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Monday, February 23, 2015

Spring really is coming; tax myths, energy ennui and Charlestown invasion

Charlestown Tapas: tasteful bites of news for the discerning Progressive Charlestown reader

One of spring’s most wonderful signs

One sure way to know that this dreary winter with its succession of snow and ice storms is almost over is when you start to see announcements for the annual Easter Peeps® diorama contests. I just spotted the New London Day’s notice of their contest. They run a pretty decent one, although my own personal favorite is the Washington Post’s. There are dozens of imitators.

The general idea is to use marshmallow Peeps®, one of American industry’s perfect foods, in little tableaus that will catch the judge’s eye and make people laugh. The themes can be political, historical, literary or theatrical, pop culture, etc. Whatever works.

Talkin’ taxes

Just as Peeps® are a harbinger of spring, so too are the W-2 and 1099 forms we get so we can prepare and pay our state and local income taxes on or before April 15.

During 2014’s campaign, there was a lot of talk from Republican challengers such as new Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi who now represents Charlestown and the rest of District 36 (which he would need a map to find, since he actually lives in Lincoln, not in the District). 

Flip promised that he would introduce a state law to exempt Social Security from state income tax. When the time came, the lead bill to exempt Social Security and other retirement income was actually introduced by Rep. Bob Craven (D-No. Kingstown) who is also an assistant Charlestown town solicitor.

Flip ended up signing on to two bills introduced by Republican colleagues that have no hope of passage.

Driving the issue is the myth that state taxes are causing Rhode Islanders to move to other states, especially Florida, when they retire. In fact, the two leading reasons for Rhode Island’s rather modest out-migration are the lack of affordable housing (which is something we can address) and sunnier, warmer weather (which we have no power to change).

The tax argument took another hit in a recent survey that showed Rhode Island is only ranked #38 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for tax burden. Repeating, #38!

All of the rest of New England (except New Hampshire) come out worse than Rhode Island.

This isn’t the only myth at work in the deliberations over cutting income taxes. Rhode Island’s most powerful politico, Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello who supports Bob Craven’s legislation to cut taxes on retirement income, has been repeatedly asked whether the real priority should be on middle-class tax relief by taking back some of the huge tax cuts for the rich.

To which Mattiello has answered, "There haven't been tax cuts for the rich" in Rhode Island.
The Providence Journal’s Politifact took this claim on and awarded Mattiello a nice “False” rating. Since 2006, Rhode Island has not only cut income tax rates for the top brackets but also changed the estate tax to exempt more heirs from taxation.

In the interest of full disclosure, when I turn 66 in October, I will start collecting Social Security. Cathy and I stand to see just about our entire Rhode Island income tax bill disappear (since almost our entire income comes from Social Security, pensions and earnings on retirement accounts) if Bob Craven’s bill passes as currently written. 

Which is nice for us and others like us, but is by no means a factor in whether we stay in Rhode Island or leave, and may not be in the best interests of the majority of people in the state.

And speaking of surveys…

My birthplace came in last
I know a lot of Charlestown residents are scared to death of urban areas and love living in Charlestown because it offers them a safe alternative to, for example, Central Falls. Even though I was actually born in Central Falls, I prefer Charlestown, too.

But Charlestown is not the safest place to be in Rhode Island, not by a long shot. According to a new study by Movoto Real Estate, Charlestown only ranks at #15 among Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns. Yes, Central Falls comes in dead last. But Charlestown falls in behind Richmond coming in at #5 and South Kingstown at #8.

Hopkinton was ranked #11, Block Island #16, North Kingstown #17 and Westerly #23.
Overall, Rhode Island is the 14th safest state in the nation. The list also shows a sharp divide between urban (all bottom-ranked) and rural/suburban (all top-ranked).

In another survey, Rhode Island was ranked #2 in the country for having the best anti-bullying laws and policies. I shared this finding with a friend who is a leader in CABINS (Community Against Bullying In Schools), which BTW, has its major fund-raiser coming up. She commented that:
“Overall there's more consciousness about [school bullying] all around, especially from teachers and school depts. who know their funding can decrease with test score zeroes from kids too afraid to attend school.   There's now a software program in use by many towns & cities as in Lincoln called PBIS, (Positive  Behavior Intervention System), that tracks behaviors and offers positive rewards when students are 'caught' doing the right thing.”
As usual, GoLocalProv weighed in with perhaps its 100th survey showing that Rhode Island sucks (what is it with those guys?), this time a survey that says that Rhode Island is the worst in the United States for “Social Well Being,” whatever that means. We’re down there with West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. They say the fifth best are South Dakota, Wyoming, South Carolina, Virginia, and Nebraska

Bad “Kleen” energy

There was recent news involving the most ambitious enterprise ever launched by Phil Armetta, the controversial owner of what most of us call the Copar Quarries, with sites in Bradford on the Charlestown line, Charlestown itself, Richmond and several in Connecticut.

Before financing the launch of the Copar Quarries, Armetta was the principal investor in “Kleen Energy, a scheme to use an old quarry as the site of a large scale industrial “recycling.”

In 2010, Kleen Energy blew up, killing six workers and leading to a proposed OSHA fine of $6.7 million against one of the lead Kleen Energy contractors, Keystone Construction. That was almost five years ago, but according to the Hartford Courant, Keystone has finally paid the first installment on its penalty: $35,715.

Naughty Nuke

Our local nuclear power plant, Millstone, got off with no fines at all for yet another spate of safety violations. These violations were so bad that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a closed-door session with Dominion Resources, the Virginia-based owner of Millstone, to discuss the "apparent violation, security significance and regulatory concerns,"

Later, the NRC released yet another report citing four more safety violations, including more problems with the plant’s cooling pumps (without which a major nuclear catastrophe could take place), but levied no fines.

Nasty National Grid

Blake is our hero!
Nobody is happy with National Grid’s recent rate hike of almost 30% and our media-hound new state Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi saw opportunity in everyone else’s woes.

After the rate hike was announced, Filippi promised that as soon as he took his new seat in the General Assembly, he would introduce legislation to exempt from state taxes and fees the amount of any rate hike that exceeds the rate the utility charged at the end of 2014.

He introduced the bill one month later than he had promised. The odds of this bill passing, regardless of its merits, is very close to zero.

Flip’s news release does not explain how any lost revenues to the state will be made up. That’s a pretty serious problem given that new Governor Gina Raimondo is projecting a state deficit of $500 million over the next three years.

Filippi hasn’t done anything yet on his other big campaign promises, most conspicuously how he was going to lead the charge as soon as he was sworn in to rein in renegade mining operations such as the Copar/Armetta Quarry in Bradford.

He has had time to write for GoLocalProv musing on what the US Supreme Court might do in their pending decision on Obamacare and what that decision might mean for Rhode Island. 

I’ll save you the trouble of reading the article (though if you must read it, click here) by giving you the summary: he doesn’t know how the Court will rule and he doesn’t know what it will mean for Rhode Island, but regardless, it is a matter that requires some deep and prolonged thinking.

Thank you, Flip, for sharing that with us instead of dealing with Copar.

National Grid invades Charlestown

National Grid has installed a new weather station in Charlestown and six other coastal Rhode Island communities in collaboration with Earth Networks, the folks who developed the Weather Bug® ap.

If we let National Grid get away with their invasion, will this be next?
According to National Grid’s news release, the data collected by this station and the others will be used primarily by National Grid to plan its responses to severe weather situations by giving them more precise information on local conditions. There will be some sharing of the information with town emergency and public works departments. For example, Westerly used the data to plan during Winter Storm Juno.

National Grid apparently installed its Charlestown weather station without expressed, explicit permission of the town – there is no record of any approvals granted to National Grid by the Charlestown Town Council, Planning Commission or Zoning Board of Review.

If these CCA Party-controlled bodies are going to be consistent with the “Slattery Rule” (invoked against the state Water Resources Board) and Charlestown’s well-established practices regarding the Narragansett Indian Tribe, no new land uses may be undertaken by anybody unless the town approves it.

Let’s watch and see what Charlestown does in response to National Grid’s infringement on the CCA Party’s sacred principle.

Elaine Morgan introduces her first bill

Elaine Morgan, crime fighter
Alleged police impersonator State Senator Elaine Morgan introduced her first piece of legislation, the Senate version of a House bill by Rep. Doreen Costa (R-Tea Party) that would boost the penalties for persons convicted of sex trafficking from a maximum of forty years to a maximum of fifty years. 

This is one of those “sure, why not?” kind of bills that Rep. Costa often introduces – symbolic, feel-good bills are the only kind she can get passed.

Like every normal person, I think sex traffickers are scum and deserve harsh punishment. Who doesn’t? It’s not like they have a lobby, although maybe they share a lobbyist with the pro-gun or pro-tobacco folks. 

But bumping up the sentence by ten years won’t mean all that much either for deterence or for punishment, especially when you consider that many sex traffic busts also involve federal felonies, including kidnapping, plus multiple other state charges. So there are already plenty of prosecutorial tools available to send sex traffickers away for a very long time.