Scholarship Program Recommended for Special-Needs RI Students

Senators Ciccone and Walaska are called upon to take action to back up their own “School Choice Week” Resolution. Read the full Policy Brief here … with charts and end notes.

Stephen Hopkins Center supports our Center’s call for the Bright Today Scholarship Program


Bright Today Scholarship Program

Empowering Rhode Island’s Most Vulnerable Children with a Quality Education

Senators Ciccone and Walaska are called upon to take action to back up their own “School Choice Week” Resolution

January 26, 2012, Providence, RI — In recognition of National School Choice Week, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity urges policymakers to adopt a school choice scholarship program for special-needs students. In light of the recent resolution co-sponsored by state Senators Ciccone and Walaska recognizing School Choice Week, the RI Center for Freedom calls upon the senators to follow up their welcome recognition with firm action, and respectfully requests that they provide the leadership necessary to see that legislation is adopted that provides a school choice scholarship program for disabled students in Rhode Island.

As follow up to its recently published education report, Closing The Gap, which demonstrated how recent Florida-style school reforms could aid disadvantaged students in the Ocean State, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom today issued a Policy Brief detailing how adoption of one, particular Florida reform – the McKay Scholarship Program – could empower Rhode Island’s most vulnerable and under-achieving students with new choices to receive a quality education.

As part of its “Bright Today” set of recommended school policy reforms, the RI Center for Freedom recommends that the Ocean State develop a scholarship program of its own, which would allow families with special-needs children to utilize public funding, in the form of a voucher – based cost of education in the school district they are leaving – to attend a private school of their choice. This recommendation is consistent with RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) strategic recommendations and can be implemented into law by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

The Policy Brief entitled the Bright Today Scholarship Program cites details from Closing The Gap that shows how Rhode Island students with disabilities are declining in achievement and have lost approximately (5) grade levels of learning to their peers in Florida since the Sunshine State implemented its school voucher system for such students, the McKay Scholarship Program, over 12 years ago. The Brief provides information about this program, including national perspectives, implementation details, and fiscal and academic impacts, as well as a summary of how other states have followed Florida’s lead in this area.

Earlier this month the Rhode Island Senate passed a resolution (#2064) recognizing National School Choice Week, citing that ” … Citizens across Rhode Island agree that improving the quality of education and expanding access to highly effective schools should be an issue of importance to our state’s leaders …”. The RI Center for Freedom calls upon the sponsors of this resolution, and all those who supported it, to take active and concrete steps to back-up their own resolution by developing and passing a Bright Today Scholarship Program bill for the Ocean State.

“The freedom to choose is a staple of almost every component of life in America except perhaps the most important area – education. With all the talk about providing for our state’s neediest residents, we challenge our public officials to actually do something about it”, said Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the RI Center for Freedom. “How can we not act to provide a ‘bright today’ for these families who have been left behind by our educational system? With public demand and leadership, by next fall, hundreds or thousands of our most disadvantaged students could be attending a better school”, added Stenhouse.

The non-partisan Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity is the state’s leading free-enterprise public policy think tank. Firm in its belief that freedom is indispensable to citizens’ well-being and prosperity, the Center for Freedom’s mission is to restore competitiveness to Rhode Island through the advancement of market-based reform solutions.

Read the full Policy Brief here … with charts and end notes.


Governor’s Sales Tax Hike will Hike Unemployment

Download the complete Policy Brief here; includes comparative table and reference end notes.

View or Download the Media Release here; includes quotes and additional information about Scott Moody and STAMP.

Lesson in Capitalism – “Dynamic Effects of Tax Policies”

Balancing the Budget via Sales Tax Increases would Cost Jobs for Rhode Island

January 23, 2012; by J. Scott Moody – adjunct scholar

Consider which of two tax-policy scenarios may be more beneficial for Rhode Island:

A) a policy that increases state revenues to sustain current spending, but which reduces the state’s economic output and where jobs are lost; where municipal revenues go down and where investment in our state is reduced.

B) a policy that reduces state revenues forcing cuts to current spending, but which increases our state’s economic output and where jobs are gained; where municipal revenues go up and where investments in our state rises.

This is the vital debate that must take place in the Ocean State during the 2012 legislative session.

2012 will predictably bring a vigorous debate about how to balance our state budget and how to pay for most of the current spending items in the budget – by some combination of increasing taxes and making cosmetic cuts to existing programs. This is the wrong debate and the wrong objective for the Ocean State!

Instead, debate should focus on how to make Rhode Island more competitive with our neighbors and how to grow our economy so as to add more good jobs for our citizens. Increased tax revenues will naturally follow from the expansion of economic activity.

Dynamic vs Static Tax Modeling

There is a common and fundamental miscalculation when it comes to projecting the effects of tax policy on state revenues. Too often, the more short-sighted and simplistic static calculation is utilized, when in reality is the more complex dynamic effect should be evaluated. The downstream effects of tax policy on various aspects of the economy are rarely discussed or quantified, either at the state or municipal level.

Take the state “sales tax” as an example. Rhode Island is expected to derive about $989.5 million from this tax, currently at 7%. In 2011, to balance the budget, the Governor proposed over $150 million in tax increases through an expansion of the state sales tax: reducing the sales tax on some items and charging new sales taxes on other items. For modeling purposes, assuming a overall target of $175 million in new revenues, this would have effectively raised the existing state sales tax rate to about 8.2%. While not an exact apples-apples comparison with the Governor’s 2011 plan, an analysis of the higher 8.2% sales tax, utilizing RI-STAMP, a state tax and analysis modeling program customized specifically for Rhode Island, shows the kind of negative consequences that can be expected to occur when any state sales tax hike is considered.

Tragically, this sales tax increase would not raise nearly the amount of revenues statically calculated because it would cause serious harm to our already deteriorating state and municipal economies. In summary, a sales tax hike of $175 million is projected to produce severe unintended consequences for theOceanState:

  • Only a $55 million gain in net state revenues (vs the $175 million gain anticipated)
  • A loss in Gross State Product o $932 million
  • A loss of $22 million in municipal revenues
  • A loss of $64 million in investment in our state
  • A loss of 2,224 jobs

 Because a sales tax increase would make Rhode Island even less competitive with its regional neighbors and nationally overall, consumer and entrepreneurial behavior would be significantly altered, resulting in lower economic activity and actually worsening the state’s economic plight. Municipalities, all too often overlooked, will also suffer from this unintended consequence.

Balancing the budget is the wrong goal; and tax increases are precisely the wrong solution!

Conversely, if the Ocean State was to cut its sales tax to 5%, a very different scenario is projected to occur, because our state would suddenly become a more attractive place to purchase goods and services, meaning economic activity would increase.

The static projection of a 2% sales tax cut would put the loss in state revenues, at 2/7 of the current revenue, or about $282.75 million in lower revenues to the state. But again, this static calculation ignores the true dynamic economic impact of tax reductions. RI-STAMP projects the following positive consequences from this tax decrease:

  • Only a $74 million loss in net state revenues (vs the $283 million loss anticipated)
  • A gain in Gross State Product o $1.9 Billion
  • A gain of $44 million in municipal revenues
  • A gain of $121 million in investment in our state
  • A gain of 4,327 jobs

Just from this single tax reform, economic forces, which have been restrained by a burdensome tax structure, will be unleashed in the Ocean State. If the state can find $56 million in cuts, the Rhode Island economy will be vastly enhanced, resulting in more jobs and more local revenues … and we will balance a lower budget!

The Governor’s office recently stated that it plans to address the upcoming budget deficit by cutting spending and raising taxes. As demonstrated above, this path produces negative consequences.

If instead, we look to address the larger economic picture and look to produce more jobs and a brighter economic future for our citizens …

… cutting taxes and cutting spending will produce a more vigorous economy!

Additionally, from a regional and psychological perspective, instead of suffering the ignominy of charging highest sales tax in New England, Rhode Island would benefit by boasting the second lowest sales tax.

Reality Supports Theory

Some may argue that an economic modeling program is just theory and that the actual world may present a very different reality. However, right here in our own New England back-yard, there is specific empirical evidence that fully supports the core premise of the RI-STAMP projections regarding the effects of sales tax policy.

It is well-known that cross-border shopping exists to the great benefit of the zero sales tax state of New Hampshire, with many Rhode Islanders frequently putting in ‘orders’ with family members and friends crossing through the Granite State to pick up liquor and other items for them … duty free!

In Vermont, a recent study showed that its border counties are losing up to $540 Million in retail sales per year to New Hampshire . In Maine, a similar study showed that its border counties are likewise losing $2.2 Billion, in addition to thousands of retail jobs .

With the close proximity of Rhode Island to many Massachusetts and Connecticut residents, it is clear that Rhode Island can win the southern New England sales tax competition; that our economy can benefit from cross-border shopping and see a pronounced increase in economic activity and jobs for our state and our cities & towns.


Developed by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, RI-STAMP is a customized, comprehensive model of the RI state economy, designed to capture the principal effects of city tax changes on that economy. In general STAMP is a five-year dynamic computable general equilibrium (CGE) tax model. As such, it provides a mathematical description of the economic relationships among producers, households, government and the rest of the world. It is general in the sense that it takes all the important markets and flows into account. It is an equilibrium model because it assumes that demand equals supply in every market (goods and services, labor and capital); this is achieved by allowing prices to adjust within the model (i.e., prices are endogenous). The model is computable because it can be used to generate numeric solutions to concrete policy and tax changes, with the help of a computer. And it is a tax model because it pays particular attention to identifying the role played by different taxes.

Download the complete Policy Brief here; includes comparative table and reference end notes.

Media Coverage:

1/30/2012: Americans For Tax Reform , ATR: Opposed to Rhode Island Sales Tax Increase

1/23/2012:, NEW: Conservative Think Tank Rips Chafee on Taxes

What others are saying about our “Closing The Gap” Educational study

Visit the Closing The Gap home page here …

Our Closing The Gap study has struck a cord with parents and students, as well as organizations either supporting or resisting comprehensive educational reform in Rhode Island.  Below is a sampling:


Rhode Island Statewide Coaltion (RISC) commends our think tank for bringing forth a significant education study

The RI Statewide Coalition (RISC) is commending the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a locally run reform-oriented think tank, for bringing forth the results of a wide ranging education study of Florida public schools which shows significant education gains can be made by non-English speaking, lower income urban students if the right curriculum reforms are enacted. RISC is also citing the study as evidence that the proposal to site two charter run Mayoral Academy schools in Providence deserves the chance to go forward.

“This study reveals that low income and minority students in our own state attending low performing schools in certain urban areas have a true chance at improving if aggressive reforms are supported and alternative options are allowed to grow,” states RISC Executive Director Harriet Lloyd. “If the jumps in test scores and overall performance improvements in key areas can occur for the most disadvantaged students in Florida’s public schools, why can’t they occur here? Improvements are slowly taking hold here under Commissioner Gist but she needs continued support and alternative school options need to be expanded.”

The study, called “Closing the Gap”, traced the gains made by overall low income students and by specific groups of Hispanic students in Florida public schools over the period of a decade starting in the year 2000. A wide ranging series of reforms which brought results included improved teacher performance and accountability; a transparent A to F grading system for individual public schools for better parental awareness; strong support for charter school options; and a ban on social promotion; among other policies. Test scores in core subjects like reading and math improved over the decade by up to 25%. By contrast, according to the study, overall test scores for Rhode Island students improved just 5% during the same time period.

Among other findings, the study’s authors say the gains made by the low income and minority students serve to debunk the conventional view that the socioeconomic backgrounds of students is the central factor in chronically low performing urban schools.

 Rhode Island Tea Party

Our children are our future–are we valuing them properly?

If the essential goal of educating our young children is to help them think more clearly and logically at a young age, to give them a strong foundation in reading, writing and math–and more, to help them attain a love of learning, then why are we failing so many in RI? Why are their reading scores so low, especially when we are pouring money into educating them? Is it because of poverty, or the inability of some students to learn, or lack of parent involvement, or lack of “resources”, or language barriers? Or is there something more insidious and fundamental at play? Is our system based on protecting special interests (e.g., tenured teachers, union bosses, legislators) at the cost of a stellar education?

By contrasting Florida’s free market oriented reforms with RI’s entrenched statist system, “Closing the Gap” offers striking evidence that that RI has failed. And more importantly, it offers specific solutions: a move toward freer markets in education (e.g., school choice), justice and transparency (grading schools and school districts from A-F, rewarding better teachers–merit pay, not seniority, i.e., incentivizing success), a ban on faking success (no social promotion, no automatic tenure), cutting bureaucratic red-tape in teacher credentialing, exploring virtual education, raising academic expectations by setting more rigorous standards.

In the future, we have the opportunity to read newspaper stories about more and more of our children succeeding in school. We can make that happen if parents and concerned citizens and politicians are willing to challenge the current system, which fails so many young children, and learn from the Florida situation. The facts tell an encouraging story.


 National Education Association of Rhode Island (Larry Purtell, President)

“We do need to continue in Rhode Island to diligently work to reach out and make sure all children are educated to the highest level possible, but this is nothing more than the same rhetoric from the same people with the same agenda.”; Alexander M. Sidorkin, Education Reform Examiner



CLOSING THE GAP Education Study Released

Go to: CLOSING THE GAP Home Page

Testimony of Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Senor Policy Advisor, to The Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education. Preview of CLOSING THE GAP education study released on January 9. The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity submitted written testimony to the Board of Regents at their January 5 meeting regarding elementary and secondary eduacation. Giovanni Cicione, senior policy advisor to the Center, expects to be able to testify verbally at the next meeting of the Regents on Janauary 19.

The full testimony (below), also served as a preview of a major study the Center for Freedom, entitled, Closing The Gap. Visit the Closing The Gap home page here.


Testimony of Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Senor Policy Advisor, Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity

To The Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education (submitted January 5, 2012)

Good Afternoon. My name is Giovanni Cicione and I am the Senior Policy Advisor for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. The Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, dedicated to providing concerned citizens, the media, and public officials with policy research and data, and advancing free-market solutions to public policy issues in the state.

Or intent in coming before you today was not specifically to weigh in on the debate regarding Achievement First. Rather, we intended to preview and share a study we will be releasing next week entitled “Closing the Gap.” This study, which I will reference n more detail in a moment, looks at reforms made in the state of Florida over 10 years ago that led to dramatic gains in educational achievement for some of the most challenged student populations in that state.

What is interesting from the perspective of today’s debate, is that much of the success in Florida over the last decade can be directly tied to the type of approaches advocated by Achievement First and similar organizations. And while I’m sure you will hear many criticisms of the mayoral academy model from the special interests who oppose these reforms, what our study demonstrates is that when these and other related reforms are put in place not only do you see overall gains, but that those gains are strongest amongst those students who are the most disadvantaged.

Non-English speakers, students who rely on free or reduced lunch support, and students with disabilities saw the most dramatic gains under the Florida reform model.

Our study will provide more detail and specific data when it’s released next week, but I’d like to highlight the key findings and recommendations.

Closing the Gap shows, for example, that Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students have improved so dramatically that they now perform at the same achievement as the average for all Rhode Island fourth-graders. Both states started out equally far behind, but Rhode Island students’ average score has improved by only (5) points since 1998, while Florida’s Hispanic students have improved by (25) points; equivalent to two-and-a-half grade levels’ of progress.

Imagine the impact if we had taken the same route ten years ago, when our own Hispanic children now preparing to graduate were just starting their grade school careers. Hispanics are the largest minority group in Rhode Island and represent 11 percent of the total population and 19 percent of the public school population. Unfortunately, Rhode Island Hispanic students have among the lowest (NAEP) scores in the nation in both math and reading. Closing the Gap shows the way to improve this ranking.

Closing the Gap cites reforms in evaluations and accountability for teachers and schools in the areas of transparency and parental choice. The study documents how the latest NAEP results strengthen the argument that Florida-style reforms should be considered for Rhode Island.

Closing the Gap explains in some detail why Florida’s reforms, while benefiting all students, have been especially beneficial to disadvantaged students. The study details the key components of Florida’s K-12 education reform strategy and makes specific policy recommendations that will provide more young Rhode Islanders with an opportunity to succeed in school and enhance their chance of pursuing and achieving their dreams.

Florida’s reform model includes:

• Public-school choice for students in low-performing public schools.

• Private-school choice for students with special-needs.

• An open door for new charter schools.

• Selective and effective se of virtual education.

• Performance pay to reward teachers who achieve student gains.

• Alternative teacher certification.

• A through F grading of all public schools; and

• A ban on social promotion.

These reforms were passed by a bi-partisan group of political leaders who faced many of the same criticisms you will hear today. They did it without empirical evidence that it would work, but they also new that to do nothing would be to condemn students to failure.

Your choice is a much easier one. I’d like to ask you to consider something – think for a moment about what you will say to a first grade student today who comes back here in a dozen years if you don’t adopt these types of reforms? What will you tell that student who asks why she is graduating with a 9th grade education after twelve years of instruction? Today you could perhaps claim that you didn’t’ know if the reforms would work, but Florida has shown us that they do – we cannot plead ignorance or even uncertainty when that child stands before you.

Why does Rhode Island suffer from the largest achievement gap among Hispanic students and other with unique challenges? Is it failing schools, a lack of funding, or is it something much worse … the soft bigotry of low expectations?

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity believes that every student can succeed, and that the only true disadvantage or disability is a rigid and moribund system that stacks the deck against them.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.


Task Force Report used to create Municipal Pension & Debt Map

Based in-part on the work of the Mercatus Center, which published a detailed report on the true scope of the unfunded pension liabilities facing Rhode Island municipalities as part of the national pension Task Force that our RI Center for Freedom formed, a local organization created an online, interactive map that allows you to click on each of Rhode Island’s cities and town to view information about their finances, people, government, and taxes.

Thanks to Richard C Young and EJ Smith for this compelling tool.

Government Edges into Preschool… Expensively

As part of government’s effort to edge its way into the preschool market, and the federal government’s slow usurpation of education more generally, Rhode Island will be receiving $12.5 million annually over the next four years.  As it typically goes with government, proponents begin with the positive objective that they seek to pursue and give the impression that the money simply appears for the purpose.  Not surprisingly, though, much of the money won’t go toward services actually provided to children.  According to the Providence Journal:

The grant requires that states adopt an ambitious plan to expand access for disadvantaged students and to develop high-quality standards across the fragmented early childhood education landscape. A significant portion of the grant will be used to train early childhood educators in these more rigorous standards.

That is, taxpayer dollars will be funding bureaucrats’ plans for how government can claim ownership of preschool and adult-education providers’ services for to teachers (for which, one can speculate, the latter will be compensated, as well).  Never mentioned in such stories is any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

Journalist Jennifer Jordan provides some context for government spending on preschool in a subsequent description of a program already existing in Rhode Island:

This year, 108 students are being served. The state’s education-financing formula calls for $1 million to be added each year for 10 years. Next year, the Board of Regents has re quested $1.45 million for six classrooms of 18 students.

A little bit of math shows that to be $242,000 per classroom and $13,426 per student.  For a “pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.”  Speaking from experience, that’s roughly double the cost to parents of excellent programs available from private providers.  One can drape all variety of good intentions around specific programs, but from an economic-theory perspective, inexplicably high costs are about what one would expect when an organization is able to pay itself for services using money confiscated under force of law.

Little State, Big Spending

In yet more news to file under thank-god-for-pension-reform-but, the Providence Business News reports that while Rhode Island public sector spending is surprisingly lower than the U.S. average, medicare costs are significantly above national averages.

Medicaid-related vendor payments accounted for more than 20 percent of state and local government spending in Rhode Island from 1999 to 2009, significantly more than the rest of the country, according to a new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

“The report from the budget watchdog group found public-sector spending – by both state and municipal government – in the Ocean State rose 68.9 percent over the 10-year period to $8.9 billion per year, a smaller increase than the 77 percent jump nationally.”

While the somewhat slower growth than the national average is welcome, it’s hardly good news. It goes without saying that there aren’t 68.9 percent more Rhode Islanders today compared to ten years ago, and it’s probably fair to say that the Ocean State isn’t 68.9 percent — or half of that? — better or more efficient than it was in 2001. So what justifies the public sector explosion?

And the faster-than-national-average expansion of Medicaid-related payments is definitely a worrying sign. Controlling Medicare and Medicaid cost growth is a major issue nationally anyway, so for Rhode Island to be spending a significantly greater proportion of public funding than the rest of the country – especially in light of the flexibility that was supposed to come with the first in the nation Medicaid global waiver and block grant – indicates that the system here is particularly broken.

Pension reform was a major and necessary step, but it’s becoming clearer day by day that there’s still so much more to be done. Rhode Island may have averted one major crisis in the making, but it doesn’t mean that we’re anywhere out of the woods. Beyond Pensions, Rhode Island still must grapple with its systemic uncompetitiveness.


How Easily the Hybrid Pension Reform Can Be Undone

In his Sunday Providence Journal column, Assistant Managing Editor for business, commerce, and consumer issues John Kostrzewa describes the business community’s enthusiasm for the just-passed pension reform:

There was a lot to celebrate because many of the 700 businessmen and women who attended the [Providence Chamber of Commerce] dinner had contributed their money, influence and support to back the reform effort that had been heavily opposed by the labor unions.  It showed that when the business lobby is committed, organized and focused, it can be a potent force in setting public policy.

Myself, I continue to be skeptical that the field broke so cleanly into opposing sides.  That is, I’m not so sure Business faced Union and won a battle, with pension reform.

A few years ago, during teacher contract negotiations in Tiverton, National Education Association Rhode Island Assistant Executive Director Patrick Crowley put forward a proposal for health savings accounts — which are typically seen as key components of serious conservative healthcare reform plans.  A close look revealed that the union’s plan was constructed in such a way that the reform would hardly have saved money, yet it enabled negotiators to proclaim savings with the health benefit so as to argue for other increases, as in salary.  The lesson that stuck with me is that unions are willing to seize on the trappings of reform, but they’ll, first, force reformers to negotiate something, like raises, in order to insert their favored concepts into a contract and, second, work to dilute the effect of the reform of itself.

General Treasurer Gina Raimondo has successfully brought the notion of a defined-benefit/defined-contribution hybrid to the Rhode Island public-sector pension system, but reformers arguably didn’t do enough to ensure that it would be a strong win, and it’s beginning to look like other concessions made in the process may very well outweigh the improvements.  The new 5.5% privatization tax that the General Assembly imposed on state (and perhaps municipal) government was likely a mere first taste, especially if NEA-RI President Larry Purtill’s exhortations are any indication.

The quantitative question that naturally follows such predictions is:  Just how much would it take to undo the benefit of a reform like the hybrid system?  Well, for starters, I’ve already pointed out that the hybrid benefit is more costly than the defined-benefit system alone, if the actuaries’ investment assumptions hold.  Regardless of investment returns, however, it won’t take much at all for the unions to negate the “hit” that they’ve taken with the hybrid through advantageous policies in other areas.  If legislators and other government officials seek to mitigate the backlash from the unions by offering such juicy concession prizes as the privatization tax and binding arbitration, the reform could easily turn into a recidivistic windfall for public employees.

For example, if we assume that the average teacher will work for 25 years and retire for 20, the unions will only have to increase the average annual raise by 2.76% to leave their members retiring with exactly the same defined-benefit pension.  In other words, if teachers’ typical annual raise is 4% (which is the state actuaries’ assumption) and the unions bring that up to 6.76%, a 25-year teacher will see no change in defined-benefit pension whatsoever.

For state workers, the necessary delta is 2.73%.  For teachers and state workers who stay on the job for 30 years, which will be much more common, given increases in minimum retirement age, the delta to erase the effects of the hybrid reform is 2.5%.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, obviously.  Most important, if the unions manage to procure higher salaries for members, then the reward far exceeds the increased pensions, as employees bring home more money each year of work.  The hybrid plan also lowered the amount that employees contribute to defined-benefit portion of their retirements, which provides 5% or more in annual savings for them, and added a 1%-of-payroll employer payment into the defined-contribution portion, which amounts to a 1% raise deposited into a high-yield savings account for future use.  On the other end of the scale, one has to factor in variations in cost of living adjustments (COLAs) based on the size of base pensions.

Taking all of those variables into account, a teacher who works for 25 years and retires for 20 only needs his or her annual raise to be 0.89% higher than it otherwise would have been in order to completely eliminate the adverse effects of the hybrid reform over the course of his or her career and retirement.  If he or she works for 30 years and retires for 15, that delta drops to 0.68%.  For state workers, the parallel numbers are 0.92% and 0.71%.

That is, if the expected 4% annual increase in teacher pay becomes 4.68% based on concessions to the unions, the combined compensation from salary and pension will exactly equal what it would have been had the hybrid reform and the concessions never occurred.  Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the five percent of salary that employees will be putting in their defined-contribution plans or the investment yields from those plans, from both employee and employer contributions.

Of course, it will be all but impossible to tell whether this effect was actually obtained.  The economy might force the average annual raise for state workers down to 3%, but if, for example, the privatization tax prevents the pressure of competition from driving it down to 2%, then public workers would have ultimately benefited from wave of reform.  (And, yes, it’s tautological to note that taxpayers would have lost out.)

If the business community really does have pull at the State House, then it ought to apply its strength to resist any additional giveaways that legislators are planning to offer unions to buy forgiveness of their pension votes.  Next it ought to strive to repeal the privatization tax as well as the provision of the pension reform that puts future adjustments in the hands of the union-heavy Retirement Board.  Otherwise, any celebrations over the General Assembly’s 2011 special session on pensions will soon prove unjustified.

Pension Reform Bait-and-Switch to Block Broader Reform

An observer of Rhode Island’s political scene needn’t be excessively cynical to be a bit disconcerted by the unity of purpose displayed toward the end of the General Assembly’s special session on pension reform.  Leading Democrats, including some who double as labor union leaders, were onboard.  The union-backed Independent governor, Lincoln Chafee, was onboard.  From the opposing camp, various good government groups were onboard, almost in unity.

Even the ostensibly neutral media joined the parade.  After an overwhelming vote passed the legislation, the Providence Journal editorial board dubbed the achievement as “Rhode Island rescued.”  An analysis by WPRI’s Ted Nesi called the bill, “an extraordinary — and unlikely — achievement for the three leaders most responsible for shepherding it through.”

Two questions arise from this sea of consensus:  Is it really plausible that the combination of budgetary crisis and strong leadership changed the legislature’s stripes so dramatically as to make it a national example of forward-thinking government?  And should we worry that the issue’s momentum carried forward catches and promises that will ultimately harm the state?

An initial answer comes in the form of the last-minute amendment creating a 5.5% “assessment” (aka “tax”) on privatized workers.

A Long-Running Union/Assembly Goal

Back in 2007, as June 15 turned into June 16, Rep. Charlene Lima (D, Cranston) slipped a midnight amendment into the budget bill that would pass before the sun came up.  The amendment created RI General Law 42-148, “Privatization of State Services,” which requires an elaborate review and appeals process before the state can use private contractors for services previously performed by unionized public employees.

The legislation made its appearance in the midst of efforts by Governor Donald Carcieri to address the state’s structural deficits through such privatization, and within a week, his efforts ended.  As Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal put it, “Bringing competition to the delivery of state services is one of the key ways Rhode Island will be able to fix its budget problems.  Unfortunately, it appears that solution is off the table now.”  The final nail came a year later, when the state Supreme Court declined to review the constitutionality of the law.

In essence, the legislation required a cost-comparison analysis that would pit the private contractor’s bid (plus all remaining inside and transition costs) against an optimistic “new cost estimate” from union workers, “reflecting any innovations that they could incorporate into the work performance standards.”  (Not that the law required them ever to implement the innovations.)  In order to win the contest, the outside vendor would have to offer “substantial” savings; in her initial legislation, Lima used the margin of 10%.  State workers and their unions could then use an appeals process to delay the contract award for months.

Fast forward to November 2011.  As the pension reform legislation moved toward stunningly smooth passage, the following language slipped into the mix, amidst a variety of “technical amendments”:

42-149-3.1. Assessment on state expenditures for non-state employee services. – Whenever a department, commission, board, council, agency or public corporation incurs expenditures through contracts or agreements by which a nongovernmental person or entity agrees to provide services which are substantially similar to and in lieu of services hereto fore provided, in whole or in part, by regular employees of the department, commission, board, council, agency or public corporation covered by chapter 36-8, those expenditures shall be subject to an assessment equal to five and one-half percent (5.5%) of the cost of the service. That assessment shall be paid to the retirement system on a quarterly basis in accordance with subsection 36-10-2(e).

Government leaders are quite open about the intention behind the new statute.  House Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) has acknowledged it as an effort to prevent future governors from returning to Carcieri’s methods.  Richard Licht, director of the Department of Administration for the current governor, told WRNI’s Ian Donnis that “the purpose of it” is to “curb the state’s use of outside employees.”

Whatever “substantial savings” might have meant under Lima’s legislation, they now must overcome an additional 5.5% handicap, and as the state’s structural deficits continue, government officials will be nudged even more strongly toward tax increases and/or service reductions.

A Tax for the Pension System

The secondary effect of the 5.5% provision is, obviously, to introduce another taxpayer stream of revenue for the pension system.  The amount that state entities spend on contract employees is not readily available, but Licht puts the annual revenue to the pension system at a projected $2 million (though he admits that no thorough analysis has been performed).

In the context of the pension reform, however, dollar amounts have typically been described in terms of the amortization period.  That is, in the 25 years that it is supposed to take for the pension system to be sufficiently funded, this last-minute money grab will amount to around $50 million paid from the state’s general revenue.

Or Something More Insidious?

Whatever the dollar amounts, a key difference between this latest scheme and the Lima amendment should not be overlooked.  The definitions section of the 2007 law defines “in-house” services as those involving “in-house state programs and employees.”  Section 3 of the law explicitly begins the review process “prior to the closure, consolidation or privatization of any state facility, function or program.”

The new law is not so carefully limited.  It describes the included services as those provided by employees covered by RI General Law 36-8, which establishes the state pension system.  That system is not limited to state workers.  Indeed, subsection 36-10-2(e), which the new law cites for the process of payment, refers to state contributions to teachers’ pensions, as well as state workers’ pensions.  Depending how enthusiastically the various parties wish to press their advantage, it may turn out that the 5.5% assessment applies to contractors hired to perform any service “similar to or in lieu of” any employee in the pension system, whether employed by the state, a school district, or a municipality.

The most financially and politically significant example that comes to mind is that of charter schools.  In general, teachers in such schools are required by state law to participate in the retirement system, but mayoral academies can opt out.  If they do so, will their budgets be subjected to the 5.5% assessment?  Given the fact that the last-minute amendment was not thoroughly vetted before submittal nor thoroughly debated before being voted into law, that may very well be the case.

Pension Reform as a Barrier to Broader Reform

I’ve been arguing against General Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s pension reform on the grounds that it (1) is insufficient by several orders of magnitude to solve the entire problem, and (2) puts future adjustments and reforms fully in the hands of the state Retirement Board, with seven of 15 members appointed directly by unions.  Even when agreeing, supporters of the legislation have proclaimed it as a huge step in the right direction.

The privatization tax may be an early indication that crisis and leadership only yielded a quarter step forward, soon to be followed by four steps back.  At the very least, the state has one less tool to rein in its structural deficits, and the restriction may apply to any other government entity in Rhode Island that participates in the pension system but wishes to explore privatization.

The scope may broaden even more (and more definitively) if reform of municipal pensions brings additional public employees within reach of General Law 36-8.  And reformers would do well also to ponder the relevance of this latest General Assembly bait-and-switch while advocating for another of their favorite notions:  consolidation.  Bringing local services under the purview of state employees will virtually ensure that they remain forever “in house.”

Beyond all of this speculation is the likelihood that the amendment was just the first surprise that helped buy such broad assent and smooth passage for the bill.  It isn’t cynical at all to observe that, whatever else it might be, Rhode Island’s entrenched establishment is sufficiently savvy to see when basic math threatens the application of reality to unrealistic benefits and to make the best of reforms… and with a vengeance.

Task Force ProJo OpEd: Alarming Outlook for Municipalities, even w/ Pension Reform

As part of our Center’s special pension Task Force, Eileen Norcross from the Mercatus Center, followed up on her recent report by publising an OpEd that appeared in the Nov. 17 Providence Journal, and co-authored by Benjamin VanMetre.


Even with reform, R.I. outlook alarming


FALLS CHURCH, Va. – The heated debate over how to fix Rhode Island’s pension system — with votes in the General Assembly scheduled for today — begins with a basic question: Just how big are public-sector pension promises?

According to the state’s numbers, Rhode Island is facing a daunting $9.3 billion in unfunded liabilities, and there is no money set aside to pay for them. Unfortunately, like all public-sector plans in the country, the picture is actually much worse. Rhode Island’s unfunded pension liabilities are nearly twice that size, closer to $18 billion — and that’s on the lower end of estimates.

Rhode Island, like many other state and local governments, misses the mark on calculating its pension liabilities because they are being valued as though they are risky bets instead of a government-guaranteed benefit.

This miscalculation comes from poor government accounting rules …

Read the entire ProJo OpEd here