The General Assembly is on vacation this week. No hearings are scheduled. We wanted to take this time to look at a couple of the big issues that are currently in the news.
RI’s ‘Big Dig’ Is “The” Excuse for Tolls. Both The Left and the Right Believe that It’s Not Really Needed.
IF THE 6/10 CONNECTOR IS NOT NEEDED AND RATHER, IT IS REPLACED BY A TRUE BOULEVARD, THE COSTS WILL BE SIGNIFICANTLY LESS AND THERE WILL BE NO EXCUSE FOR TOLLS.
As you all know, the 6/10 Connector repair, along with the unwarranted bus lane and bike path, was the largest piece of the pie to receive funding from the implementation of Tolls. Groups on both the left and the right have provided a strong argument that, not only does the current 6/10 Connector fail to serve the surrounding communities well, its repair is a huge waste of tax dollars when RI would be better served with a much less expensive true boulevard. The true boulevard option is a surface (no bridge or tunnel) option that allows for less expensive bus lanes, alleviates the need for most of the bridges, needs no expensive tunnels and extends the bus service into the communities through which they pass.
The original budget for that mile and a half stretch of highway was $800 million but the Providence Journal now reports that the DOT has upped the ante with its 'Big Dig' proposal, a faux hybrid boulevard they are calling a “capped highway/boulevard”, to $995 million. This represents $595 million for the cost of the highway portion of the project and an additional $400 million for the bus rapid transit line. And while we know intuitively that the bigger the project, the bigger the cost overruns, a Canadian magazine, On-Site, references a recent study by the Institute On Municipal Finance & Government confirming it.
The DOT’s plan for a new system of tunnels is not what opponents had in mind and it is ludicrous to propose such a project, especially knowing that the Massachusetts 'Big Dig' ended with outrageous cost overruns - original estimate, $2 billion, final cost, $21 billion.
In an effort to push this through even faster than the tolls themselves, the DOT, after just releasing their 'Big Dig' proposal a little over three weeks ago, held public hearings last week pretending to get your input. By now you have seen the condemnation the public encountered when trying to question the DOT’s process of creating the plan. Director Alviti became aggressive with an elderly man, pointing his finger and replying “..Let me tell you something pal….”. Not a way to win the hearts and minds of those questioning the need for this boondoggle.
The DOT submitted its request for additional federal funding under the federal FASTLANE grant program on Thursday, April 14, just one day after the last public hearing, based on this new hybrid for the 6/10 Connector. Clearly there was no time to incorporate any of the public’s concerns into the federal application.
And while the DOT denies it, we are witnessing the same bait and switch tactics we saw in the Long Term Economic Development plan turned RhodeMap RI sustainability plan, as well as the Job Creation Guaranty Plan turned 38 Studios debacle, playing out in the DOT’s Toll plan as we watch the Bridge repair plan turn into the 6/10 Connector ‘Big Dig’.
James Kennedy is a citizen who has been looking at the 6/10 Connector for two years now. Mr. Kennedy represents a view from the left. You can read his opinion about the controversial ‘hybrid’ boulevard, with its incumbent tunnels, bridges and green space. In an April 11 opinion piece, he calls on Governor Raimondo to trash the idea of a “hybrid” boulevard, with its incumbent tunnels, bridges and green space, “before it becomes the next Icelandic embarrassment.”
Toll Gantry to Go Up Next Spring - Testing the Waters?
In a related story, while the administration had said that it might take up to 3 years to erect the first gantries, in a new twist, Channel 10 reported this week that one gantry will go up in the spring to provoke a lawsuit, possibly testing the waters for the legality of the toll legislation.
Chris Maxwell, president of the RI Truckers Association has said all along that case law is on their side when it comes to tolling only trucks. According to the report, the Truckers Association will bring that suit when the first gantry assesses a toll.
Back in March, a resolution was introduced (H 7944) that simply asked Governor Raimondo to seek an advisory opinion from the RI Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of the toll legislation. Of course, the resolution was held for further study.
But what are the implications of this acceleration in erecting the first toll, aside from the costly litigation? Of course, if the toll legislation is upheld, the state will move forward with the tolls. If the courts come down on the other side, will that mean tolls on cars much sooner than one might have expected?
Leaders, Are Your Picking Up What RIPEC’s Putting Down About RI Education?
Despite all the talk about improving RI’s education system, our elected officials have let us and our children down for years and they continue down that path. A recently released report from RIPEC examines why, when RI invests the same amount of money in education as MA, our state just cannot get it right.
Huge Divergence In Results Despite Same Spending.
“RI and MA devote similar amounts of financial resources to education and have similar student demographics, yet, despite this, MA students consistently outperform most other states on national tests and its schools are widely regarded as being among the best in the US,” remarked RIPEC’s John Simmons.
And RIPEC is not talking about small differences. They cite the following statistics - English proficiency in RI 37%, MA 60%, a whopping 23 point difference; Math proficiency, even worse, in RI 28%, MA 52%, another eye-popping 24 points. And mind you, this is all in spite of similar funding levels and student demographics.
There is no excuse and this is not a new problem! Generations of RI kids have been shortchanged. This falls on the shoulders of our elected leaders - the Governor, the Speaker and the Senate President. But it also falls on our local elected officials. Every year, school committees come asking for more money. City and Town councils need to step up and demand that state government walk 30 miles over the border and mimic what Massachusetts is doing since what they are doing seems to work. And by the way, don’t think that if you live in a high performing RI school district you’ve dodged a bullet. According to RIPEC’s report, “Top-performing districts in MA substantially outperform the top-performing districts in RI.”
The Buck Stops with Elected Leaders.
RIPEC cites structural differences between the MA education system and the RI system, and, if you read between the lines, it is primarily due to the power the teachers unions have. This is not “new” news in RI but it is rooted in the collective bargaining agreements that have been negotiated with RINEA and the RIAFTHP.
Speaker Mattiello, along with his followers in the General Assembly, immediately took to supporting public unions by undoing the reforms pushed by former Commissioner Gist - annual teacher evaluations and standardized testing for graduation. The graduation requirement was specifically cited in RIPEC’s report as an important step that was taken in neighboring MA and should be implemented in RI. RI had that until Speaker Mattiello put a halt to it. Under Commissioner Gist (recognized by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world” for her overhaul of the teacher evaluation system), RI also had standard teacher evaluations, based on input from across the state but that has been attacked by our elected leaders. As one of her first acts in office, Governor Raimondo fired Commissioner Gist, who specifically stated that she would like to stay. Can’t have a strong, reform-minded commissioner if you want to make friends with the public unions.
Seeing as RI borders MA, one might think that it would be easy to develop relationships with the neighboring state and simply adopt many, if not all, of the education practices of MA. But that would mean putting RI’s children first when it comes to the classroom and betraying promises and backroom deals to teachers unions. The Providence Journal’s John Kostrzewa said the same thing on Sunday, “So if neighboring Massachusetts has proven to be the education leader, why not learn from the best? Why not debate the best big ideas? Why not give the state a better chance to succeed? Why not think of our kids first?” We agree.
Trying to Snuff Out a Shining Star in RI’s Education System.
That leads us to the new Education Commissioner, Commissioner Wagner, whose recent unveiling of a plan to create “empowerment schools” looks like more of a scheme for trying, yet again, to placate teachers unions, although, outwardly, they appear to oppose it. It is clear that the teachers unions do not like the idea of choice in our public education system, namely the charter school concept, particularly because these schools have seen so much success. Is this plan for empowerment schools a means to disrupt the charter school system?
According to a 2015 WPRI article, “there is a widely cited 2013 study from Stanford University that said students at traditional schools would need 108 extra days of school to catch up to their charter school peers in math and 86 additional days to catch up in reading.” Amanda Fenton, director of state and federal policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers said that “RI’s charter sector is one of the highest performing in the country.” Why would our elected leaders want to mess up the small piece of RI’s education system that is considered a shining star, a beacon in the dark night of education in RI?
The Assault On Charters Continues In High Gear This Year.
Early on in this legislative session, the House reintroduced and passed Representative Serpa’s bill, H 7051, a carbon copy of last year’s H 5160 (and companion S 87), which passed both the House and the Senate in 2015. Senator Satchell has a companion bill (S 2019) in this year as well, although it has not been heard yet. This legislation is a thinly veiled attempt to put the kibosh on new and expanded charter schools, which, among other things, would require the sending school district’s council approval.
And then there is Representative O’Grady’s bill, H 7066, passed by the House this year, that would require that the Board of Education make the determination that a new or expanded charter school would not create a detrimental effect on the finances of the sending district. His same bill (H 5555) passed both the House and the Senate last year. This legislation would be another significant blow to the growth in charter schools.
Most importantly, it goes without saying that our children should receive the best education our tax dollars can provide and right now, it is evident that crossing the border for your children’s education makes the most sense.
A Providence Journal Editorial points out that the public engages in a more lively debate about the state logo and campaign debacle than in Education Reform! That says a lot about the importance we, as taxpayers, place on education.
We urge you to contact the Governor, the Speaker and the Senate President and tell them you want RI’s education system to produce results like the MA education system and you want real reform to start now, without putting the brightly shining charter schools out of business.
Last But By No Means Least - Governor’s Line Item Veto
In an Op-Ed last week, Ken Block explains why the Line Item Veto is so important to Rhode Islanders. Not only will the Line Item veto power help provide a better balance in power amongst the 3 branches of government, but it will also provide more transparency in the budgeting process. And that transparency is desperately needed. Year after year, the Speaker develops a budget, passes it in the late hours of the morning and then the governor is required to either accept it in its totality or veto it.
If you support a more transparent government and a better balance between the Legislative and Executive branch, we urge you to sign the petition and pass it along to friends and family to sign. Then contact Speaker Mattiello yourself and let him know you want more transparency in the budgeting process through the Line Item Veto legislation.
The 2016 election will be important on so many issues, not the least of which is the highly publicized Toll issue along with the 6/10 ‘Big Dig’. But remember, Education Reform impacts our state’s economy and our ability to find the talented young people to provide the human resources needed in many of the industries we hope to attract. Good Government reform impacts the way outsiders see us and make decisions about where to put down stakes.
It is up to you to Remember in November.