October 23, 2014
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My Take on the News
What Rhode Island needs: A director of common sense
Lonnie Barham

RHODE ISLAND NEEDS A "HATCH" ACT: State Representative Jon Brien of Woonsocket, who lost the Democratic primary to a Woonsocket firefighter, is filing suit to invalidate the election results based on his belief that the firefighter was ineligible to run because of the federal Hatch Act that prohibits public employees from seeking elective office if their salaries are paid in part by federal dollars. Brien will likely lose this fight since the Woonsocket Fire Department does not receive federal monies for salaries, only for training and equipment.

Brien's quixotic quest, however, raises an important question relevant to all Rhode Island taxpayers. Should a municipal employee whose city's budget is partially supplemented with state tax dollars be allowed to run for state elective office? Should Rhode Island have a state version of the federal Hatch Act? Probably, yes! The idea at least merits serious discussion.

Opponents would argue that every municipality's employees would fall under this prohibition since every local government receives state tax dollars in some fashion. That's true. That's also the reason why municipal employees should be ineligible to hold state elective office. Why should an employee of Central Falls or Providence exert any influence on how state taxes paid by residents of Barrington and East Greenwich are spent? Conversely, why should an employee of Barrington exert influence on state mandates for each city to host a certain amount of affordable housing? Further, how can a fire chief or a mayor effectively control an employee whose state position controls that chief's or mayor's state funding? Would any mayor feel comfortable issuing local directives to the Speaker of the House if he were that mayor's municipal subordinate? The potential conflicts of interest are legion.

RIPEC RECOMMENDATIONS TO IMPROVE RI ECONOMY: RIPEC deserves a lot of credit for trying to come up with a viable plan to fix the Rhode Island economy. The recently released RIPEC report's most salient message is that we must do something quickly to promote new businesses and help current businesses survive and grow. From there the report meanders off into recommendations that, put very simply, constitute economic overkill.

The report recommends creation of an executive office of commerce, appointment of a commerce secretary, placing three state departments under the commerce secretary, creating two advisory/coordinating boards under the commerce secretary, and restructuring/renaming the EDC. Way, way too much bureaucratic reorganizing to solve a relatively simple problem. Instead of helping, adding more layers of bureaucracy will likely make the problem worse.

One person should be appointed who will serve as the "business ombudsman" for the RI business community, or, as one letter writer called it, a "director of common sense." That person should report directly to the governor and should have unlimited authority to delve into the processes of every regulatory agency and make recommendations to the governor for immediate executive level changes and to the General Assembly for rapid changes that require legislative action. This watchdog would become a "super lobbyist" for the business community but with far more authority than a normal lobbyist and with unfettered access to the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president.

The solutions to Rhode Island's economic problems lie in eliminating many regulations, streamlining those that are necessary, reducing business taxes to rates competitive with other states, and forcing our vast government bureaucracy to actually assist businesses instead of impeding them. One person with authority, access and a bully pulpit to coerce change can be the catalyst that makes all this happen.

ONE VOTE "WIN" IN PAWTUCKET HOUSE RACE: After four machine recounts of primary votes in the Pawtucket race for state representative, challenger Carlos Tobon lost to incumbent William San Bento by one vote. Because each of the four machine recounts produced different results, Tobon and the ACLU have repeatedly asked the RI Board of Elections to conduct a manual recount. The Board has refused, contending that only machine recounts are allowed. This looks like just another example of a government entity failing to use any common sense! The machines were clearly wrong since they produced different results on four recounts. The only sensible solution is to conduct a manual recount. Unable to overcome the board's incredibly stupid decision, the ACLU has asked the RI Supreme Court to order a manual recount. Unlike the Board of Elections, let's hope the court uses some common sense and forces the Board to do what it was created to do – ensure that elections are fair and that ballot counts are accurate.

SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT’S DECISIONS: What’s going on in the mind of Cranston’s new Superintendent of Schools Judith Lundsten? After fanning traditional father-daughter dances at Cranston schools, she has now banned the Boy Scouts from using school facilities. How can she ban the Scouts while other community organizations continue to use the public facilities? Ms. Lundsten is to be applauded for trying to ensure the Cranston School Department operates in accordance with state and federal laws, and her opposition to Boy Scouts use of the schools does not seem to reflect any personal anti-Scout bias on her part since her children are Scouts, but her recent decisions to eliminate traditional school events without any pressing need makes us question her judgment.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Although it is now five years old, a particularly timely quote has been repeated often in recent days as the U.S. Supreme Court nears its October hearing on whether or not public universities can continue to use race as a criteria in determining college admissions. Opponents of race-based admissions and other race-based affirmative action programs have for years contended that discrimination in favor of black and Latino students constitutes discrimination against white and Asian students. In a quote that may presage the court's decision, Chief Justice John Roberts opined in a 2007 racial integration case, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."


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