Thursday, December 19, 2013

Next Up: Better Run Elections

These last weeks of December are generally a quiet time in both politics and baseball – giving me the opportunity to tune out, make some cookies and wrap presents. Red Sox tickets are on sale and it looks like they will open spring training with a team that looks remarkably similar to the 2013 World Champions. We can only hope they play as well.

This time next year, Rhode Islanders will be familiarizing themselves with a new lineup at the state house as all the general officers – except Attorney General Kilmartin – are moving on and a new team will be sworn in. As an electoral nerd, I am most interested in who wins the wide-open Secretary of State’s race and whether that person will make any effort to address some of the blatant and embarrassing issues with our elections process.

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed a voter ID law and while some have decried it as anti-someone, I think that if I need an ID to go to the movies, buy alcohol, cash a check, get a library card, sign a lease and receive government benefits, then flashing it to vote should not be a problem. If nothing else, the voter ID law prevents the “black helicopter” crowd from talking about busloads of people driving from polling station to polling station to vote illegally. It likely never happened and with an enforceable voter ID law, the allegation is more easily disregarded.

The challenge for the next Secretary of State is making sure that polls are set up to accommodate ID checks without slowing the line. Two things spring to mind - we need to recruit young civic-minded poll workers and we need to be more aggressive in promoting “no excuse” mail ballots. That’s right folks – you don’t need to wait until election day to cast your ballot and not very many people know about it. While Rhode Island lags behind 32 other U.S. states that allow for in-person early voting, you can still request a mail ballot – and you don’t even need a note from your mother. By making a conscious effort to recruit poll workers as soon as possible and educate people about the no-excuse mail ballot option, the next Secretary of State has the ability to make election day run smoothly.

However I think the most egregious issue with Rhode Island elections is that our primary date is late – so late in fact that it could violate ederal law under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) that requires ballots for uniformed services and overseas citizen voters be sent at least 45 days prior to a general election for Federal office. While there are actually 55 days between the primary and the general election in 2014, that’s barely enough time to get the ballots out the door – particularly if multiple recounts are required or there is a problem at the printer. Rather than just move the date back a few weeks, there’s a mad rush to get the ballots to the troops in time. As a military spouse, I find it disturbing that our elected officials are more concerned about the inconvenience of showing an ID at a polling place than making sure tour front line troops have the ability to exercise a right they are fighting for on our behalf.

Why not just move the date? It’s one of those things that fall under “incumbent protection.”  Once the dust from the primary settles, a challenger barely has enough time to mount a serious campaign, greatly favoring the person with existing name ID. And make no mistake – this is another area where Rhode Island is last: September 9th is the latest primary date set for 2014. Bottom line - we need a Secretary of State who will step up and advocate for an earlier primary.

So in this quiet time for baseball and politics, take a moment to take a close look at the players – and candidates on the roster for 2014. Unlike the Red Sox, Rhode Island has some important roles to fill and we need to make sure that the candidates are up for the job.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Learning from Bad Deals

Like many Red Sox fans, I’m a bit sad to see one of my favorite players, Jacoby Ellbury, go to the Yankees.  However I’ll admit that news of his seven-year, $153 million contract actually provided a little relief since I will not have to witness his inevitable decline firsthand. With several long stints on the DL in his best years, I expect that he’ll be less durable as he gets older, making the last several years of his contract seem like wasted money. It’s appropriate that he’s in New York since paying old players for past performance seems to be part of the “Yankee way” and I’m happy that the Steinbrenners want to compensate him for the two World Series trophies he helped bring to Boston.

It’s worth noting that the Yankees aren’t the only ones dishing out the dough. Robinson Cano’s ridiculous $240 million ten-year contract with the Mariners shows that baseball teams haven’t learned that these obscene contracts just don’t work out and that putting their “eggs in one basket” is not a prudent path. So when fans like me gripe about wasting money, even though it’s not “our” money, it means we’re frustrated that our teams have not learned any lessons about long-term, big money contracts. I’m hearing the same frustration about Rhode Island’s disastrous, long-term, big money deal with a famous baseball player – and in this case, it is “our” money.

Most readers know the basic facts on the 38 Studios loan guaranty that brought the ailing video game firm to Rhode Island and left taxpayers holding the bag. A generation ago, the credit union crisis rocked Rhode Island and Governor Bruce Sundlun and the General Assembly created a commission to independently investigate what went wrong. Republican State Senator Dawson Hodgson is urging his colleagues to launch a similar investigation into 38 Studios and seems to be getting the silent treatment in response. Is it because many of the legislators voted in favor of financing the deal? Or worse yet, voted in favor of it, but didn’t know what they were voting for? Is there something even worse and we’re looking at a “full Rhode Island’ where someone’s cousin made money because her boyfriend knew a guy who worked with his sister on the deal? Who knows? We certainly won’t until it is appropriately examined.

While I think it’s important to investigate to examine the deal for malfeasance and (once again) embrace a “never again” approach for insider deals, I think it’s even more important to make sure that we have the opportunity to learn from the 38 Studios deal so we don’t cripple our economic development efforts going forward. There is an important role for public investment and partnerships with private companies, but until we know what happened with 38 Studios, the mere mention of that debacle ends any discussion about serious economic development efforts. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves and hamstringing future economic development with a “never again” strategy on public-private partnerships while our neighbors to the north and west attract businesses and give incentives all the time.  All because we don’t know what really happened with 38 Studios and really don’t want to talk about it. This is just dumb.

Baseball executives have an amazing array of statistics at their fingertips when they make a trade and invest in a player. Fans of “Moneyball” know that there are sabermetrics far more useful than old school stats like RBIs and ERA. WAR (wins above replacement) shows how a combination of a players’ skills makes him more valuable than another player at his position. Having these pieces of information allows teams to justify bringing Ellsbury (WAR 5.8 in 2013) and Cano (WAR 6.0 in 2013) on board for ridiculous amounts of money. Here in Rhode Island we need to amass all the information we can to make good decisions in economic development – and future leadership. Otherwise we’ll never be able to compete with our neighbors or know when to replace declining players with new candidates with better skills for the job. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

No Place for Boo Birds

This fall I was in Milwaukee for a business trip and spotted Daniel Bard walking through the hotel lobby. When I said his name, he looked up, obviously surprised that he would be recognized – and likely horrified that a middle-aged woman was so eager to meet him. For those that don’t remember him, Daniel Bard was a top Red Sox pitching prospect – and lights-out pitcher – until he and the rest of the team imploded in September of 2011.  In 2012 they tried to make him into a starter and he spent much of 2013 in Portland, presumably trying to get his groove back. I told him I was a Red Sox fan and he looked at the carpet, saying that he didn’t play for them anymore.

Bard seemed surprised that I knew he’s just been signed by Theo Epstein and the Cubs (and in Milwaukee for the game against the Brewers) and perked up saying he was glad that Theo picked him up. We had a short conversation about his time with the Sox – I thanked him for his many good innings and he was somewhat apologetic about his struggles. I was struck by how young he seemed and how he was clearly embarrassed by his poor performance with the Red Sox. He was not the arrogant and cocky professional baseball player I imagined from TV – he’s just a nice kid trying to pitch like he knows he can. How hurt he would be to know that someone started a “Daniel Bard Sucks” message board online.

I thought of Daniel Bard last week when I read about the controversy surrounding John DePetro calling union protesters “wh__res.”  While Mr. DePetro certainly has a right to use whatever language he’d like – and clearly his employer, WPRO, continues to employ him so they must approve of his behavior, I think that kind of public name-calling is intolerable in a civilized society. Whether you agree with the anti-pension reform union protesters (and I do not) calling them obscene names does not further the debate – it just makes politics more divisive and more unpleasant.

Sadly this kind of name-calling – and the labeling that follows -- is common in politics and accomplishes nothing. Whether it’s calling all Republicans “right wing extremists” (a particularly humorous label in Rhode Island where many Republicans are to the left of leading Democrats on social issues) – or hearing those same anti-pension reform union protesters yell at Treasurer Gina Raimondo, name-calling is literally a waste of breath. We’ve watched the extreme partisanship in Washington lead to a sequester and a government shutdown – it’s time to turn the page, stop the name-calling and figure out what we can do across party lines and in spite of ideological differences.

And so next time you go to a baseball game and a player on your team makes an error or gives up a grand slam, try not to boo or yell “you s_ck!”  That player is someone's son, father or husband and they probably know that they just stunk it up.

Unless of course, you’re a Yankees fan – then go ahead and let them know how you feel.

And FWIW, Daniel Bard takes a great selfie!