The Good and the Bad on Newsmakers
It shows how far behind I am on catching up that I’ve just managed to watch the episode of Newsmakers featuring OSPRI’s Bill Felkner and Pat Crowley of the NEA, RIFuture, and various other special interest groups.
Bill did admirably, but the viewer can observe something that I’ve found to typical of such head-to-heads. Crowley got in all of his (no doubt) scripted talking points, from “astroturf” to “tax cuts for the rich,” while Felkner tried to give examples and put particular facts up for discussion. It’s difficult to understand why the three other participants in the discussion let Pat get through the whole spiel, but the following quotation illustrates the disinterest in clarity and extemporaneous discussion:
What’s wrong with working people making a good salary and having a decent benefits package? I mean, that’s really what this comes down to. Instead there’s arguments from taxpayer groups and from the right saying that just because a working person makes a living wage that that’s a bad thing. No. That’s a good thing. It’s the model that we need to actually need to encourage more in this state. And I think the fact that this is being positioned as working people versus taxpayers — I think that what that actually shows is that there’s a political agenda in the state that actually is trying to disempower working people, not so that the wealth is spread throughout the state, but so that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few. And I think what this last weekend [of union strikes during the mayoral conference in Providence] highlights is that working people in the state of Rhode Island — especially organized workers — are tired of being used as scapegoats for a political agenda.
The strategic objective: equate public-sector unionists with “working people.” If the reality is that give-aways to organized labor are not sustainable and inevitably harm those who are most susceptible to harm — private-sector workers — do a quick hop-skip to distract from that fact through allusion to some vague “political agenda” pursued by rich masterminds. The distraction was certainly not hindered by host Tim White’s reference to Bill as “from the conservative think tank Ocean State Policy Research Institute”, while Pat was simply “from RIFuture.org and the NEA.” (Earlier, White called RIFuture “left-leaning.”)
Crowley effected this sort of maneuver throughout the show. To White’s question about the economic damage should the NEA sue the state over pension reforms, Crowley couldn’t even muster a “look, we appreciate that litigation puts an additional strain on taxpayers, but…” Instead, he walked away with this, correcting Tim on what his question should have been:
Well, think that the real question is why do the public sector workers and the teachers of Rhode Island have to keep on taking the hit? I mean, like I said, there was another reform in 2006. Prior to that there was a major reform in 1997. Prior to that, there was one in 1992. All of those reforms were taking benefits away. So the idea that all of these things are just heaped upon teachers and public sector workers simply isn’t true. And every time there’s a reform, there’s a promise. “This is the last time guys” “Really, this is the last time.” “No, this time’s really it.” So how many times do the public sector workers and the teachers of the state have to open up their pocketbook so that the state can balance the budget, especially when the state has year after year cut taxes for rich people. Cut taxes for corporations. The reason we’re in a budget problem in this state isn’t simply because we pay our teachers well; it’s because, over the last decade, we’ve cut taxes, cut taxes, and cut taxes, and created this economic black hole for ourselves.
Thus does Crowley brush away decades of unbelievable hand-outs that have made public-sector workers, especially teachers, Rhode Island’s elite class on the grounds that, every now and then, the gorging must be mildly restrained. Inasmuch as most viewers don’t have the history Rhode Island’s pension system at their fingertips, Pat’s references might as well be plucked from a hat, but they do lend an air of legitimacy to his complaint. Describing the actual changes would likely expose his game. In 1992, the state introduced the requirement that pension recipients endure the long slog of 10 years of actual work for the state in order to be eligible; I didn’t find any change in 1997, but in 1994, the General Assembly introduced a requirement of at least 20-hours-per-week of work. And in 2005, introduction of minimum ages (a ripe old 59) and other changes, as to cost of living adjustments (COLAs), were already known to be insufficient and only applied to those not already vested with 10 years of service.
As for the supposed promise of no further cuts, perhaps we’re getting a whisper of behind-the-scenes talk, because such declarations are certainly not prominently made in the public. Whatever the case, it is irresponsible of legislators to make them.
And none of that touches upon the deeper debate about the effects of tax cuts on revenue. (Tax revenue from “the rich” has actually gone up, over the last decade, both in real terms and as a percentage of total taxes collected.)
Bill began to turn the tables at around minute 14:30, with his introduction of some of the structural strategies whereby left-wing groups shuffle money and redirect influence. He also made a strong point, against the combined efforts of Crowley and Ian Donnis to challenge the transparency of OSPRI on the grounds that it doesn’t disclose small-dollar donors, responding that people give freely to such groups in a way that is not true of public-sector unions.
He could have further noted that the public has the same amount of information about, say, Ocean State Action as about OSPRI. That point was brought to the fore by the minor spat over what organizations are housed in NEA-RI’s headquarters at 99 Bald Hill Rd. Crowley disputed that Marriage Equality RI is located there, although as of last August, the group’s tax exemption was registered at that address. More significant is the reference to WorkingRI; although Bill may have misspoken about its relationship with the address, a little research shows how little difference it makes.
The group’s Web site isn’t very informative when it comes to its operations or management structure. (Its address is a P.O. box in Warwick.) But a 2008 Projo article about the links between labor organizations in RI names Frank Montanaro as the chairman of its board. Montanaro is also president of the RI AFL-CIO, as well as chairman of the Institute for Labor Studies & Research, which is indeed headquartered at 99 Bald Hill. NEA-RI President Lawrence Purtill is listed as the Institute’s secretary treasurer, a post that NEA-RI Executive Director Bob Walsh fills (according to the Projo) for WorkingRI.
WorkingRI is a prominent player on RIFuture, by the way, and the AFL-CIO has a very large ad in the hardly-prominent position at the bottom of the blog.
Bill’s point, in short, is irrefutable, which is why it’s disappointing to watch an episode of Newsmakers hover in the zone of talking-point assertions. But ensuring such outcomes is, I suppose, part of Patrick Crowley’s job — which may explain why his union pays him $5 per year for political activity, according to Felkner.