The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIFebruary 16th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
Welcome to another edition of my weekend column, back on schedule after a one-week blizzard outage. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to email@example.com. For quick hits all week long, follow me on Twitter: @tednesi.
1. Scituate’s police pension fiasco is a great illustration of why governments should pay for pension benefits when they’re earned, not when they’re collected. As Josh Barro has explained at length, pensions are a component of employee compensation, and therefore their cost should be covered when the worker is doing whatever job is earning him or her the future benefit. (Think about how your employer puts money into your 401k account with each paycheck.) For obvious reasons current taxpayers seem to prefer promising pensions now but sticking the bill with future taxpayers – it keeps taxes lower. That, however, is neither fair nor sustainable. As we’re seeing, current taxpayers don’t want to pay for promises that someone else made decades ago, especially if they’re dissatisfied with current services. And who can blame them? In addition, the principle of pre-funding is even more important if pensions are an unchangeable contract, as the unions argue in their current lawsuit. Barro thinks politicians just can’t be trusted with defined-benefit pensions, and therefore everyone should move to 401k-style systems. Others – including Dean Baker and, to a lesser extent, Gina Raimondo – say those defined-contribution systems are inadequate and unnecessarily expensive. Perhaps there’s a middle ground that pension traditionalists can get behind: if the law requires pension benefits to be paid in full, the law should require that pension contributions be made in full, too.
2. This will get people talking: Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jim Langevin, David Cicilline and Patrick Kennedy are co-hosting a breakfast fundraiser for Lincoln Chafee on Monday, Feb. 25 at Peck Madigan Jones, a lobbying firm in Washington. Longtime Clinton confidante Harold Ickes is among those on the host committee. The fact that the all-Democratic congressional delegation is raising money for the independent governor doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be joining their party; rather, it may mean he’s preparing to splinter the Democratic Party for a second election cycle in a row. I wonder what Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras think?
3. Speaking of Mayor Taveras, I talked with him a few days ago about his energetic use of Twitter to figure out which streets needed the most plowing after the blizzard. “I think people really appreciated it, to be honest with you,” he said. “They want to know that help is on the way, that their complaint has been heard and somebody’s going to do something about it.” Taveras demurred when I asked how much sleep he got during and after the storm: “It’s amazing what the human body can do when it needs to do some of these things.” Having a newborn baby was probably good preparation.
4. Rhode Island’s leaders have a new Public Enemy No. 1: plastic bags. Barrington has banned them, and now Providence Rep. Maria Cimini wants to do the same. But is this bit of feel-good policymaking actually bad for public health? That’s what National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru says, arguing the bag bans have inadvertently caused outbreaks of diarrhea, nausea and E. coli. “The best course for government,” he writes, “is probably to encourage people to recycle their plastic bags – or, maybe, just let people make their own decisions.”
5. I recently finished Matt Yglesias’ urbanist manifesto “The Rent is Too Damn High,” and its lessons are highly applicable to Rhode Island, which is the second-densest state and plagued by high housing costs. Yglesias argues that places where land is expensive should be densely built “to ensure office and apartment rents stay reasonable.” He continues: “It’s absurd for many urban areas to suffer chronic shortfalls of affordable housing. Undistinguished structures should, if built on expensive land, be torn down and replaced by substantially taller ones, and vacant lots should be built up to as much density as the market can bear. If people have strong feelings about not wanting to live on the same block as a tall building, they can move or they can pay what it costs to make it worth a neighboring property owner’s while to avoid building taller. Using regulatory fiat to curb construction rather than bearing the cost directly doesn’t change the fact that there’s a price to be paid for using the land inefficiently. It merely pushes the costs elsewhere.” That, Rhode Islanders, is a big reason why your rents (and mortgages) are too damn high.
6. What went wrong at the polls last November? Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion tackles that question in an extensive new report that should be required reading for the Board of Elections and the General Assembly. The question, as always, is whether lawmakers really want to improve how the state runs its elections – since, by definition, they’re pleased with the results from last time.
7. “Life and Times: Episodes 1-4″ is a new “postmodern pop opera” that relates the “epic journey through the addled memory bank of a young woman growing up in middle-class Rhode Island.” How about that? It recently finished a run at New York’s Public Theatre, and I hope the seats are comfortable: the show is eight hours long. Who’ll perform it in Providence?
8. A loyal Saturday Morning Post reader points us to a new documentary called “The Last Gladiators,” which chronicles the career of famed pro-hockey enforcer Chris Nilan. Some of you may remember “Nuckles” Nilan making headlines locally about a decade ago when he was forced out of a part-time gig with Secretary of State Ed Inman for allegedly working less-than-regular hours. Matt Brown made Nilan into a campaign issue when he successfully challenged Inman in 2002.
9. Did you catch Tim White’s story Thursday night about testing anxiety in Rhode Island schools? Watch it here, and then read Dan McGowan’s stunning sidebar revealing that 40% of high-school juniors are in danger of failing to graduate.
10. The £400m fine Royal Bank of Scotland will pay for manipulating Libor has renewed speculation about whether the bank will sell its profitable Providence-based Citizens Financial division. Count New Statesman columnist Douglas Blakey among those who think the British government should “stop pussyfooting about” the much-debated decision and just pull the trigger. “RBS will, eventually, have to bow to the inevitable and cash in its Citizens chips,” Blakey wrote last week. “It is now time for the government, via UK Financial Investments Limited, the organisation set up immediately after the October 2008 bailouts of Lloyds and RBS, to bear its teeth. It could start by leaning heavily on RBS to focus on getting its domestic market in order and sell off Citizens.” What would that mean for Rhode Island?
11. My grandfather and namesake, retired Attleboro District Court Judge Edward A. Lee, died Thursday at the age of 92. He was a quintessential member of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. Papa Ed grew up in Attleboro between the wars, the son of devout Irish Catholic immigrants without much money but with a strong belief in education. He signed a minor-league baseball contract with a Boston Braves affiliate in 1942, but World War II derailed that; Providence College actually moved his graduation up from June 1943 to December 1942 so he and his classmates could enter the military sooner. After serving in Europe under Lt. Gen. William Simpson, he got his law degree from Georgetown and then came back to Attleboro, got married and grew into a pillar of the community. Governor Foster Furcolo appointed him to the bench in 1957 (even though, being Irish, Papa Ed was a Kennedy man), which made him the court’s youngest judge at just 36. I associate my grandfather most with two beloved civic institutions: the Attleboro Public Library, which he led as president of the trustees from 1979 to 2012, and the Attleboro YMCA, where he exercised faithfully until he was nearly 90. Papa Ed was flawed, as all of us are, but he was devoted to his family and his community. Gentle and smart, a history buff, he was everlastingly supportive of his eldest grandson. I love him dearly, and I miss him already.
12. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Providence Mutual Insurance CEO Sandra Parrillo. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.
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