Wed, 30 Mar 2005
More e-news from the Governor:
Pension Reform Now
Of course, the pension costs are higher than they need to be, due to the Pension board's refusal to change allocation decisions made in 2001 — before the stock market tanked.
Pension costs this year are $20 million higher than they need to be. Essentially, the Governor is demanding that all the towns and the state, too, seem more fiscally sound than anyone requires them to be. It fits his agenda that pension costs seem unmanageably high. If the cost of this charade is the occasional music class, what does he care?
Pension reform is of concern to this taxpayer, but I also want some honesty in the packaging. Some of the most important decisions having to do with the pension system are made by the pension board. Those decisions routinely go unexamined, even though they may cost us all millions of dollars. And this year, they will.
See here for more information.
22:05 - 30 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
There are other reasons to deplore the prices of housing, besides the obvious ones. (Obvious being the housing crisis, where not enough people can afford a place to live.) Less obvious is the degree to which our economy is built on homes — buying, building and selling them. Were the price to crash, it would sure help in the affordability department, but if the economy tanks because of the crash, it will be only a Pyrrhic victory.
See here for some worrisome numbers.
Remember, it's ok to regulate markets in taxicabs and tow trucks, heating oil and hamburgers. But if you advocate regulating the market in real estate, well that makes you a radical.
10:08 - 30 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
An article in the Projo notes that my town is managing to hold this year's property tax increase to less than 4%. And I suppose congratulations are in order. That is, if you think that devastating school programs, hiking recreation fees, cutting fire and police departments, and cutting library hours deserve congratulations.
Like many towns, ours finds the value of commercial property isn't rising as fast as the value of residential property. So through the vagaries of the bizarre revaluation process, we granted Wal-Mart a $100,000 tax cut last year. Electric Boat a division of General Dynamics, got more. This is worth slashing programs in my children's schools?
State policies (like reval rules, and aid to towns and schools) promoted by our unaccountably popular Governor, are killing our towns. (See here or here or here, and lots of other places on this site.) Town governments that just roll over in the face of these unconscionable state policies are part of the problem, not the solution, and pride that town councillors take in their "responsibility" and willingness to "make hard choices" only enables the Governor to make things still worse next year.
(Obviously federal policies have a lot to do with this, too. But the Governor has done the worst possible job of dealing with the changes in federal policy. For example, the wealthiest Rhode Islanders have received tax cuts in the many thousands of dollars. Taking back only a fraction of that would actually solve most of the state's budget shortfall. Details in the upcoming issue.)
Our prediction: all the pain you might feel if you watch local school committee and town council meetings will be worse next year. You heard it here first.
09:49 - 30 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Mon, 28 Mar 2005
This is news, according to the most widely respected newspaper in the country.
And we wonder how he got elected.
13:04 - 28 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Sun, 27 Mar 2005
I try not to harp on genetics all the time. But when the news comes as fast and furious as this, it's hard to help it, even when (especially when) all the articles are relegated to the back pages of the news section. It's as if people are willing to say that the existence and health of the food crops we eat is important, but, well, not as important as, say, Michael Jackson's trial.
It appears that engineered genetic modifications have been found in some corn in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. This is a big deal, because that part of Mexico is where corn comes from. The natural ancestor of corn was came from there, and the crop is quite diverse there, too. This is one of the important wells from which we draw the food crops we eat. And now it's been fouled.
Fortunately, the fouling doesn't seem harmful, or very bad, but it's fouling nonetheless. When salt shows up in your well, you don't worry about your health (too much) but you worry about the health of your water supply. What happened once with a benign gene can happen again with a less benign gene, especially since, as the article put it, a Mexico government report suggested measures to prevent a repeat, and:
The United States' response to the report was immediate and blistering. It called the report "fundamentally flawed" and argued that the recommendations did not flow from the panel's scientific conclusions and undercut provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. "If implemented, these recommendations would unnecessarily limit Nafta farmers' access to high-quality U.S. corn exports, as well as the environmental benefits that biotech corn provides," a statement read.
Ok, it's good for business to sell corn to Mexico. But who is looking out for the interests of corn? We pretend we know all the ins and outs of corn genetics, but it's just not true. Why do we allow corporations (which don't themselves eat) make decisions for us about such fundamental matters of health as food?
17:18 - 27 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Sat, 26 Mar 2005
Down below, about the shameful carelessness and false confidence of the regulators of genetically modified food, I wrote this:
Bland assurances like this are only trustworthy if you think that science has already discovered everything there is to know about how genes work in plants.
And what do you know? We haven't.
What a surprise. One begins to hope that news like this will inject a little humility into the debates about genetics, but it hasn't happened yet.
07:26 - 26 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Oddly enough, over the past four years, the Social Security trustees have changed their methodology for economic forecasts. Even odder, the changes have been all in the direction of making their forecasts more gloomy. How peculiar. Now why on earth could they be doing that? They couldn't be doing it just to make the financial condition of Social Security seem shakier? Could they? See here for details.
07:09 - 26 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Thu, 24 Mar 2005
In one of his e-news missives, Governor Carcieri does a pretty good job of both explaining why he doesn't want a child-care workers union and why one is probably essential.
"I am determined to defend the state's child care program, to defend our children and to defend Rhode Island taxpayers," the Governor concluded. "I will veto this bill because it is bad for our most vulnerable children, for our most needy families and for Rhode Island's overburdened taxpayers."
In the face of a $160 million budget deficit, the Governor has proposed some reforms. They include a freeze on the current subsidy rates paid to all providers until July 1, 2006. The Governor would also raise the eligibility level for child care providers to get free state-subsidized health care, and would require them to pay the same health care co-shares as RIte Care beneficiaries do.
Translation: the Governor's budget-balancing act depends on keeping poor people poor. This goes for poor people getting help from the state and — remarkably enough — it also goes for poor people who provide a service to the state.
Say what you will about teachers' unions — inflexible, archaic, undemocratic, you know the drill. But after watching my town's school committee for the past few years, I know that the only thing preserving any semblance of real education is the contractual obligations to the unions. Everything else has been slashed to the bone, or past. I can't understand why anyone would think that without contractual obligations about class size my children wouldn't wind up in classes of 50.
11:30 - 24 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Wed, 23 Mar 2005
Syngenta, one of the world's biggest food and chemical companies, admitted recently that it had accidentally sold corn with unapproved genetic modifications. According to an article in the journal Nature, Syngenta let the wrong genes loose for about four years before anyone noticed. But of course you're not to worry, because it's only 0.01% of all the corn planted in the US those years.
But this assumes that the only transfer of genes is from parent plant to seed, which is known to be untrue. The spokeswoman for Syngenta says their admission to regulatory agencies "shows the system is working as it should do." Bland assurances like this are only trustworthy if you think that science has already discovered everything there is to know about how genes work in plants. Unfortunately, that is the basic assumption on which public policy about genetic engineering is developed.
In the same issue of Nature, there's another article article about how genetically modified canola has been found to devastate bees and butterflies in a study in the UK, just because its use creates a shift in the kinds of weeds that grow in a canola field.
There's a bit more about genetic modifications in plants and the Russian roulette we're playing with important food crops in last May's issue of RIPR. Bon appetit!
09:27 - 23 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Tue, 22 Mar 2005
Back from Scotland, which is a fine place. Posting will resume. In the meantime, here's the February issue. Your support is what will make the March issue and all the rest possible. Go read last month's issue, and if you like it, why not subscribe?
13:21 - 22 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Mon, 07 Mar 2005
Posting will be slow for the next two weeks, while I and my trusty robot are in Scotland. In the meantime, it's state budget season. RIPR issues 1, 4 and 7 contain several suggestions about overspending and unwise spending in state government, all still valid, some more so. See below about the current (February) issue. The upcoming RIPR will contain a comprehensive plan to reform state and local taxes in the state, almost no part of which will be a surprise to regular readers.
Some more great reasons to subscribe.
09:57 - 07 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
You read that the Senate is considering bankruptcy reform legislation, and you think, "Well good, after all those bankruptcy scandals like Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossings, it's high time this got cleaned up." Imagine your dismay to learn that the bills under question only address personal bankruptcy, and don't touch business bankruptcy rules at all. Further imagine your surprise and distress to learn that the bill under consideration would remove protections against losing one's home.
09:47 - 07 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Thu, 03 Mar 2005
The current (paper) issue of RIPR contains instructions for saving $13 million from the state budget, and $7.5 million from municipal budgets. As a special bonus, there are a host of tax suggestions, any one of which would be preferable to the property tax increases we're all going to suffer under. If you're concerned about cuts to some program in the state budget, there are places to find money to offset those cuts. Find them here.
Wouldn't this be a grand time to subscribe?
10:43 - 03 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
I watched my town council last night insist that the school budget be cut still further than the school committee had done, and I watched the school committee sigh and vow to get back to work to do their slashing better. And I didn't hear a single one say anything to the effect of, "But what about the quality of education?" Though I did hear one town councillor talk about the importance of getting the "best quality we can afford," that's not quite the same thing. All in all, not what you would call an uplifting sight.
A couple of weeks ago, we thought the choice was between shuttering a school and ending everything one might consider non-essential. Now it seems, we'll get both. Imagine my delight: taxes up only a little and a school system in shambles.
The thing that is so galling about the school crises around the State (Providence, South Kingstown, Chariho, for example. There are plenty more.) is that these are really a crisis of choice. We are not a poorer state (or nation) than we were 15 years ago. There are storm clouds on the horizon, and we've had some upsetting economic disturbances, but we're still the richest nation in the world, by far.
I'm with Tolstoy: it's foolish to say that "we" as a people have chosen this situation. "We" do not act collectively, each of us acts individually. Talking about the choices our collective self makes is only a metaphor that gets confusing too quickly to be useful.
But nonetheless, specific state policies, chosen and enacted by popular Governors, Mayors, and State reps, have brought us to this pass. For reasons that elude me, many of these individuals managed to remain popular despite the fact that their policies were, as a matter of completely predictable course, making life more difficult for everyone, including the voters who elected (and re-elected) them.
Here's the equation: when you starve the towns of state aid, they turn to the property tax, which hits hardest the people who have the least. Is it any wonder that people are angry? That people storm their town council meetings demanding cuts in the municipal and school budgets? But flailing blindly seems only to make it worse: the Governor assumes that no tax increase is palatable, even ones that will take the pressure off the property tax.
Here's a shocker: personal income in Rhode Island tends to rise faster than inflation. The problem is not finding the money. It would not be a stretch to pay for the basic services that make life good in our state. It's always possible to find waste in a big budget, and I've been doing my best to document it where I find it. But my searches have persuaded me that, while vigilance against waste and abuse is important, the real issue of our times, that virtually no one seems ever to address around here, is not the size of our government, but how we distribute the burden of paying for it. By choosing not to discuss this, the collective we has "chosen" to use the worst possible way to fund our government. Should any of us be surprised that the result seems to be perpetual crisis?
10:00 - 03 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
Tue, 01 Mar 2005
An article in the Washington Post (registration required) describes the imminent implosion of Oregon's land-use planning structure. Oregon has been among the leaders in the nation at protecting open space, even within its cities. You don't have to read studies to see it. Go to Denver, and drive around in the mountains, and notice that all the available scenic spots have very expensive houses on them. It's not like that in Portland. But it will be. Another victory for the free market.
18:04 - 01 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
As was written here yesterday, this is the completely predictable response to publishing data like RIPEC's. I assume that this is the outcome they wish to see.
Hopkinton has a higher tax rate because the value of the property there is low, and because there isn't very much in the way of commercial development. Many people would think that low housing costs and lots of open space is a good thing. The problem is that the way we fund local government in the state, it's not a workable proposition. So commercial development will come in to town (and two town councillors are quoted in the story talking about knocking down obstacles to further development), and probably lots of it, and probably ugly, because after all, in a contest between the aesthetic pleasure of small towns and dollars, is it any surprise who always wins?
09:04 - 01 Mar 2005 [/y5/ma]
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