Monday, March 30, 2015

The migration begins

With snow lingering in our yards, it’s hard to believe the baseball season begins this weekend. As the team returns to Boston next week, they are among the first “locals” to return from the winter spent down south. Other migrating types include Ruby Throated Hummingbirds and American Gold Finches — lovely little birds that spend their winters in warmer climates to avoid our chilly temperatures. The larger Snowbird used to be easily spotted driving its giant yellow Cadillac with Florida plates and a bar across the backseat for hanging clothes migrating north on route 95 every May. With cheaper flights and Rhode Island-plated cars this species has been less easy to spot in recent years but Governor Raimondo’s budget might make them squawk and flush themselves out.

One of the many bad raps on Rhode Island’s tax policy is that we’ve incentivized wealthy Rhode Islanders to move to Florida. They might keep a beautiful house here, buy a condo there and spend six months plus a day in the sweltering Florida sun so they can avoid paying income tax to Rhode Island while enjoying six months less a day here. Florida very cleverly took advantage of our bad policy and gives legal Florida residents a sizeable homestead exemption to encourage more people to make the residency change. In this competition, Governor Raimondo just made a clever move, proposing a tax on second homes valued at over a million dollars. Some have called it a “Taylor Swift” tax but I think about it more as a Yellow Cadillac fee.

While I think Rhode Islanders are taxed enough — and certainly don’t love the idea of the state being able to levy a tax on property — this Yellow Cadillac fee seems fair to me. After all, it’s aimed at non-Rhode Islanders who’ve got a second home here valued at more than million dollars. They might be tucked away in a condo in Naples until that 181st day passes and they can liberate themselves to rush north and watch a sunset on Narragansett Bay. They might be from New York and spend their weeks toiling on Wall Street and their summer weekends on Watch Hill. Regardless, they use our roads, enjoy our beaches and pay their income tax (if any) somewhere else. We’re happy to see them when they arrive and are glad they love Rhode Island so much. Despite what opponents say, don’t think this fee will drive them away since for most it will amount to less than renting a cottage on the Vineyard for a week.

The bottom line is this: we’ve complained for decades that wealthy Rhode Islanders are motivated to move to Florida. While this policy change won’t stop most of that migration since it only impacts those with a million dollar vacation home, the Yellow Cadillac fee ensures that it’s no longer a free ride for the wealthiest of them. Someday perhaps our tax policies will allow us to compete with states like Florida and New Hampshire for the tax-savviest residents, but for now at least the Yellow Cadillac fee will add another figure into their calculations.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Keeping up with the times

You don't need to be an avid baseball fan to know about Pete Rose. An incredibly talented (most hits all time at 4,256), durable (played in 3,562 games ‑ the most for any MLB player) and versatile player (appeared in 17 all-star games at five different positions) with a gambling problem, Rose was given a lifetime ban by MLB baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989. While betting on baseball is against league rules, it has never been insinuated that Rose cheated or did anything to “throw” a game. Through today's post-steroid lens, Pete Rose's "crimes" against baseball seem minor. As Alex Rodriguez comes back from his year-long suspension and takes the field in Yankee pinstripes, making more than $21 million, Pete Rose remains in limbo, serving a life sentence for an infraction that pales in comparison to some of the offenses of today.

Thinking about Rose and how he would fit into today's game - and perhaps the Hall of Fame ballot this year - made me think a bit about the lens we are looking through as we educate our children and the recent controversy over the PARCC test. When I hear groans about “what was wrong with the NECAP?” I want to reply that nothing was wrong with it, but maybe, just maybe we’ve learned something in the ten years since the NECAP was first used and PARCC represents that progression. If education continues to move forward, ten years from now parents will surely be complaining about moving away from PARCC testing and onto the next kind of assessment. Times have changed - and will continue to change - and we need to adapt our standards to today's norms — or get left in the dust. What was cutting edge in education just a few years ago may no longer be relevant just a few years from now and because this is about preparing the next generation to be the next leaders of our country, we should be thinking ahead, not looking backward.

While I certainly have my own beefs with standardized testing and would prefer that students are focused more on understanding the material than learning to take the test, the reality is that we need to be able to set a bar for performance and measure to it. And truthfully, those of us who are parenting — not educating — don’t even really know what they bar looks like. I learned through a conversation with a very local teen that (sigh… eyeroll) “80% of the careers that will be open to me haven’t event been invented yet.” While serving its purpose of making me feel alarmingly old and uncool, her statement also made me realize how quickly things do change in a generation. It is so easy to leave kids behind with small minded and parochial thoughts like, “when I was in school we didn’t learn that way” and “we never took those tests and I turned out just fine.”

So maybe the answer is this: we have to continue to innovate in testing and in teaching, and we have to continue to challenge the next generation more than we were challenged. After all, the world we leave them to run hasn’t even invented the issues that they will need to face and address.

And for what it’s worth, we also should forgive Pete Rose. If A-Roid is off the hook, then surely Pete Rose deserves a break.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Opening day on another field of play

Opening Day is just around the corner and for rabid baseball fans, it’s like Christmas and the 4th of July rolled into one. Opening Day represents the start of the 162 game season that gives many of us something to look forward to and plan around every day. It’s also the only day in the season where every team is a winner and every player can realistically be batting a thousand.

There was another Opening Day at the State House last week when Governor Gina Raimondo released her administration’s budget. It’s a widely held political fact that one need not look further than a governor’s budget to understand what his or her priorities are and this governor is no different. Her budget invests heavily in education, workforce development and economic development programs. She followed through on her pledge during the campaign to lift the moratorium on school construction, providing a lift to the construction industry as well as the children and teachers who are spending their days in our crumbling schools. Whether or not you agree with consolidating the state’s tourism spend, she followed through on that pledge too, and in her first budget centralizes our tourism dollars to give our efforts more “oomph” statewide.

While the glow of the governor’s budget address doesn’t last much beyond the evening — the media’s near-instantaneous critique ensures that —  the event itself truly constitutes another Opening Day for the General Assembly. Almost everything in the state revolves around the budget and over the next few months many agreements will be made and disagreements will take place around the lines in that bill. A governor’s priorities are in the budget along with the source of the Speaker’s power since the “sausage making” of the budget process is done through the House Finance Committee.

For what it’s worth, this year is unlike any since 1994, the last year a Democratic governor in Rhode Island presented a budget to the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. In the 21 years since, the governor and the General Assembly were often at odds ideologically and budget time did not bring them together since the Assembly often rewrote the governor’s budget with very little input from his office. It remains to be seen whether the governor will need to use her power of the bully pulpit to keep her priorities in the budget or if she can persuade legislators to follow her lead, but a new season has begun and we’ve got front row seats to the session.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maybe This is THE Year?

The return of baseball — at least to the lush-looking diamonds of Florida — means that “there’s always next year” is now “this year” and that we can count down the days until we’ve got real games in Pawtucket and Boston to enjoy. Unfortunately, the other news this week seems just as eternal in the Biggest Little — yet another public official has violated the public trust and enriched himself through his public position.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m beyond “saddened and disappointed” and have gone right to “disgusted and infuriated.” Using $108,000 in campaign donations for personal use is appalling, but brazenly taking a $52,500 bribe (in checks!) is such an abuse of the public trust that three years in federal prison does not seem like nearly enough punishment. Does anyone else think it could be the tip of the iceberg? After all, investigators have admitted that they learned of the bribe during the course of the campaign finance investigation — perhaps one of the checks had “bribe” on the memo line — so the “Shock Bah” liquor license might not be the only place where Fox took money to influence a decision.

What makes me really angry is that the overwhelming majority of elected officials are honest in their dealings and very careful with their campaign accounts, but the Fox case is once again going to cast a pall over public service. Rhode Island suffers because we don’t always have the “best and brightest” people willing to run for office and yet each year, something happens to make it even less appealing to be involved. Today a General Assembly job description would read something like “Legislator: 15-30 hours per week for 6 months, weekend events required year-round, position mandates multiple late nights with boring hearings and endless constituent calls to your home leaving you little time to support your family. If you are dedicated, it pays about $13/ hour, a little more if you don’t always show up. Comes with health benefits and a ton of public distrust. Reapplication every two years is required at which time your work ethic and decision making will be publicly questioned.” Gee, where can I sign up for that job?

The combined costs of his big house, expensive car and ailing law practice add up to the clear conclusion that Gordon Fox was living above his means, took a bribe and stole from his campaign account to cover his bills. I am not suggesting that we give him a lot of sympathy, but I think that if we are asking people to spend a considerable amount of their time in public service, we should pay them enough so that are not tempted to skim from their campaign accounts or supplement their income through bribes. If we shrink the size of the legislature, pay them a more substantial salary and mandate a shorter session, this area of public service might be more appealing to more Rhode Islanders and not give legislators the urge to steal to pay their veterinarian bills. These ideas are not mine — and aren’t even new — but perhaps this is THE year that we should talk frankly about what we are asking people to do in the name of public service and what we should expect from them in return.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why Not Providence?

Before the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series, modern day Red Sox fans were among the most pessimistic, dour and grumpy fans in sports. We might cheer wildly and then curse colorfully over the same play, knowing that great highs and bone-crushing lows were just part of following our beloved team. Since the great win of 2004 — and the unexpected bounty of 2007 and 2013 that showed us that good things can happen in Boston — most Red Sox fans have mellowed a bit, but some times our true colors still shine through.

The sale and expected move of the Pawtucket Red Sox has brought out the pre-2004 fan in many Rhode Islanders. Rather than rejoice that the team was purchased by a local group that wants to move the team to Providence, some are worried that they might have to pay to park at the new stadium. Rather than thinking about how a downtown stadium could boost the economy and draw other events like concerts and college football games, some are complaining that this is not how the land was “supposed” to be used. All concerns are legitimate of course, but I’m still looking at a glass that’s better than half full since we didn’t wake up to a headline that read, “PawSox Moving to Worcester.” Yet.

That’s right, folks. This is not a done deal. Like every other business that makes a decision to move to or away from Rhode Island, the new owners of the Boston Red Sox AAA affiliate are going to do their “due diligence” and decide whether or not it makes sense for them to set up shop here. All news reports indicate that McCoy is not an option for the new owners: their vision does not include Pawtucket. It’s sad and unfortunate but all the sweet sentiment about Pawtucket won’t change the cold hard fact that attendance at outdated McCoy is down — and plummeting — despite the fact that they have won two Governor’s Cups and their big league team has won three World Series in 10 years.

The other cold hard fact is that hoarding all of the 195 land for developers and corporate giants might not be the best course of action. The proposed stadium would use only a small piece of the developable 195 land (with the bulk of the proposed site on current Brown property and in designated park space) and could serve as a catalyst to other development. As the conversation about the use of the land continues, we should probably remember that while a stadium is not a high-tech manufacturer, it is far better than the overgrown, trash strewn area now known as the 195 land.

As the process moves forward and we gather all the facts, let’s take a page from the 2004 Red Sox team. They were eternally optimistic and scoffed at the Curse of the Bambino. Their “Why Not Us?” shirts could easily be edited to say “Why Not Providence?” and as we consider the facts we can remind ourselves that sometimes good things can happen — even in Rhode Island.