Arthur Schaper: Reforms for the Disabled, and Disabled Reforms

Friday, April 11, 2014


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The double-take in Rhode Island is more than whip-lash at this point. From lawmakers stepping down, or stepping out of bounds, to General Assembly tumults, plus the highest unemployment rate in the country, reform is the watch word. Perhaps a new state constitution could be in the works.

Reforms for a Better Economy

First, about the new General Assembly Speaker, Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston). Like a broken record warped in background noise, the novice leader harped on the importance of jobs and the economy. In his acceptance speech, printed in the ProJo, he commented that the Providence periodical counted the number of times that Mattiello has mentioned the importance of employment and improving the economy in Rhode Island. The new speaker actually delighted in that kind of press.

Last week, I indicted the "complaisant media" in Rhode Island. Instead of counting how many times a legislator says something, how about counting the number of promises he actually keeps?

Following his self-congratulation on pointing out the obvious, Mattiello launched into adverbial hyperbole, which buried his rushed yet upbeat rhetoric. Insufferable and stifling, Mattiello attempted to mask the state-sponsored, bureaucratized inertia of the eighty-year Democratic hypermajority which has ignored the inevitable deadlines of bills coming due, placating unions, creating dependents, and progressing towards a state beyond repair.

Then came the watchword "reform", specifically tied to doing something (or anything) about Rhode Island's regulatory burden.

Does anyone expect a new face with the old party label to deliver anew on the old promises? If anyone plans on enabling reform, why not start with eliminating the Master Lever? Reforming this disabled tactic would ease one burden, Democratic hegemony, but the state senate just put the bill on hold , even though only supporters for elimination signed up to testify. While NPR’s Scott McKay reported that key committee assignments, and chairmanships, would change with Mattiello’s ascension, a transformation in the political dynamics (more Republicans!) would bring more of the ideological give-and-take needed to force through comprehensive changes to the way Rhode Island does business.

Reforms for the Disabled

Two other issues touching on disabilities and reforms dominated the headlines in Rhode Island this week.

About reforms for the disabled, for years developmentally disabled individuals were shuttled (segregated, according to the federal reports) into shelter workplace centers, where they earned subminimum wage, exploited by “non-profits” raking in large grants from state and federal subsidies. These special needs adults were making as little as $.50 to $2.00 an hour doing the most menial work, even as many of them looked forward to placement in more rewarding employment, as purportedly promised.

At least they were working, critics might contend.

The New York Times reports :

The Justice Department on Tuesday announced a “landmark” agreement with the State of Rhode Island to free people with developmental disabilities from a decades-old system that kept them unjustly segregated in sheltered workshops and adult day programs, removed from the competitive workplace and the broader community.

“Unjustly segregated” better describes the taxpayers, business owners, and diminished wealth creators in Rhode Island. Looking over that paragraph, I automatically think of every residents, employed or otherwise, and not just the developmentally disabled. The fraud and corruption involved in exploiting adults with special needs cannot be ignored, but Liberty Voices remarked that “disabled Rhode Islands would be eligible for “job benefits, as well as a living wage for the work they do.”

Yet liberals throughout New England want to force the minimum wage already (who will pay for it?). As for benefits (including pensions), Rhode Island cannot afford the current liabilities on their employees, and now they want to add more?

Reforms Disabled

Speaking of benefits, regarding the 2011 landmark pension reforms, lawmakers had hoped to rescue the Ocean State from its tsunami of indebted entitlements. Public sector unions, committed to their interests instead of the public interest, sued for redress. State leaders and the employees brokered a settlement for the six employee unions to vote on. Only the police officers’ union voted it down, 61% saying “No deal” (at least they registered the discontent at the ballot box instead of ticketing everyone’s car). On better news, the judge overseeing the case ordered all parties concerned back to mediation, even though the original agreement signaled that if one union voted no, then the deal would fail.

For Governor Lincoln Chafee, the small setback meant very little, as he revisited the outcome that the majority of members supported the settlement:

I think there are a lot of union members who want to get this resolved and know that even if they are successful in court, the devastating impact on our budget would affect their members.

While Governor Chafee intends to continue implementing the reforms, even without the police, Speaker Mattiello fears that the General Assembly will not take up the settlements in time. What happened to all that "regulation reform" talk, then?

Reforms for the disabled and disabled reforms: another year of political upheaval in Rhode Island is upon us.


Arthur Christopher Schaper is a teacher-turned-writer on topics both timeless and timely; political, cultural, and eternal. A life-long Southern California resident, Arthur currently lives in Torrance. Follow him on Twitter @ArthurCSchaper, reach him at [email protected], and read more at Schaper's Corner and As He Is, So Are We Ministries.


Related Slideshow: The Ten Biggest Issues Facing the RI General Assembly in 2014

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The Budget

The latest report by the House Finance Committee illustrates that Rhode Island will start the next fiscal year, which starts in July 2014, with an estimated deficit of $149 million. The report shows the FY 2014 Budget contains numerous overspending problems—meaning that the General Assembly will have to cut costs somewhere.

So where will the cuts come from? Lawmakers will have to examine the state's costliest programs. According to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the most expensive government programs in Rhode Island are Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Welfare, Pensions, Higher Education, and Interest on Debt. Click here to view a comprehensive list of the state's costliest government programs.

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Bankrupt Communities

The state may be two years removed from Central Falls filing for bankruptcy, but 2014 could be the year that other financially strapped Rhode Island communities follow suit—most notably Woonsocket and West Warwick.

With bankruptcy on the table in both 2012 and 2013, this year poses more financial uncertainty for the cash-strapped city of Woonsocket. Earlier this year, the city's bond rating was downgraded due to the city's numerous financial issues—including a growing deficit, increasing unfunded pension liability, and a severe cash crunch.

Similarly, the embattled town of West Warwick faces a variety of financial questions in 2014. With its pension fund set to run out by 2017, the town must address its unfunded liabilities this year if it hopes to regain financial stability. That, coupled with an increasing school department deficit, make West Warwick a contender for bankruptcy.

Look for Woonsocket and West Warwick's elected state officials to address their respective cities' financial issues in the upcoming legislative session.

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Sales Tax

With the Special Joint Legislative Commission to Study the Sales Tax Repeal set to report their findings to the General Assembly in February, the possibility of sales tax repeal in Rhode Island could become a reality in 2014.

"Our sales tax is killing small businesses, especially those in border communities," said Rep. Jan P. Malik (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren), the commission's chair. "How can Rhode Island continue to compete at 7 percent, with Massachusetts already lower than us and considering reducing its sales tax even farther? How can Rhode Island restaurants compete at 8 percent? They can’t. We need to find a way to fix this, and a serious discussion of our sales tax is a discussion we need to have, now, before more small stores close their doors."

In addition to Malik, proponents of sales tax elimination include the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and Forbes Magazine.

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EDC Reorganization to Commerce Corporation

On January 1, 2014, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation will be replaced with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation—a move which has the potential to impact to adversely affect recipients of federal funding contracts made possible currently through the EDC.

This could include the state's Broadband Initiative, Brownfields program, and other contracts made through the EDC. As a result, recipients will now be required to re-apply for federal funding as of January 1st.

The massive overhaul of the EDC was prompted by the 38 Studios debacle, which is projected to cost Rhode Island taxpayers $102 million. 38 Studios, the now defunct video game company, filed bankruptcy in May 2012 just months after securing a $75 million loan from the EDC.

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Marijuana Legalization

With the state's marijuana decriminalization law going into effect this past April, Rhode Island may be a candidate for marijuana legalization in 2014.

Legislation to legalize marijuana has been introduced in each of the last three years, but has never been voted on. Earlier this year, Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who is chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced the bill in the House. Roughly half of the Judiciary Committee supports the measure.

The bill also has the support of the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization focusing on drug policy reform, which hopes to legalize marijuana in ten states, including Rhode Island.

Approximately 52 percent of Rhode Island voters support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in January.

Marijuana is currently legal in Colorado and Washington.

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Constitutional Convention

Come November 2014, Rhode Island voters will likely be asked whether they wish to convene a constitutional convention, which involves individuals gathering for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising the existing one.

Every 10 years, Rhode Island voters are asked whether they wish to amend or revise the constitution. Voters rejected this opportunity in 1994 and 2004. Although rare, Rhode Islanders can vote to hold a constitutional convention and in effect, take control over the state government.

If approved, a special election is held to elect 75 delegates, who then convene to propose amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution. These amendments are then voted on in the next general election.

The likelihood of this occurring highly depends on if the General Assembly does its job to ensure residents that the state is heading in the right direction financially and structurally.

Rhode Island’s last constitutional convention took place in 1986. It proposed 14 amendments—eight of which were adopted by voters.

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Education Board Structure

Less than a year after the General Assembly created the 11-member Rhode Island Board of Education to replace the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education, there are multiple questions surrounding the structure of this newly consolidated agency.

Although lawmakers voted to merge the state's two education boards in June, the Board of Education now wants to split its agency to create two separate councils—one with the statutory authority over kindergarten to grade 12 and another governing higher education.

The Board of Education will present its proposal to the General Assembly during its next legislative session and lawmakers will once again determine how the agency should be structured.

The Board of Education currently governs all public education in Rhode Island.

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Sakonnet Bridge Tolls

Rhode Island may have implemented tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge this past year, but they could be gone by 2014.

On January 15, the East Bay Bridge Commission—which was established to allow lawmakers and officials investigate various funding plans, potentially eliminating the need for tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge—will report its findings to the General Assembly. The General Assembly is then required to vote on the issue by April 1.

The commission was established in July following the General Assembly's approval of the 10-cent toll.

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Superman Building

Located on Westminster Street in Downtown Providence, the former Bank of America Building (commonly referred to as the Superman Building) may be the tallest building in the state, but as of right now, it's just a vacant piece of property.

The building's current owner, High Rock Westminster LLC, was most recently looking for a total of $75 million to rehabilitate the skyscraper—$39 million of which would come from the state.

With the sting of the 38 Studios deal still fresh in the minds of lawmakers, a $39 million tax credit appears unlikely.

The question of what will become of the Superman Building remains to be seen. 

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Master Lever

Championed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block (while head of the RI Moderate Party), the movement to eliminate the Master Level, which allows voters to vote for all candidates of one political party with a stroke of the pen, is poised to heat up in 2014.

Despite Block's strong push to repeal the 1939 law, the measure did not get a vote in the General Assembly last session.

In October, Block told GoLocal that he believes that House Speaker Gordon Fox is responsible for the General Assembly not voting on the proposal.

“Despite the support of a majority of 42 state Representatives, thousands of emails from concerned RI voters and unanimous testimony of more than 100 people who came to the State House in person to testify that the Master Lever had to go, the Speaker personally killed the bill in the most unaccountable way possible—he did not allow the House Judiciary Committee to vote on the bill,” Block told GoLocal.

Speaker Fox has stated on multiple occasions that he believes the Master Level is a legitimate tool that many voters use.


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