Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Turn Cameras Off for this Streaker

A few times each season, some chucklehead decides to jump onto the field and try to make himself famous with a streak across Fenway’s expansive green lawn. Never seen this? That’s because the TV cameras don’t show the streaker. In an effort to deter fame-seekers, the cameras will show anything but the distraction on the field.

We have streakers in politics too – so called “nuisance candidates” who run for office every cycle, never put together a legitimate campaign operation but then complain when they aren’t included in televised debates. They can be a particular annoyance to those working with serious candidates, but the truth is that if they qualify for the ballot, they have every right to be in the race and the individual media outlets can make a judgment whether to include them in their campaign coverage.

Today I write to ask – really to beg – the media to ignore a far more vile streaker that is due to visit Rhode Island on August 1st. Readers may be familiar with an organization called the Westboro Baptist “Church” (WBC) that has scheduled a protest at the State House to oppose the first day that same-sex couples can legally marry in Rhode Island.

I put “church” in quotes because they are not an affiliated Baptist church, they are a hate group that has figured out that our Constitution protects them – and if they pretend to be a “church” there are tax advantages too. They are – at most – a few dozen people from a Kansas family that travels the country to stage protests at the funerals of soldiers who have died in combat as part of their “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” campaign and put out press releases and tweets that celebrate other people’s misfortunes. Their assertion is that everything negative in the world is a result of God’s displeasure with same-sex couples. Their most recent hateful spewings include, “Thank God woman died while riding roller coaster in Texas”, “Thank God Glee star struck dead” and “Thank God for air quality advisory in New York!” So, in addition to being anti-American, anti-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-Islam, anti-Hindu and anti-Judaism, the WBC is apparently anti-breathable air as well.

While state and federal laws were written specifically to prohibit the WBC from protesting at funerals, the truth is that our Constitution protects free speech and our right to assemble.  What does a society like ours do when we find that the very things that we hold most dear allow organizations like the WBC to spread their hatred and hurt so many innocent people? Counter-protests give them an inflated sense of importance and create a legitimate news story. Our most powerful weapon is our complete and utter disinterest in their protest.

So please (begging here) if you are a member of the media, please don’t give them any opportunity to showcase their hate speech. While we’d like to see them leave Rhode Island like a streaker leaves Fenway (in zip cuffs), instead we should give them the kind of respect they deserve by pretending they were never here at all.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rhode Island Job Opening: LEADER

Halfway through the 2013 season and there’s a stunner atop the AL East. No one could have predicted these standings by looking at the roster on Opening Day or reflecting on the lost season of Bobby V. This team is not as entertaining as the “idiots” of 2004, but the between the stars, the veterans and the rookies, they’ve figured out a way to play great baseball and lead the league. Their secret: leadership. I don’t pretend to know what happens in the locker room or on the team plane, but when David Ortiz took the microphone on April 20 and told the terrorists (in very clear, obscene English) that they didn’t scare him, he not only puffed out the chest of Boston Strong, he showed his team what a leader does in a time of crisis. A leader steps up and shows the team a path forward.

So who will step up to the mike for Rhode Island? I’m not suggesting that we need a major disaster in Rhode Island to get our house in order, but we are desperate for leadership. It’s becoming clear that Governor Chafee is not the contemplative, independent person that a bit more than a third of us voted for – and it’s not clear at this point if his ethical compass is even pointed in the right direction. In the last two weeks alone, a member of his staff received a $60,000 raise and he’s offered the $200,000 Commissioner of Higher Education job to a crony who a. doesn’t appear to have any qualifications to oversee our colleges and universities and b. according to an Ethics Commission regulations is not eligible for the job because she chairs the Board of Education which (that’s right) hires the Commissioner of Higher Education. I’m just not sure we can “Trust Chafee” to do anything besides make bad decisions.

It’s clear that we can’t rely on the General Assembly to define a path forward either. We’re coming off of a tumultuous legislative session that saw additional burdens being placed on Rhode Island businesses and a mixed record on economic development initiatives.  Legislators voted to allow daycare workers to unionize and for an expansion of TDI - both competitiveness killers.  The Sakonnet River Bridge toll was backroom politics at its worst. If our East Bay legislators were as double-crossed as it seems they were, I hope they will introduce a bill to assess a user fee for snow removal based on the inches of snow a town gets in a year. If we have to bear the burden for maintaining the bridges, others should have to pay more to maintain their community roads with exceptional snow removal needs. Why should I pay to plow Route 5? I never use it.

We cannot continue the path we are on. Our jobs numbers are improving but primarily because job seekers have left the state or just stopped looking. While we did manage to claw up one spot in the CNBC “Top States for Business” rankings to 49th, there’s no pride in being one notch ahead of Hawaii and one below West Virginia. We need leaders who can drive policy changes that matter and don’t waste effort or political capital on frivolous legislation.

There’s only 81 games left in the regular season but we’ve got more than a year to go before the “Help Wanted” signs are up for every elected position in the State House. Let’s pledge to make good choices. After all, this is our “bleeping” state and it’s time that we dictate what happens here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Score a $75 Million Error

Under the category of "better late than never," I'm realizing that this didn't get posted when I wrote it. Whoops. It did run in East Bay Life on July 3rd.

I am sure that Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman is a bit envious of Rhode Island right now. In 2010, our General Assembly made a $75 million error with 38 Studios and former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. In 2007, the Yankees made an even bigger mistake by giving Alex Rodriguez a $275 million 10-year contract - and that doesn’t even include the massages and wardrobe allowance he must require.

Of course the Yankees have a steady stream of revenue to cover up for their mistake while the General Assembly has to ask taxpayers to cover their debt. Up at the State House, there has been endless “will they or won’t they” speculation when it comes to budgeting for the $2.5 million interest payment due for the 38 Studios debacle. As of this writing the payment is in the budget the House, but it is likely to be the source of ongoing debate in the State House every budget cycle until the debt is paid. 38 Studios is not going away anytime soon.

I think we can all agree that it’s a terrible use of taxpayer dollars to pay $2.5 million and get nothing in return. I’m chalking it up to the price we pay for being a lazy electorate and holding so few elected officials accountable each year.

Whether you believe one state representative who said he was tricked into voting for the $75 million increase in the loan guarantee program or not, the truth is that only one legislator of 113 voted against funding. Does this strike anyone else as particularly odd in a state where everyone seems to have a hand out? Is this particularly unusual in politics where every Member of Congress works hard to “bring home the bacon” and get pet projects financed in his or her district? Is it strange that in a time of serious belt tightening, 112 legislators wouldn’t be concerned about where the $75 million would come from and where it would go? Sadly, in our hierarchical General Assembly, it’s not unusual for “leadership” bills to fly through, so the 38 Studios debate should be less about paying the money back (which we must do to preserve our bond rating) and more about making sure that it never happens again.

In my mind there are two safeguards that would prevent another 38 Studios debacle. First, we have a part-time legislature yet they create a more-than-full-time workload at the end of each session. On the final night, deals are cut and amendments fly fast and furious so it becomes physically impossible to read everything before being asked to vote. Other legislatures have deadlines for bill submission and deadlines for action, preventing the middle of the night free-for-all that happens on Smith Hill every year. If the General Assembly adopted a firm calendar, not only would legislators have no excuse for not understanding what they’re voting on, but perhaps we’d cut down on some of the just-plain-dumb bills preventing dogs riding from in the front seat and enshrining calamari as the official state appetizer.

The second solution is in the hands of the electorate. We allow far too many seats to be uncontested each election. Every incumbent should be challenged to make him or her reconnect with constituents and to be accountable for his or her record. Dozens of legislators are given a free pass every cycle, giving them no one to answer to and no forum to debate their votes. This one is tough since running for office – especially the General Assembly – is not a career ambition for most of us, but truly a public service. If you are inclined to run – please throw your hat in the ring and give your community the benefit of having a choice on election day and the ability to question your legislator beforehand. Fewer legislators are likely to take a bad vote or just follow the leader if they think it will cost them at election time.

So how do we score the 38 Studios debacle? I think it’s an E for everyone. The General Assembly will only be better if we hold them accountable for their actions and that’s the responsibility of every voter.