Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Batter's Box Awaits

The Red Sox are going through a long period of stinking it up right now and looking less and less like champions and more like a team that got lucky in 2013. I was at a game last week and the boo birds and the grumblers were out. A woman behind me said, “oh my gawd, can’t he just hit the bawl??” While I felt the same frustration, I was also tempted to tell her that she might take a swing or two before her next heckling gig. Stepping into the batters box and seeing a 95 MPH fastball whiz by her head might make her choose different words — or keep her mouth shut entirely.

As I was sitting in the basement of State House last night in hour four of a House Finance Committee meeting I was watching the members of the committee listen intently to testimony on subjects ranging from bonds to the corporate tax rate. I will admit — a lot of it was boring — and I thought how difficult it would have been to stay engaged, appear interested and to ask thoughtful questions for even one session, forget about doing the same thing night after night and year after year.

The familiar refrain about Rhode Island is that we have a lot of problems and most of them can be blamed on decades of bad leadership and corruption in the State House. Talk radio provides endless anecdotes and entertainment to get ones blood boiling and very few reasonable solutions.  For better or worse, Rhode Island won’t change and the leadership won’t change unless new people are willing to step up to the plate and endure the extremely painful process of serving in state government. The stipend that legislators receive is small and the hours that they put in are long. I talked to one local legislator about how he did it and he said that he took his vacation time from work in hours-long chunks so that he could attend session and keep his full-time private sector job. How many of us are willing to forego our vacation time to sit through hours of monotone discussion in a windowless room? If you might be, then I’ve got a date for you: June 25, 2014.

June 25, 2014 is the last day for a candidate to decide to run for local, state or federal office in Rhode Island. Anyone who wants to run must file a declaration of candidacy by that date. In a lot of ways that day is more important than Election Day because some years, less than 50% of all incumbents have an opponent. I am a firm believer that every race should be contested and that every officeholder should be accountable for their decisions. This isn’t always an option in Rhode Island with so few people willing to step up.

So, if you follow politics and think team Rhode Island stinks, step up to the plate and run for office. And for those that prefer to heckle rather than consider the batter’s box, remember the windowless basement room and the four hours of testimony. Perhaps you’ll consider a more constructive way of contributing to the conversation.

Why bother to go to college if you refuse to learn?

While rivalries in sports are generally considered to be healthy and fun, I am beginning to think that our college campuses are teaching students to stifle differences rather than learn from them. From coast to coast we seem to be teaching a generation of Americans that “free speech” extends only to those with whom they agree. I am so disgusted with what has transpired on college campuses this year: several guest speakers either have been shouted down or been forced to cancel their appearances because students simply did not want to hear from them. It would be like Red Sox fans blocking the Yankee bus from pulling into the parking lot at Fenway to try and force a forfeit. What’s the point of joining a discussion if you only want to hear from people with whom you agree?

And let’s be clear — the people who have been the focus of the students’ ire are not skinheads or members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are world leaders like for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). And while the uber-liberal campuses of Smith and Haverford have been among the most high-profile schools to publicly reject their scheduled speakers, Rutgers University (the state university of New Jersey) was the campus that made Condoleezza Rice feel so unwelcome that she declined her invitation. Think about it — thousands of interested — not necessarily indoctrinated — students and their families have been robbed of the chance to hear from the first African-American female Secretary of State because a vocal minority did not agree with the politics of the administration for which she served. Shameful.

I blame some of this on what appears to be the most narcissistic generation of all time — and the problem seems to be as much local as national. Bryant President Machtley had to institute “no selfie” with him rule so that the conferring of degrees didn’t take 6 hours.   And how about the college kids who thought that the Mount Hope Bridge would be a good place for a full public display of affection? Did they tweet: “#busted #MtHopeBridge #300footclub”? But truly, it comes down to thinking that your opinion is the only one that matters. Last fall, New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, was heckled off the stage at Brown University because student groups had gotten themselves whipped up about alleged racial profiling in the New York Police Department. So rather than having the opportunity to learn about what steps the NYPD had taken to minimize profiling, they shouted down a public servant who has spent his life keeping their spoiled selves safe in his big bad city.

I also blame part of this self-absorbed, my-way-or-the-highway attitude on the mindset that appears to permeate Congress right now. Both Republicans and Democrats can take their share of the blame for finger-pointing across the aisle about why things don’t get done. There are few voices left in the middle and even fewer on each side who can see the damage that is done by a government by stalemate and are willing to put their political necks on the line to fix the problem. If nothing else, the navel-gazing college students of today will be perfectly suited to serve in Congress.

As a not-so-recent college graduate, I remember my graduation speaker (Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder D-CO) for being kind of boring and really predictable. Would her talk have been more memorable if she said something that got me fired up? Maybe. Would listening to someone with whom I disagreed been a fitting end to a challenging and academically rigorous experience? Definitely.

I’m clearly not qualified to give a commencement speech, but if I did, I’d tell students that you learn more from listening to your opponent than you ever will from your supporters and that leadership is not about getting people to do what you say, it’s about getting others to respect what you think — even if they disagree. Of course, I won’t wait for that invitation since I know they won’t like what I’d have to say.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

We didn't need instant replay on pension reform

For as infuriating as it has always been when an umpire blows a call, I am not sure I like instant replay. It changes the pace of the game and it takes away the intimacy of having the outcome of games decided on the field of play. It seems strange to have a decision on a key play made by a nameless, faceless person somewhere in New York (of all places) when the umpires have always had the final say on the field.

The process behind the now-failed pension reform settlements seems very much like instant replay gone awry. Full disclosure: I worked to promote pension reform and believe that the result served the best interests of all Rhode Islanders. Public employees’ pensions were preserved without further gutting funding for infrastructure, education and social services. Taxpayers took a hit, but the unfunded liability was cut by $3 billion, so the long-term savings are substantial. It seemed like Rhode Island had finally done something the right way. Months of informational sessions, dozens of hours of legislative hearings and endless briefings brought Rhode Island to a place where the General Assembly was able to take a tough vote and with a stroke of his pen, Governor Chafee signed the pension reform bill into law. It felt like good things were going to happen for Rhode Island — we led the nation in something besides unemployment and mental illness. This time there was no backroom deal, no secret meetings. The process had been open and transparent. Everyone played by the rules.

Just six months later, the public employee unions filed suit — as they had every right to — challenging the constitutionality of the statute with the argument that the existing law implied a contract and the statute could not be altered to change employee benefits. It was assigned to Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, a judge whose mother and uncle are drawing pensions and who — along with her son — will someday draw a pension too. As lawyers prepared to bring the case to trial, it appeared as if case law was on the side of the defense because the unions had often used legislation — instead of collective bargaining — to increase or change benefits over the years. As the court date drew nearer — and Judge Taft-Carter’s clear conflict of interest even landed on the front page of the New York Times — she abruptly changed the rules. She ordered mediation, instituted a gag order and started running up the state’s tab on mediation services.

We went from a fair, transparent process that complied with the Separation of Powers to a judicial tyranny where a conflicted, activist judge let a pile of lawyers — none of whom are elected — try to rewrite a law that only elected representatives have the legal right to change — all while running up more than $500,000 mediation bill. The rest of the parties in the case were left to scramble — the unions wanted to save face and didn’t want to have case law go against them. Treasurer Raimondo wanted to preserve her signature accomplishment without giving so little that she looked uncompromising. All of this while being forced to work under a gag order so that Judge Taft-Carter would never have to hear her work called into question and or fear that mistakes made in open court would get her decision overturned. Instead of seeing a blemish on her win-loss record, she simply decided to change the rules.

As disturbing as it was to see a judge corrupt our legislative process, at least the failure of the settlement puts the process back on track. It’s unfortunate that the judicial hijacking has forced a court date of September 15, a week after the Democratic primary for governor. Both sides want to be done by then — and the truth is that this case should have been heard long ago. Had it not been for the gross mismanagement by Judge Taft-Carter and the “only in Rhode Island” scenario where the politicians are on the side of transparency while the judicial system is contaminated with conflict, we might have gotten it right the first time — without the instant replay.

I'm in Georgia State of Mind

With a start like this one I always have to remind myself that the first few weeks of baseball season are always a bit ugly. The fans look cold, the players are rusty and there’s a lot of “who’s that guy?” directed at the newest players. By the end of the season, the kinks are gone, faces are familiar and questions have changed. I remember Curt Schilling wearing a “Why Not Us?” tee shirt in 2004 taunting the Bambino and his curse.

I had the same feeling of “Why Not Us” when I was making my way home through the incredibly busy Atlanta airport late last week. I was in Georgia for work and had attended a lunch with more than 100 small business owners hosted by the Minority Business Roundtable. Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal was one of the featured speakers and is up for reelection this year. After being absorbed in the Rhode Island governor’s race I was looking forward to hearing someone I’ve never heard before make a pitch as to why he deserved another term as his state’s chief executive officer.

I’m glad I was sitting down because as Governor Deal started talking about what is going on in Georgia I might have fainted with envy. Georgia was named the #1 state business climate by Site Selection magazine, their unemployment rate is 7% (which Deal announced apologetically saying “we can do better”) and he noted that they are doing everything they can to improve traffic, even getting rid of toll booths to ease congestion. Deal talked about how Georgia has rolled out the welcome mat for the film industry noting that small businesses are taking root around the endless number of films being shot in Georgia (currently more than 40) and that by providing tax credits and working collaboratively with the studios, the state is third — behind California and New York — for number of films. Through the Hope Scholarship (which is funded entirely through lottery revenues) Georgia will fully fund the training of anyone who wants to go into a high-demand field including long-distance truck driving, practical nursing, early childhood education, diesel mechanics, welding, health technology and general information technology. Georgia is booming — and its leaders are actively making good policy choices too.

While I was waiting for my flight home I looked up Rhode Island in Site Selection magazine and this was the headline that pops out of the magazine’s search engine as most relevant: “Rhode Island Settles Land Spat, Clears Way for $100M Dow, Fidelity Expansions.” I thought this a bit odd -- I didn’t remember there being an issue or talk of these expansions. I looked a little deeper, saw a quote from Governor Almond and realized that this article was old. Yes, the last “most relevant” cite for Rhode Island in Site Selection was three governors ago. ACK.

Landing at sleepy T.F. Green (and to be fair, it was late) and seeing the promotional posters and displays got me thinking about what Rhode Island should be doing to be a little more like Georgia and a little less like well, Rhode Island. It doesn’t take a genius to see that a state like Georgia invests time and tax dollars in making itself more appealing. Our state tourism budget — which supports our state’s biggest economic sector — is just $400,000 a year. Our Film and TV Office website looks like it was “most relevant” in the Almond administration and features on its homepage a five year old economic development study and “NEW Rules and Regulations.” There is exactly one photo on the homepage and it’s of the State House. The message is clear: “welcome to Rhode Island, we promise to wrap you in bureaucracy and red tape and make you wish you never came here.”

I’m not the only one tooting this horn. CommerceRI and the Greater Providence Chamber have put together a great website for selling Rhode Island (www.GreaterRi.com), but with an absentee governor and the recent scandal in the General Assembly, our business community is rowing a boat with one oar. Any candidate for office must make economic growth a priority because we cannot fund our social service network, our children’s education or preserve our environment without a healthy economy. Instead of debating about an array of social issues or whether calamari is the top app, we need to ask “Why Not Us?” and then lay the groundwork to put Rhode Island on top.