic growth.

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Public higher education spending a stunner even at the back of the pack

According to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, higher education is typically the third largest item in state general fund budgets. While this is one area of public spending Rhode Island does not top national charts, public higher education accounts for $1 billion of the state’s $8.7 billion budget– nearly matching elementary and secondary education and more than doubling transportation spending.

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Discrimination against private school choice must be fought with facts

Julie Negri called it “discrimination” in a Providence Journal op-ed, referring to her experience as a home-school mother when she learned that her daughter would not be eligible for funding through a state-run program, called Prepare Rhode Island. The program allows high school students to take courses at public institutions of higher education.

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Price lists for charter schools could help end funding battles

As the school year drew closer, the school department of Providence, Rhode Island announced its intention to charge local charter schools around $800 per season for each of their students who participate in an in-district athletics program. District spokeswoman Christina O’Reilly told Dan McGowan of WPRI that the fees would help cover “transportation, coaches’ salaries, referees, equipment, [and] league fees” for teams, on which 50 to 60 Providence charter students play.

The city backed away from the plan within a few days, but the brief episode once again raised the controversial issue of charter school funding.

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What happens when a state is focused more on branding than policy?

In March, Rhode Island’s new governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, announced her WAVE initiative to turn the state’s economy around through Workforce development,Advanced industries and innovation, Visitor attraction, and Enterprise expansion and recruitment.  Generally the marketing piece might appear to be the most mundane, in a “well, whatever” kind of way, but it might provide a lesson to help residents understand what their government is actually doing.

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From the Cool Moose Party to pension problems, RI is no model state

If Raimondo’s Rhode Island is the answer, what was the question?

Rhode Islanders have gotten used to national accolades for Democrat Gina Raimondo since the supposedly groundbreaking pension reform that she championed as general treasurer in 2011. Most recently, Fortune magazine’s senior editor Dan Primack has proclaimed Raimondo to be “worth keeping tabs on,” with the provocative lede: “How tiny Rhode Island suddenly became a case study in good government.”

A more-true statement would be that the Ocean State is a case study in the perils of superficial political analysis from people outside of the state.

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As bills fail to regain steam, chances of fall session fade in Rhode Island

Any Rhode Islander who spent the summer worrying about looming mischief during the rare fall legislative session proposed for the General Assembly back in June can probably breathe more easily now that the season has arrived.  On the first day of autumn, the Speaker of the House, Democrat Nicholas Mattiello, told the Providence Journal that his chamber’s reconvening before the start of the 2016 session is “becoming less and less likely because we don’t have the information ready to move on it at this point in time.”

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Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship grade is largely for showing up to class

With the release of the Center for Education Reform’s 2015 scorecard for states’ school choice tax credit scholarships, Rhode Islanders with knowledge of the program might wonder how their state managed to squeak out a C grade. The program comes nowhere near satisfying demand–among donors or recipients–and during budget battles, it can seem more like a trading chip legislators throw to a particular constituency.

But with so many states playing tax credit scholarship hooky, Rhode Island is getting credit for trying.

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Here’s why teacher’s unions are inherently political and overtly ideological

In a move sending shivers through the skin of organized labor unions across the country, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Rebecca Friedrichs is a teacher in California public schools who says the thousands of dollars that, for nearly 30 years, she has been forced to pay a labor union, have been coerced funding of an organization that she does not support.

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Here’s how state efforts to reduce waste can actually increase spending

A recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office noted that “improper payments” through government benefit programs have increased dramatically–by more than 300 percent from 2003 to 2014, reaching $125 million.

Eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” has become something of a go-to promise for political purposes, often as a hypothetical funding source for desired programs. But taxpayers should be wary of bureaucratic attempts to trim spending around the edges; tendencies will always be toward more money transferred out of their pockets.

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Trick or treat? Three spooky ways the government wants to control your life

As Halloween approaches, fear not the masks and movies; fear the quiet promises whispered in press releases and incanted with mystical words like “equity,” “sustainability,” and “diversity.”

The Cult of Big Government is working night-in and night-out to raise from the dark abyss of dangerous philosophies a demon to possess all of society and sap the human will.  Look south of Salem, to Rhode Island, where the scheme is well-advanced.

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Obamacare exchange in Rhode Island limping along in need of more funding

An acquaintance investigating health insurance pricing through the website of HealthSource RI—Rhode Island’s health benefits exchange under the Affordable Care Act (ACA; ObamaCare)—became caught in one of those torturous loops people encounter on the Internet from time to time, whether by user error or a technical glitch. The various forms on the site just would not work for him.

After two-and-a-half hours on hold waiting to interact with a human being through that old-fashioned device, the telephone, the clock ran out on HealthSource’s business hours, and not wanting to remain on hold over night, he hung up and emailed his friends in frustration.

Recent news coverage makes clear that his was not a unique experience.

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Armed with data, Americans might question education funding and “equity”

The Rhode Island Department of Education has released the state’s first-ever results from the Common Core–aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests and sent a shudder through everybody who is, or should be, accountable for them.

Two recent bits of local political rhetoric concerning education illustrate how important it is for Americans to understand the math of education, and in Rhode Island, those with financial incentive to divert accountability and push for increased funding will quickly redouble their efforts.

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Rhode Island’s fading immunity to Obamacare cost increases

To some extent, Rhode Island has been immune to the cost increases against which so many Affordable Care Act (ACA) skeptics have rightly warned since the act became law in 2010. The state had already freely opted to inflict on its people most of the harm that Obamacare has brought to other states. The increases are starting to catch up with Rhode Island health insurance consumers, nonetheless, and in ways that aren’t captured by just comparing premiums.

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