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Mike Stenhouse: R.I.’s complacent political class

Originally Published In The Providence Journal On July 7, 2016:

Rhode Island has the worst business climate in the nation. It ranks 48th on both the Family Prosperity Index of the American Conservative Union and the Jobs and Opportunity Index of our Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. It has virtually zero population growth, and it has suffered the ignominy of dozens of other near-bottom rankings. Despite all this, our Rhode Island political class appears content not to rock the boat.

When we hear boasts that there were no broad-based tax increases in the recently passed state budget, we hear an attitude of complacency that is typical of the political elite, whose main goal is to perpetuate the status quo, as opposed to making the hard decisions that will improve the quality of lives of its residents.

The irony, of course, is that our political leaders seem to genuinely believe that they have made major positive reforms. Maybe, relatively speaking, they just don’t understand what major reform looks like.

Years ago, when our center sought to paint a more complete image of the state’s jobs picture, we found that Rhode Island, along with Indiana and Michigan, ranked among the bottom three states in terms of recovery of employment from pre-recession peaks. Faced with an obviously unacceptable status quo, two of these three states took bold and major action. One state did not. Can you guess which one?

First Indiana, then recently Michigan, enacted right-to-work laws that provided workplace freedom for employees and that also gave employers new incentives to establish or grow businesses in their states. Since then, Indiana has rocketed up to 20th on this same employment index, while Michigan is already on the climb at 44th.

These are examples of the bold kind of political leadership and major reform that can quickly transform the prosperity of the people and businesses in our state.

Conversely, the meager reforms put forth this year by Ocean State politicians pale in comparison and will do very little to help the average family in any meaningful way. As in recent years, the negative legislation outweighed the good. Million-dollar studies and fancy new names for programs that perpetuate the same kind of special-interest, 38 Studios-type preferential tax policies that are responsible for driving Rhode Island into a rut in the first place, are nothing new — and certainly are not anything bold.

And while other states are decisively moving forward, Rhode Island is falling in the wrong direction. Only briefly out of the bottom three, our Ocean State is back wallowing as the second worst state when it comes to recovering lost employment, with West Virginia in last place. But West Virginia politicians chose not to accept this fate and sit idly by. Earlier this year, the Mountain State became the nation’s 26th state to pass right-to-work laws, also repealing prevailing-wage mandates that artificially drive up the cost of public works projects.

If Rhode Island’s complacency continues — both by our political class and by voters who re-elect it year after year — we will soon see Rhode Island lose one of its two congressional seats and shamefully slip to last place when it comes to renewing hope and opportunity for our families.
Rhode Island needs to dare to disrupt the status quo and boldly evolve itself into a regional outlier so that we can become a magnet — on our own — for businesses, jobs and families.

Instead, our political class wants us to devolve into a dependent suburb of Boston’s economy. We need to think bigger.

Rhode Island politicians will not have the chance to change their act until next year. However, voters can lead the way by acting this year to deliver a clear message at November’s ballot box.
In this wild and unpredictable year of national politics, the big question is whether or not the tsunami of public discontent will reach our Ocean State shores and compel voters to send a necessary jolt to our political class.

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RI Foundation Video Seeks to Stifle Your Free Speech

Should Rhode Islanders silently accept the corrupt political climate that has failed so many of us? Or should we, as free citizens in our uniquely American democracy, be encouraged to freely speak-out and engage in a battle of ideas so as to help make our state a safer and more prosperous place to live, to raise a family, and to build a career?

It is the Center’s primary mission to stimulate such rigorous public debate about important policy issues. However, the most powerful and wealthy nonprofit organization in our state is asking you to shut up.

As part of its own 100th year celebration, the Rhode Island Foundation this week published and promoted a video, which, in essence, encourages people to remain silent and to accept that the political elite know best about what’s in your and my best interests.

In what initially seems to be a video for kids, it is shameful that the Foundation hides its adult message behind children. With the frequent backdrop of our State House, it is obvious that the video is intended to be political. Under the pretense of “be nice or be quiet”, the Foundation is clear in its message that is directed to all of us –  that we should just “stop complaining”.

Stop complaining about Rhode Island’s 48th place ranking on the national Family Prosperity Index?
Stop complaining that so many of our neighbors cannot find or have given up looking for meaningful work?
Stop complaining about the political corruption that continues to embarrass our state?
Stop complaining about the lack of bold and decisive action to do anything significant about it? 

I don’t think so.

It is also despicable that the Foundation forces these children to read text that has to be bleeped. It is further immoral that the Foundation seeks to subvert the voice of the people in their implied endorsement of the status quo politics in Rhode Island.

In recent years, the RI Foundation has turned its attention towards public policy, where it has been a supporter of multiple far-left, government-centric and federal intrusions into the affairs of Ocean Staters. The Foundation has been a frequent and close public partner with the Chafee and Raimondo administrations. It was a major supporter of the controversial RhodeMap RI agenda and it largely funded the related Brookings Institution report that recommended massive crony-corporate subsidies.

When I challenged the Foundation to a debate in 2014 about RhodeMap RI, they refused. When they rolled out the Brookings report earlier this year, they – in close coordination with the Governor – did not even allow time for public review and debate before it was rubber-stamped by a bureaucratic planning board. Now, they use children to ask us to be silent.

How can such a high-profile organization, that admittedly has done so much good in so many other noble areas of private charity, be so opposed to public debate? Oh yes, I forgot: They and other elites know what’s best for you, me, and our families. And we’re supposed to just shut-up and behave so that their special interest friends can keep getting our hard-earned taxpayer dollars handed over to them? Again, I don’t think so.

More than anytime than I can remember, our state government – aided by partners like the RI Foundation – is operating under a dark-cloud of secrecy and is purposely seeking to bypass traditional democratic processes to manipulate its agenda into implementation.

It is your right, and if I may – it is your duty, as an American to remain vigilant and to make your voice be heard – in a strong, yet peaceful manner – against such corruption.

It is immoral – and it is dangerous – when government and its powerful corporate allies seek to compel your silence.

It is more important than ever that our Center should stand firm against such oppressive thinking. We just celebrated America’s Independence Day and now it’s time for you and I to respond as free and independent citizens.

Do so by spreading the word about the RI Foundation’s sneak-attack on free-speech through whatever free-speech vehicles you can … and by considering a donation to our Center in support of our mission.

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Statement on BREXIT Vote for Freedom

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

A great day for Freedom as BREXIT Vote Rejects Regional & Global Governance
People want sovereignty instead of #RhodeMapRI type central-government planning advocated by the EU, HUD and Brookings

Providence, RI — Symbolic of its fight against regional governance and federal intrusion into state and local affairs, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity today applauds the British people for voting to re-establish their national sovereignty and to depart the European Union.

Drawing parallels between the RhodeMap RI scheme and the more recent Brookings Institution plan, the Center urges the lawmakers and the people of Rhode Island to similarly reject the concept of a centrally-planned, regional bureaucracy that will infringe on the authority of locally elected governments.

“We must have faith in the capacity of free and sovereign Rhode Islanders – on our own – to restore prosperity for our families and businesses,” commented Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center, as a warning against those who seek to devolve Rhode Island into a dependent appendage to the Boston economy or to some other form or regional governance. “This is a great day for freedom.”

With dismal 48th place rankings on both the national Family Prosperity Index and the Jobs & Opportunity Index, the Center argues that the continuation of big-government corporate-welfare strategies promoted by the Raimondo administration, and partially adopted by the General Assembly, are detrimental to free-market economic growth and job creation.

Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), May 2016: A Down Month in a Stagnant Trend

With Rhode Island losing both employment and labor force, in May, the state slipped to 36th in the nation for unemployment. On the broader Jobs & Opportunity (JOI) ranking, Rhode Island’s rank remained unchanged at 48 among states, despite lower scores on the two subfactors for which new data was available (five of its 13 datapoints).

On the three monthly employment datapoints, the decreases were signficant, especially using the originally reported, unrevised numbers for the prior month. Rhode Islanders reporting that they are working dropped by 533, while those working or looking for work dropped by 359. Meanwhile, the number of jobs based the state fell 2,400. The two welfare-related datapoints, were mixed (partly because they have different lags in terms of reporting months). Reliance on Medicaid increased by 2,281 people, while reliance on SNAP (food stamps) fell by 208.

The first chart shows the six New England states in the national race. All six experienced a loss of points on the JOI score, but Maine managed to move up to 21st place, as Oklahoma slipped. Connecticut held at 34, as did Vermont, at 20. New Hampshire kept its place at the lead of the nation, although Wyoming gained slightly, and Massachusetts is stuck at 37.

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Overall, the gap between Rhode Island’s JOI score and the New England average grew in April (see the second chart). When it comes to the unemployment rate, Rhode Island lost ground within New England but gained nationally (third chart), illustrating the problem with using that common metric as an indicator of economic health.

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Results for the three underlying JOI factors were:

  • Job Outlook Factor (measuring optimism adequate work is available): RI remained at 43rd.
  • Freedom Factor (measuring the level of work against reliance on welfare programs): RI still ranks 39th, although with a lower score.
  • Prosperity Factor (measuring the financial motivation of income versus taxes): RI still ranks 46th, because no underlying data has been updated.

[Click here for a printable PDF.]

Renewable Energy in Rhode Island: Big Cost, Little Difference

RI-CoastlineThe RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has occasionally weighed in over the years on the energy and related regulatory issues facing Rhode Island, finding that “green” policies cost Rhode Islanders both their wealth and their jobs. Already suffering from one of the worst business climates and Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) ratings in the nation, Ocean State families and businesses cannot afford further increases in energy costs or losses in job opportunities.

Click here for the full RI report.

Yet, as the list of legislation at the end of this document shows, Rhode Island lawmakers are poised to make a deteriorated situation even worse.

Existing renewable portfolio energy standards (RPS), combined with an aggressive 2016 energy policy, will take even more taxpayer and ratepayer dollars out of the general economy in order to fund a special interest climate agenda and result in higher energy costs and a negative drag on the state’s economy. As this document shows, the harm done by these costs will all be in the name of a very low-impact, inefficient policy.

Based on this study’s findings, the Center strongly recommends that lawmakers reject all proposed new energy mandates in 2016 and, instead, repeal those that are currently written into law.

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Findings

Because of its high dependence on electricity generation via natural gas production (98% of in-state generation), Rhode Island can boast a relatively low carbon footprint. However, to increase its renewable energy portfolio from its current level to its RPS-mandated target of 14.5% by 2019, for only a slight improvement, a massive influx of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars will be required, leading to higher electricity prices and a net loss of jobs.

Rhode Island, despite its ocean proximity, is rated as having a low capacity utilization factor for wind and solar. This means it could be very difficult — and costly — to reach its 14.5% target over the next three years.

Exacerbating this condition, “renewable” energy is considerably more expensive to produce than “fossil fuel” energy, meaning that an increase in the renewable portion of the state’s energy portfolio necessarily means an increase in electricity costs. Rhode Islanders are well aware of this phenomenon with the controversial Deepwater Wind project, which alone is expected to cost ratepayers upwards of $440 million dollars over its first 20 years.

Overall, the high cost of complying with existing state RPS mandates, combined with the low benefit of a minor reduction of our carbon footprint, should lead reasonable lawmakers to conclude that this so-called “investment” does not present a good value for Rhode Island.

Because of this poor cost-benefit “value proposition,” up to five times less than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–suggested standard, Rhode Island should reconsider its existing energy policy approach. Given its highly unfavorable return on investment, the money targeted to meet its RPS goals could be better spent on sorely needed broad-based tax cuts that would benefit every Rhode Islander and actually spur economic growth.

By the numbers, national research by Dr. Timothy Considine comparing projects to a base case without energy mandates finds that if existing RPS capacity targets are to be met, Rhode Island will experience:

  • 4,401–6,068 lower employment levels, despite the few hundred energy jobs created
  • $141–190 million per year in total costs required to raise renewable production to targets through 2040
  • 49–73% as the range for the sustained increase in the cost of electricity from new solar and wind capacities
  • 13–18% as the sustained increase in actual electricity rates expected to be passed on
    to consumers
  • $670–893 million per year extracted from the economy in the form higher electricity rate payments by private sector businesses and families, with the “services” and “construction” industry sectors shouldering the largest burdens
  • $134–205 per ton as the projected cost of carbon dioxide emission reductions for Rhode Island, well beyond the $40–60 cost standard that the EPA itself recommends

The high costs of achieving small carbon dioxide emission reductions using RPS in Rhode Island prove that it is an inefficient means to address global climate change and represents a poor investment for state taxpayers and ratepayers. As in many other states, the costs of carbon reduction in the Ocean State are significantly higher than EPA standards, while the small stimulus from RPS investment is not large enough to offset the negative effects of higher electricity prices.

Click here for the full RI report.

Best & Worst Bills So Far 2016

The Center’s annual Freedom Index & Legislator Scorecard rates bills and ranks legislators based on how they vote on those bills (2012 to present). For 2016, the BEST & WORST bills already as of voted on and yet to be voted on are listed below. For more details about these bills, and all bills rated, visit our 2016 interactive LIVE index hereClick on the image below for a larger view.

Updated 6/13/16

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STATEMENT on Proposed 2017 RI Budget

STATEMENT: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 
June 8, 2016

RI Families Once Again Left Out of State Budget

Multiple Special Interest & Corporate Welfare Programs Outweigh Few Relief Provisions
Lawmakers Adopt Center’s Recommendation to increase EITC in lieu of Minimum Wage hike

Providence, RI — With nothing bold to address the massive structural budget deficits, its dismal business climate, or the state’s 48th ranking on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity‘s Jobs & Opportunity Index, Rhode Island lawmakers are once again advancing a special interest laden agenda that offers little relief or hope for new opportunities for the average Rhode Island family.

“What does the average family have to cheer about in this budget? The few provisions that offer minor relief to some are overwhelmingly outweighed by the massive special interest and corporate welfare spending that will continue drag-down our state economy,” commented Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “Only when the total relief package is bigger than new spending can we claim that Rhode Island is heading in the right direction.”

While recognizing the reductions in retiree income taxes, the corporate minimum tax, and trucker registration and beach parking fees, the Center notes that these cuts are themselves narrowly targeted and are more than offset by the increases in corporate welfare, new Uber and marijuana taxes, pre-K funding, and new special-interest bond initiatives.

The Center maintains that major broad-based tax reforms are required to jump-start the Ocean State’s stagnant economy and jobs market.

Also according to the Center, the continued funding of the unethical legislative and community grant programs, despite the mirage of reform, can only be seen a perpetuation of a corrupt, status quo insider culture.

As help to low-income workers, the Center praises lawmakers for adoptng the Center’s March 2016 recommendation to hold the minimum wage steady and, instead, increase the Earned-Income-Tax-Credit (EITC), which rewards work without risking job losses.

Statement on RI Dep’t of Education Transgender Guidelines

Click link to read RIDE Transgender students guidance 6-7-16

June 6, 2016

Official Statement from the Center:

“While professing to protect students from bullying and to respect all students, the RI Department of Education (RIDE), via its June 2016 “guidance” document on transgender students, itself appears to have been bullied by the federal government; seeks to bully local school districts into conformity; and openly flaunts its disrespect of of other students.

In perpetuating a disturbing trend of ‘government by political correctness’, RIDE has succumbed to federal pressure and has adopted a one-size-fits-all position that may not be compatible with the morals held by many public school families. There may never be a more obvious reason to empower parents with additional choices to escape an increasingly politicized government school system that does not respect their personal values.

The repeated emphasis in the document on laws dealing with “discrimination” can only be seen as a heavy-handed threat to local school districts by elitist bureaucrats who believe they know what’s in our family’s best interests.

The open and blatant disrespect (page-9, paragraph-2) for the comfort level of the majority of students, in favor of the comfort of a tiny minority of students, along with the disdain for the rights of parents and the sanctity of the family (page-7, paragraph-2), is particularly alarming.

The Center maintains that no statewide or federal dictate can possibly satisfy the varying sentiments among Rhode Island’s diverse array of local communities.”

Stenhouse commentary: Legislative Grants – Cheers to 10 Lawmakers, Shame on You

Commentary: CEO Stenhouse congratulates 10 lawmakers who have resisted immoral legislative grants, and rips the public policy culture they perpetuate.

See the video on The Ocean State CurrentStenSpeech3

Good day Rhode Island, I’m Mike Stenhouse with the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity welcoming you to our debate series, “What’s really in your best interests?”. Today we’ll explore the recently publicized and controversial topic of legislative grants. Are lawmakers the only people at fault, or is there a larger, more fundamental problem at play?

Legislative grants hand-out your taxpayer dollars to organizations in an arbitrary, yet highly politicized process. When your local Little League or parade receives such a grant, totaling anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, local lawmakers gets the credit for giving away your money … assuming those lawmakers, of course, are in favor with House and Senate leadership – this is where the internal politics comes in.

Much of the media attention has focused on lawmakers who have applied for such grants in a corrupt process to gain favor with voters. In looking at the other side of the coin, however, I’d like to recognize 10 lawmakers in the General Assembly who have not applied for a single legislative grant this year. In alphabetical order, they are:

Rep Greg Constantino, Democrat, Lincoln

Rep Blake Filippi, Independent, New Shoreham

Senator Mark Gee, Republican, East Greenwich

Rep Robert Jacquard, Democrat, Providence

Rep Karen MacBeth, Democrat turned Republican, Cumberland

Rep Brian Newberry, Republican minority leader, North Smithfield

Rep Jeremiah O’Grady, Democrat, Lincoln

Senator Ed O’Neill, Independent turned Republican, Lincoln

Senator John Pagliarini, Republican, Bristol

Rep Sheri Roberts, Republican, West Greenwich

These 10 lawmakers apparently understand the larger “principle” involved here … that the politicization of your hard-earned taxpayer dollars is simply wrong! I applaud these 10 lawmakers and I ask you to thank them next time you see them.

However, while we give “cheers” to these 10, there is another group who roundly deserve “boos”. The problem with legislative grants is not just the waste of your taxpayer dollars, but it’s the culture they perpetuate. It seems more and more, whether it be 38 Studios, a baseball stadium, the Superman building, local groups, and countless other private enterprises … that far too many individuals and businesses are becoming increasingly dependent on government handouts to survive or to boost their profits.

Just go up to Smith Hill some day. See who’s hanging around outside and inside the legislative chambers, listen to who testifies at the various hearings, and if you’re like me you’ll be sickened by sheer number of people up there demanding they get some of your money … as if it’s their right. No wonder some call it a “Den of Thieves”.

I say shame on you if you’re one of these businesses or groups who come begging to Smith Hill, to your legislators, or to your local town and city council with your hands out; whether seeking tax credits, subsidies, loan guarantees, tax stabilization plans, or, yes, a legislative grant.

If you’re one of these beggars, you are as big a problem as the lawmakers who accede to your demands.

You help perpetuate a special-interest culture of corruption

You help create an unfair playing field that distorts the free-market economy.

Why does your organization have any right to my money?

You are not examples of successful American capitalism  … you are byproducts of insider cronyism.

This overly-politicized “money” culture is immoral and it must stop. If we are to reform this corrupt culture, it must start with you … the people of Rhode Island. Our Center has never taken and never will take a single dime of taxpayer money. We depend entirely on the generosity of private individuals and private foundations.

Stop seeking government handouts … instead, start doing it yourself.

Stop supporting special-interest spending policies … instead, start demanding broad-based tax and regulatory cuts that benefit all of us.

Stop cozying up to politicians in order to curry monetary favor from them … instead, start holding them accountable when they politicize your money.

Friends, together, we can stop this corruption that benefits the insiders and hurts the rest of us. Let’s make a point of congratulating these 10 lawmakers … and among ourselves, let’s pledg to build our futures, on our own, so that our prosperity will be based on nothing more than our own hard work and ingenuity.

This how Rhode Island can be returned to prosperity.
In liberty, I remain at your service. This is Mike Stenhouse, good day.

BEST & WORST BILLS of 2016: Big Brother Prescription Bill Among Worst

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 
June 1, 2016

Bill Continues Disturbing Trend of State Collection of Personal and Private Information of RI Residents

Providence, RI — Big-brother intrusion into the private medical records of Rhode Islanders would be advanced by a bill that has already passed the Senate. The bill is ranked as one of the worst bills of the 2016 session by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, which today updated its list of the BEST and WORST bills of the 2016 General Assembly session.
Under the guise of seeking-out potential controlled-substance abuse, S2946A, sponsored by Senator Louis DiPalma (D, Middletown), would authorize the state Department of Health to compile and combine its database of drug prescription patients with other databases, including out of state sources, so that it can analyze the behavior and personal connections of patients and pharmacists.
Considering that two other bills (H7321 and S2231) would monitor where and when Rhode Islanders drive (a contemplated use of the trucker toll gantries), it is a growing and disturbing trend that the Rhode Island government is pro-actively seeking to collect such personal and private information about its residents … creating an almost unlimited potential for abuse.
At a higher level, once again General Assembly lawmakers in 2016 are on track to continue a multi-year, negative trend of public policy that will reduce economic justice for Rhode Islanders. This according to the 2016 General Assembly Freedom Index, an interactive, live tool published by the nonpartisan Center.
Also of note, 14 individual lawmakers currently have scores above zero, while in 2015 not a single Representative or Senator earned a positive score.
Lawmakers and the public are encouraged to visit the Legislation tab on the 2016 Freedom Index to determine the bill rankings for the majority of bills that have been rated, but not yet voted on. The “Summary” tab displays individual lawmaker scores.
Summary: As of May 27, of the 352 bills that have qualified for the index:
  • 256 bills are rated negatively, with only 93 bills receiving a positive score, and 3 yet to receive a rating
  • The negative bills would total a (-398) cumulative score, if all were to be voted on, while the positive bills would produce a +131 score, resulting in a net (-267)overall General Assembly rating
  • Led by Senator John Pagliarini (R, Portsmouth) just 14 of 113 lawmakers can currently boast a positive individual score, consisting of 1 Democrat, 12 Republicans, and 1 Independent; with 3 in the Senate and 11 in the House
Although not all 2016 bills have received final ratings, it is clear that the few positive pieces of legislation are massively outweighed by the much greater number of negative bills, resulting in a net negative impact, as has occurred in all prior years evaluated. The Center notes that not all bills have received final reviews and that the public should check back regularly for updated bill ratings and legislator rankings.
Additional resources are available on the main RI Freedom Index page, including a number of online and interactive tools and information for users, with links to scores from prior years: