Rhode Island Policy Reporter

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A look at the lousy situation Rhode Island is in, how we got here, and how we might be able to get out.

Budget Demystification!
Fiscal Derring-Do!
Economic Jiggery-Pokery!

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RIPR is a (paper) newsletter and a weekly column appearing in ten of Rhode Island's finer newspapers. The goal is to look at local, state and federal policy issues that affect life here in the Ocean State, concentrating on action, not intentions or talk.

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whole site RIPR back issues

Available Back Issues:

  • Aug 09 (38) - How your government's economic policies have worked against you. What a fake nineteenth century nun can teach us about the tea party protests.
  • Jun 09 (37) - Statistics of optimism, the real cost of your government. Judith Reilly on renewable tax credits. Review of Akerlof and Shiller on behavioral economics.
  • Apr 09 (36) - Cap and trade, the truth behind the card check controversy, review of Governor's tax policy workgroup final report.
  • Feb 09 (35) - The many varieties of market failures, and what classic economics has to say about them, review of Nixonland by Rick Perlstein.
  • Dec 08 (34) - Can "Housing First" end homelessness? The perils of TIF. Review of You Can't Be President by John MacArthur.
  • Oct 08 (33) - Wage stagnation, financial innovation and deregulation: creating the financial crisis, the political rhetoric of the Medicaid waiver.
  • Jul 08 (32) - Where has the money gone? Could suburban sprawl be part of our fiscal problem? Review of Bad Money by Kevin Phillips, news trivia or trivial news.
  • Apr 08 (31) - Understanding homelessness in RI, by Eric Hirsch, market segmentation and the housing market, the economics of irrationality.
  • Feb 08 (30) - IRS migration data, and what it says about RI, a close look at "entitlements", historic credit taxonomy, an investment banking sub-primer.
  • Dec 07 (29) - A look at the state's underinsured, economic geography with IRS data.
  • Oct 07 (28) - Choosing the most expensive ways to fight crime, bait and switch tax cuts, review of Against Prediction, about the perils of using statistics to fight crime.
  • Aug 07 (27) - Sub-prime mortgages fall heaviest on some neighborhoods, biotech patents in decline, no photo IDs for voting, review of Al Gore's Against Reason
  • Jun 07 (26) - Education funding, budget secrecy, book review of Boomsday and the Social Security Trustees' Report
  • May 07 (25) - Municipal finance: could citizen mobility cause high property taxes? What some Depression-era economists had to say on investment, and why it's relevant today, again.
  • Mar 07 (24) - The state budget disaster and how we got here. Structural deficit, health care, borrowing, unfunded liabilities, the works.
  • Jan 07 (23) - The impact of real estate speculation on housing prices, reshaping the electoral college. Book review of Blocking the Courthouse Door on tort "reform."
  • Dec 06 (22) - State deficit: What's so responsible about this? DOT bonding madness, Quonset, again, Massachusetts budget comparison.
  • Oct 06 (21) - Book review: Out of Iraq by Geo. McGovern and William Polk, New rules about supervisors undercut unions, New Hampshire comparisons, and November referenda guide.
  • Aug 06 (20) - Measuring teacher quality, anti-planning referenda and the conspiracy to promote them, affordable housing in the suburbs, union elections v. card checks.
  • Jun 06 (19) - Education report, Do tax cut really shrink government?, Casinos and constitutions, State historic tax credit: who uses it.
  • May 06 (18) - Distribution analysis of property taxes by town, critique of RIEDC statistics, how to reform health care, and how not to.
  • Mar 06 (17) - Critique of commonly used statistics: RI/MA rich people disparity, median income, etc. Our economic dependence on high health care spending. Review of Crashing the Gate
  • Feb 06 (16) - Unnecessary accounting changes mean disaster ahead for state and towns, reforming property tax assessment, random state budget notes.
  • Jan 06 (15) - Educational equity, estimating the amount of real estate speculation in Rhode Island, interview with Thom Deller, Providence's chief planner.
  • Nov 05 (14) - The distribution of affordable houses and people who need them, a look at RI's affordable housing laws.
  • Sep 05 (13) - A solution to pension strife, review of J.K. Galbraith biography and why we should care.
  • Jul 05 (12) - Kelo v. New London: Eminent Domain, and what's between the lines in New London.
  • Jun 05 (11) - Teacher salaries, Veterinarian salaries and the minimum wage. Book review: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
  • Apr 05 (10) - Choosing a crisis: Tax fairness and school funding, suggestions for reform. Book review: business location and tax incentives.
  • Feb 05 (9) - State and teacher pension costs kept artificially high. Miscellaneous tax suggestions for balancing the state budget.
  • Dec 04 (8) - Welfare applications and the iconography of welfare department logos. The reality of the Social Security trust fund.
  • Oct 04 (7) - RIPTA and DOT, who's really in crisis?
  • Aug 04 (6) - MTBE and well pollution, Mathematical problems with property taxes
  • May 04 (5) - A look at food-safety issues: mad cows, genetic engineering, disappearing farmland.
  • Mar 04 (4) - FY05 RI State Budget Critique.
  • Feb 04 (3) - A close look at the Blue Cross of RI annual statement.
  • Oct 03 (2) - Taxing matters, a historical overview of tax burdens in Rhode Island
  • Oct 03 Appendix - Methodology notes and sources for October issue
  • Apr 03 (1) - FY04 RI State Budget critique
Issues are issued in paper. They are archived irregularly here.

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The Rhode Island Policy Reporter is an independent news source that specializes in the technical issues of public policy that matter so much to all our lives, but that also tend not to be reported very well or even at all. The publication is owned and operated by Tom Sgouros, who has written all the text you'll find on this site, except for the articles with actual bylines.


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Fri, 25 Jul 2008

Charter Schools again: A report from the kingdom of data

A column about Mayoral academies a few weeks back sparked more than average response. Reviewing some of the letters I received, it seemed worthwhile to write a bit about what we know about school "reform."

The deafening clamor of energetic academic controversies attracts funding, and researchers fly to that honey. So one upside of the arguments over public education is there are swarms of economists and psychologists and other education researchers out there examining educational policies and social influences to try to figure out what works and what doesn't. They publish articles for curious people to read and evaluate. So I did. (And you can, too. Find the citations below.) Here's a little of what I learned while browsing academic literature about charter schools and school choice.

One of the perennial problems of studying public education is comparisons with private schools. Private and parochial schools generally get better academic achievement for less money. But how? Do they have a magic formula, or is it just that the students at such schools tend to be better off? The problem has long been that when researchers try to factor out the effects of race and economic class, there isn't enough data left over to make valid comparisons between private and public schools.

But this is no longer true, somewhat ironically due to the No Child Left Behind act. New testing mandates have increased the number of private and parochial (and charter) schools who administer the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) tests to their students. So now we can make statistically valid comparisons. And what we find is that private and parochial schools are generally no better than the students who attend them.

In a study of NAEP math tests from fourth and eighth grades, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researchers at the University of Illinois, showed that public schools perform as well as private, parochial and charter schools once you adjust the populations so you're comparing apples to apples. Where there are significant differences, the public schools came out ahead.

Be careful not to misunderstand. Though it does imply that public schools are better than you think, given the students they have, the study does not say that all public schools are better than private schools. Lots of public schools aren't very good. That is not controversial. But the Lubienskis' findings tell us that merely replacing them may not be a solution.

Another idea popular with school reformers is to allow students to choose the school they'll attend. A provision of NCLB says students in "failing" schools must be offered an opportunity to go somewhere else. Sounds like a sensible idea, right? The problem is that very few students actually take those opportunities. Nationally, around 97% of students who have a choice to leave a failing school don't take it according to Courtney Bell, a researcher at UConn.

This seems irrational, but Bell set out to take a closer look. She conducted a large number of interviews with parents of children in failing schools in a medium-size midwestern city. What she found was that people were usually making perfectly rational choices among the options they saw available to them. But she found those options were frequently not what education reformers imagined them to be. She found parents were not choosing from all schools, but among the schools they could get their children to safely, schools that used the same curriculum their children had already begun, schools where they thought their children would have friends, and so on. Among those schools, Bell found parents usually picked the best, but this was very often the original, failing, school.

An even more provocative study of school choice programs was done by Stephen Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the author of "Freakonomics", a best-seller a couple of years ago. In Chicago, students can attend a selection of high-performing schools, but they are chosen by lottery. He looked at the academic performance of students who attended the schools and found they were, in fact, better than students who did not attend. But he also noticed something surprising: the best indicator of academic performance was whether a student had entered the lottery at all, not which school he or she wound up attending. That is, students who entered the lottery and didn't make it did just as well as their luckier peers who got in. The population who winds up at the good schools are the good students, because they're the ones who enter the lotteries.

The problem with education is it's so easy to be swept away by new carpets and shiny new programs and what sound like sensible reforms. But we live in a complex world, and what sounds good isn't always good. There is real data out there, and we can learn from it -- if we choose to.

At this point, the legislative wheels are greased and the train is moving; Cumberland is going to embark on this project. It's possible the designers of the Mayoral Academies will avoid the pitfalls I've just described. If so, good for them. But we'll be watching -- as will all the children who won't get to attend these wonderful new schools.

16:50 - 25 Jul 2008 [/y8/cols]

Lobbying success costs industry money

A good AP article points out that had the food industry not successfully lobbied the Bush administration to relieve them of "burdensome" paperwork requirements, they might not have lost $250 million over the tomatoes/jalapenos/salmonella crisis.

09:27 - 25 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Wed, 23 Jul 2008

What baby boom?

A subscriber wrote in to point out that I'd forgotten an important point in my article inspired by this deeply uninformed blog post (caution: fancy graphics, crashes my browser sometimes).

My only quibble is about responding to the assumption there was little population growth in RI. 1950 population of RI was about 792,000 but in 2000 it was about 1,067,000 an increase of 275,000 people, almost 35%, not an inconsiderable number (but pop. growth often ignored by both right and left).

Well, add that to the other points in the article. (It's in issue 32, just out.)

16:08 - 23 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Mon, 21 Jul 2008

Some references

For those interested in further reading about the studies I mentioned in this week's column (coming Wednesday and Thursday), read here:

  • Christopher and Sarah Lubienski's research comparing public and private schools using the NAEP math tests can be found here.
  • Courtney Bell's paper on school choice. Describes how different parents choose rationally among the choices they perceive, but points out that the choices they perceive aren't necessarily the choices education reformers think they have.
  • The data about school choice in Chicago were presented in the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The relevant chapters aren't available on line, though google is your friend here. But the book is a best-seller, so it won't be hard to come by a copy.

22:49 - 21 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Thu, 17 Jul 2008

How's that deregulation working out for you?

Last week the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a record increase in electric and gas utility rates. The commission chair was apologetic, but said the law was clear that National Grid is owed this rate increase because the rates they pay for electricity and gas have gone up.

So it's time to back up a little and ask about that law, isn't it?

John Adams wrote that ours should be a government of laws, not men, but men (mostly) wrote those laws. In this case, the law was written and pushed through the legislature largely through the efforts of George Caruolo, Democratic Representative from East Providence and House Majority leader during much of the 1990s. Through his work, Rhode Island became one of the leaders in the national movement to deregulate the market for electricity.

Actually, "deregulation" is a little awkward a term for what happened, since it's not like the PUC went out of the electricity-regulating business. We only separated the carriers from the suppliers. For example, Narragansett Electric used to generate electricity and might have delivered it to your house, but now National Grid has the wires, and Virginia's Dominion Energy owns the Manchester Street generating station you see from the highway in Providence. These days, you're buying your electricity from the suppliers and the carriers are just bringing it to you. Through the medium of the carriers, you can select any electric company you want, allowing competition among electric companies, which will drive down rates, right?

Unfortunately, it hasn't really worked that way. Most people have not taken the opportunity to shop around for electricity, for one thing. For another, regulating the carrier is pretty meaningless when the supplier is the one boosting the rates. It becomes regulation only of the unimportant part of the cost of your electric bill. This is what happened at the PUC last week.

In the 1990's, energetically abetted by the Clinton administration, a wave of electricty deregulation laws were adopted in states around the country. Shortly after that, electric generating companies found that they had some power in this brave new free market, and used it. They found convenient reasons to turn off some of their generators, sell their power to other states and engage in some much more arcane market manipulations too. This brought rolling blackouts and the electric crisis in California and the west. Enron -- a company whose business was speculating in energy supplies -- was deeply implicated in the crisis, as was Reliant Energy of Houston, who wound up paying half a billion dollars in 2005 to settle fraud claims over the episode.

Free market apologists say that the California crisis was because the legislature put retail price caps on electric rates while wholesale prices were deregulated. Without those caps, there would have been no rolling blackouts. And they're probably right. Legislators there made the mistake of believing that prices would go down under deregulation, so they didn't worry about the awkward effects of those price caps. But without them, the market manipulations would have sent electric rates into the stratosphere. California rate payers took it on the chin, but thanks to the rate caps, Pacific Gas and Electric shared the pain.

Back in Rhode Island, we didn't get the rolling blackouts, but the market hasn't exactly been sitting still here. It was said that deregulation would unleash the power of the free market on electricity, making power less expensive. So now it's ten years into this grand experiment in the free market. What happened?

In 2000, when you and I were first able to choose our electric provider, electricity was 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now it's 12.4 cents, up more than a third from 9.2 cents last week. Aggregate statistics from the US Energy Information Administration show that electric rates dropped about 15% lower when deregulation took effect in 1997. But you and I didn't see that savings. Some big industrial and institutional users, who could buy lots of electricity in bulk enjoyed that drop, and they pull down the average.

So it seems that ten years ago, we traded away our ability to regulate electricity prices in exchange for lower prices for big users. How's that working out for you now?

One more thing: Deregulation wasn't a free reform. According to the deal Caruolo negotiated with Narragansett Electric, we *paid* them to sell off their generators. They said they wouldn't be able to recover the cost of construction and other expenses when they sold the generators, so it was only fair that we pay them that difference. Rhode Island ratepayers wound up on the hook for about $1 billion in "stranded costs" to the utility. As it turned out, after deregulation, Narragansett Electric sold the generators for much more than they'd anticipated, but their shareholders reaped that windfall not you and me.

The best part? This is itemized on your electric bill every month under "Transition Charge." So you can see how much you pay each month for the benefits of the free market in electricity. Makes you feel warm all over doesn't it? Or is that because you turned off the AC?

22:35 - 17 Jul 2008 [/y8/cols]

Mon, 14 Jul 2008

Issue 32 is out

After a long wait, for which I apologize profusely.

  • Where has the money gone? If it's not welfare or medicaid, then why is government so much more expensive than it was 50 years ago? You probably won't like the answer.
  • Book review: Bad Money by Kevin Phillips
  • Press follies: Can we have good politics with a bad press?

Didn't you mean to subscribe?

10:11 - 14 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Moral hazard

So we're going to bail out Fannie and Freddie, the mortgage giants. But why? Maybe we need them, but do we need them to be private, for-profit entitities? Why, exactly? From here:

The government uses conditions all the time when it offers help to low and moderate income people. Unemployment insurance, TANF, food stamps, and even student loans come with all sorts of conditions.

It is only when it comes to giving money to extremely rich people that we find it impossible to impose conditions. Again, we could have told Fannie and Freddie that no executives will get more than $2 million a year in total compensation. We could have told their shareholders that they are out of luck, because that is what is supposed to happen when you invest in a bankrupt company.

Instead, we told the people who work as truck drivers, school teachers, and fire fighters that they will have to pay more in taxes to help some of the richest people in the country escape the consequences of their own stupidity. While kicking the poor is always fun for politicians, neither the Bush administration nor Congress are prepared to tell the very rich that they are on their own.

In 1991, RI suffered a banking disaster of our own. We had an opportunity then to turn that sow's ear into a silk purse, but passed on it because it would have meant government getting into the banking business, and that's anathema to people who are hide-bound by ideology. So because of ideology, we overlooked a practical solution that would have gotten everyone their money back without spending a dime of taxpayer money. Ideology is expensive.

10:08 - 14 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Sat, 12 Jul 2008

Good news about gas prices

Traffic deaths down.

11:22 - 12 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Fri, 11 Jul 2008

Swirling down the drain on the bus

Last week, I was a little startled to get a phone call from my daughter, who is 14. She plays the viola, you see, and is traveling with her high-school orchestra in Europe for ten days this summer, and I'm the kind of 20th-century guy who is surprised by phone calls from Germany.

But it was a happy call, and she reported to me that they were in Berlin, and told me about the Checkpoint Charlie museum (giving me the opportunity to reflect that the Berlin wall, which seemed eternal to me once, came down three years before she was born), and the Fernsehturm, a giant TV tower with a rotating platform from which to view the city. But she also reported that the trains and buses were cool, too. She was thrilled that she and her friends could get wherever they wanted to go -- by themselves. We had a 3-minute call, and probably half of it was about the feeling of independence and how much fun the trains were to use.

Now I'm relieved she's well and enjoying herself, even if I'm not perfectly sure I'm ready for her to be all that independent quite yet, thank you very much. But there you have her take on sensible public transit: fun and liberating.

Meanwhile, back home, the Governor vetoed a bill that would allow RIPTA buses to carry a radio beacon to delay the change of some traffic lights as they approach. (Many police and fire vehicles carry these beacons now.) According to his veto message it's an "increased danger to all motorists" to wait a bit longer at a traffic light, so hooray for the Governor for saving us from the scourge of better public transit.

But this is a shame. Public transit is a way to avoid worrying about parking, avoid wear and tear on one's car, and read or sleep on the way to and from work: less worry, more sleep. Plus, the bus driver on one of the routes I ride gives out cookies at Christmastime. How can you go wrong?

Longtime bus riders like me have viewed the last couple of years with a mixture of gratification and frustration. Gratification because so many former scoffers have seen the light and joined me on the bus. These people have realized they could save a ton of money and time by taking the bus. Of course the frustration is also because so many former scoffers have joined me on the bus. The buses I ride are frequently standing-room only, and on some routes the bus routinely passes waiting patrons for lack of room.

You can see the picture in the statistics. With the surge to $3 gas, RIPTA ridership rose 11.6% in 2006 -- a huge jump -- but only 5.8% in 2007. Now that gas is up past $4 and still climbing, the system's capacity not only hasn't grown to meet the new demand, but it's shrunk and is about to shrink more due to budget cuts.

The problem is that the system is stuck: endlessly starved of resources by a legislature and Governor who don't ever ride the bus themselves and don't see its value. The result: overcrowded and unpleasant riding conditions, schedules so sparse they barely work at all, and unreliable service to boot. The truth is that RIPTA is barely adequate as public transit, and the proof is in the number of cars parked at RIPTA's Elmwood Avenue garage each day -- even the drivers and managers who get a free ride don't take it.

You would think that $4 gas would be incentive enough for drivers to avoid driving, and I've heard stories about families curtailing summer driving trips this year. But are the streets perceptibly emptier? Not really, and the reason is that incentives are meaningless without alternatives.

Are you feeling pressed by high gas prices? Do you wish you had another way to get to work or shopping, to the movies or an evening out? In other places in the world, they have alternatives to cars. (And fewer drunk drivers, too.) Why not here, too? Despite the sprawl of the last 50 years, Rhode Island is still pretty compact. With energy and creativity, we could build a system that was actually an appealing and convenient way to get around the state, but we'd need many more buses on existing routes, and probably some new routes too.

Unfortunately, none of that seems to be in the cards. Is it possible to imagine a more inoffensive and minor way to improve RIPTA's service than to give the bus a slight advantage at traffic lights? Under this administration, even that is beyond the pale.

Robert Batting, the Governor's new appointment to the RIPTA board chair seems determined only to manage the agency's decline in a fiscally responsible way, and pushed through a rate increase as his first significant act. I suppose that's better than being stupid about it, but where is the vision for improving the system to one people could actually use to get around the state? Oh, right. We can't afford it, because according to our current leaders, the most important thing your government can do is less of everything.

My call from Berlin reminds me that a better system is possible. It's not free, but neither is gasoline, in case you hadn't noticed. Your government could help here, but won't.

21:52 - 11 Jul 2008 [/y8/cols]

National Grid

Annual report. See p.2 (profits up 27.9%).

11:16 - 11 Jul 2008 [/y8/jy]

Fri, 04 Jul 2008

Doing the GOP's work for them

In 1981, Ronald Reagan proposed cutting Medicaid by making it a "block grant" program instead of an "entitlement." Instead of giving each state however much they need to pay for care to the poor and disabled, the federal government would limit the amount spent on Medicaid each year by giving a set amount to each state and letting the state decide how to split it up. Understanding that the nice words about states' rights and independence were only a cover for cutting the program, this was roundly rejected by the Democratic Congress. Newt Gingrich proposed the same thing in the newly Republican Congress of 1995, and it was roundly rejected by the Democratic President. In 2003, George W. Bush proposed it yet again, but couldn't get it through even that Republican Congress.

But in 2008, Governor Donald Carcieri, House Speaker William Murphy and House Finance Chair Steven Costantino cooperated to give Bush exactly what he'd asked for, at least for Rhode Island. And if it goes through, we'll be the precedent for everyone else.

Under the current funding mechanism, Medicaid is not a single program, but several. The state receives money that it uses for care to the poor, for long-term care for the disabled and elderly, for uncompensated care to hospitals and a few smaller categories. The "waiver" being sought by the Carcieri administration would combine these all into one big "block grant" within which the state could move money back and forth.

It's not free money though. For every Medicaid dollar spent in Rhode Island, state pays about 48 cents and the federal government about 52 cents. If the state could find a way to get fewer Medicaid dollars from the feds, then it will cost us less money out of the state budget. Pretty smart, no?

Congress may have said no to block grants, but the Bush administration says it can administer the program this way to states who ask for it. The Governor's original budget proposal contained a request to do exactly that. This "waiver" request would also allow flexibility in program eligibility rules, as well as co-pay amounts and other changes.

The Governor's original budget also contained a proposal to save $67 million in Medicaid for long-term care by emphasizing home care over nursing facilities. This is an excellent idea, not least because home care can be much less expensive than a nursing home. But we're not going to save this much money in a single year unless you're talking about putting 25-year residents of some of these facilities into their wheelchairs and rolling them down to the curb. Many of these patients no longer have homes to return to. There aren't enough home-care service providers yet, either.

The Governor's budget also would have cut 7,400 adults from RIte Care, and raised the amounts poor people pay. The Assembly didn't cut nearly as many people, but it did acquiesce to changes that will make the program more expensive to use, so lots will drop the coverage anyway.

So of the two biggest pieces of Medicaid, you have one where the administration is on record that they intend to cut more in a single year than is really possible, and another part where they were prevented from cutting as much as they'd intended. And a waiver request that would allow funds to be shifted from one program to another. Hmmm. Think think think. I wonder what will happen to care for the poor if the waiver is granted?

Here's where the story gets complicated.

During budget deliberations in House Finance, the budget article proposing the waiver was eviscerated and replaced with a promise to convene public hearings to take up the issue. But when the budget debate on the floor of the House came around to that article, Finance Chair Costantino stood with a 26-page amendment that essentially restored the Governor's original language, really adding only that House Finance reserves the right to veto the waiver arrangement. Here's the best part: having demanded that everyone vote on this surprise 26-page amendment with only a minute or two to read it, most House members did exactly as they were told. Only three (David Segal and Steve Smith of Providence and Art Handy of Cranston) voted no.

So there you have it: in this bluest of blue states, our Democratic House leadership has achieved what Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush could not. To be fair, they did retain a veto over the waiver application, and at the hearings on Article 17, Costantino seemed critical of the waiver proposal. He asked for---and did not get---assurances that if the department was unable to achieve savings in long-term care that they wouldn't take it out of care for the poor.

On the other hand, he and the Finance Committee had months to come up with something different and did not. Furthermore, the Assembly leadership are on record as approving $67 million in cuts to Medicaid. Their latitude to reject any waiver proposal is very limited, whatever their intentions, because they have to make the bottom line add up.

The process is going forward now, with the administration working on the waiver application, and the federal government poised to consider it. Do you like the sound of this?

22:34 - 04 Jul 2008 [/y8/cols]

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