October 20, 2014
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My take on the news
Ethics Commission needs to close revolving door
Lonnie Barham

A CODE OF ETHICS THAT’S NOT: When Rhode Island enacted a Code of Ethics in 1992, one of its key provisions was a “revolving door” prohibition that was intended to keep state elected and appointed officials from taking important state jobs for a year after leaving office. The law applies to those in “senior policy-making, discretionary or confidential positions.”

Has the law worked? It has not come even remotely close to working! Why doesn’t it work when it seems to be clearly written and easy to interpret? Because the State Ethics Commission refuses to interpret it as legislators intended it and as it is clearly written.

The most recent example of the law’s and the Ethics Commission’s failure is the commission’s decision last week that Governor Chafee’s Director of Administration, Richard Licht, can compete for a superior court judgeship because he is not in a “senior policy-making position.” Licht runs the largest department in state government and has unfettered access to Governor Chafee. Not only does he make policies for his department, but he undoubtedly advised Chafee on other, statewide policies. Previous examples of the commission’s failure to use common sense in interpreting the Code of Ethics’ revolving door provision, include its 2009 decision that then-Governor Carcieri’s chief of staff, Brian P. Stern, was also exempt from the revolving door provision. Stern was quickly appointed to a superior court judgeship.

Our General Assembly must revise the Code of Ethics to make it abundantly clear that it applies to all senior state officials. The language must be very specific so it will be understood even by the seemingly illiterate members of our Ethics Commission.

WILL BRAYTON POINT COOLING TOWERS GO? For those of us who live near the coast on the west side of Narragansett Bay, the rising of the Brayton Point Power Station’s massive cooling towers a couple of years ago was appalling. Suddenly, the beautiful horizon over the east side of the bay was marred by two ugly, intrusive, belching cooling towers. Although upset by the unsightly addition to the previously serene eastward view, west bay folks took it in stride not wanting to be classified as NIMBY – “not in my back yard” - complainers. Now, after so recently installing the monstrous towers at a cost of about $500 million, Brayton Point is going to close. Its owners say onerous environmental regulations and competition from natural gas are just too much for the company to make a profit from the coal-fired plant. Let’s hope the company takes the “good neighbor” approach and tears down the grotesque towers that detract so much from the Bay’s beauty.

 

INTERNECINE SQUABBLING AMONG DEMOCRATS: “It’s time to stop using pensions as a political football,” said General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a likely candidate for governor, responding to fellow Democrat Frank Caprio, the former state treasurer who was beaten badly in the governor’s race in 2010 and who has decided to run again for treasurer. In an obvious ploy to curry the favor of unions, Caprio has called for Rhode Island to start handing out union COLA’s again and to reduce pension fund investment fees - moves that would cost our taxpayers dearly while unwisely reducing investment diversification and, thus, exposing the pension fund to greater risks. Caprio is demonstrating budgetary and investment knowledge worthy of a financial rookie.

 

To use a football metaphor, Caprio’s early campaigning makes him look like an inexperienced and desperate tight end running deep as he frantically tries to catch the football. Even if he catches it, he’s likely to fumble it again like he did in 2010.

SUPREME COURT CASE TO AFFECT RHODE ISLAND: The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that will directly affect Rhode Island’s political campaign laws. Nine states, including ours, set an upper limit on cumulative political donations. Rhode Island restricts donations to $1,000 per candidate and a total of $10,000 to all candidates, parties and political action committees. The plaintiff in the case and many First Amendment advocates contend that cumulative restrictions violate donors’ freedom of speech since they cannot financially support the messages of all candidates they wish to support. For example, if a donor wanted to donate $1,000 to every Democrat running for state representative in Rhode Island he could not. He could donate to only ten candidates. The cumulative limit would also restrict the donor from donating to multiple political action committees, thus limiting his or her ability to exercise free political speech.

 

Placing a limit on the amount that can be donated to individual candidates has some merit since it prevents a donor from “buying” a candidate. However, limiting the number of candidates a donor can contribute to by enforcing a cumulative donation limit seems to be arbitrary and restrictive of free speech. The court is likely to decide as such and invalidate Rhode Island’s cumulative restriction.

ARMY VS. NAVY: Ever since the commander of the multi-service U.S. Special Operations Command, who just happened to be a Navy admiral, assigned a Navy Seal team to the successful Osama bin Laden raid, the national news media has had a love affair with Navy Seals - to the exclusion of special operations forces from other military services. Our military recently conducted two special operations raids on foreign soil - one by Navy Seals in Somalia and one by a team from the Army’s Delta Force in Libya. The Navy’s operation failed while the Army’s succeeded. Yet, almost every news story devoted 90 percent of its coverage to how and why the Navy operation was conducted while barely mentioning the Army’s successful operation. Why? The Navy and the Marine Corps have huge publicity departments that schmooze with journalists. It seems that the Army just trudges on without fanfare, doing its job without seeking publicity.

 

OBAMACARE ROLLOUT: A poll conducted following the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) shows that 40 percent of Americans think the rollout didn’t go well at all, while 27 percent say it went well or somewhat well. The remaining 33 percent of Americans are so confused about the law they couldn’t tell whether its rollout went well or not. Between major computer glitches and government’s failure to inform people about the law’s intricacies, the implementation seems to be muddling along instead of steaming ahead. If our government doesn’t get far better at implementing this very controversial law, Republicans will have even more justification to possibly reverse it after the 2014 elections.

 

HOW WILL WE FUND RHODE ISLANDS OBAMACARE EXCHANGE? HealthSource RI is the Rhode Island version of the health insurance exchange mandated under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Its budget is pegged at $26 million for the budget year that starts in July of 2014. For that fiscal year, the $26 million will be <\f>provided by the federal government. At the end of that fiscal year, however, federal money is scheduled to disappear. Where will the money come from to run the exchange after that?

 

Governor Chafee issued an executive order in 2011 that says HealthSource RI is not allowed to use state general revenue money to run the exchange. So, what happens when the federal money is gone and state general fund money can’t be used? Of course, there will be more taxes, surcharges and fees suffered on Rhode Island taxpayers and on businesses that purchase insurance through the exchange. There is no other way to keep it running. This certainly seems to beg the question: What exactly is “affordable” about the Affordable Care Act?

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Recent polls show there is a rising backlash in the U.S. over the NSA’s ubiquitous spying on law-abiding Americans. Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden - now in Russia - had this to say as he accepted the Sam Adams Award from a group of retired U.S. national security officers, “They (NSA spying practices) hurt our economy. They hurt our country. They limit our ability to speak and think and live and be creative, to have relationships and to associate freely.” When even retired intelligence officers side with Snowden, it’s time for all Americans to pay attention to what’s happening to privacy and individual liberties in our country.


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