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Is our government bloated?

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a weight loss plan
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 23, 2014

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"I BELIEVE IN COMPETITION" Stenhouse aims to inspire change at the State House. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

April 26 marks a kind of debut for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the self-described “idea factory” that states its mission on forms it recently submitted to the IRS: “to relentlessly promote free market solutions to solve the critical economic, educational and governance issues facing the state and associated local governments in order to improve the economic health of the state and to return prosperity to the citizens.”

While the Center has held press conferences (like one earlier this month at the State House to release its “Spotlight on Spending” report), and while its staff members frequently appear on various local media outlets (research director Justin Katz appears weekly on WJAR NBC 10’s Wingmen” segment, offering right-wing perspectives on hotel maids’ efforts to unionize, proposed taxes on guns and ammo, and voter ID laws, among other topics), it has never produced a public event like Saturday morning’s “UnleashRI” debate at URI. The forum, which features local writers, national pundits, and college students, is titled “What’s Really In Our Best Interest?”

We’ll get to the details of that debate a bit later, but for now, it’s worth taking a look at the organization behind it. What is the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, exactly?

We’ve prepared a dossier to help you study up.

THE CENTER

If you’re picturing some kind of imposing home for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity — a glass cube in Middletown, say, or a concrete bunker in Smithfield with Hulk Hogan’s “I Am a Real American” theme song blasting from outdoor speakers — think again. There is actually is no proper headquarters for the RICFP. The CEO, research director, and outreach coordinator do most of their work from home.

When they do convene, it’s at the offices of an IT/software services firm in a nondescript corporate park in Lincoln. Inside, the walls of the office and conference room at Lighthouse Computer Services are lined with framed red, white, and blue New England Patriots jerseys. The company is owned by one of the Center’s board members, who lets RICFP staff use the space.

THE CEO

The sports theme of the RICFP’s de facto offices is fitting. Mike Stenhouse — a Harvard economics grad and corporate journeyman who has worked for an executive recruiting company, Staples, a dotcom startup, and his own company, International Sports Inc. — first started his career as a professional baseball player. Drafted by the Oakland A’s, he spent five years in the '80s in and out of the big leagues, shuttling between the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins, and Boston Red Sox, while charting a career batting average of .190. (He still wears a 1986 Red Sox American League Championship ring.)

Sports are integral to the way he sees the world, including politics, he says. “As an athlete, I believe in competition,” he says. “That’s also a feature of the free market: companies people should survive or thrive on their own.”

In Rhode Island, he says, he got involved because there was an absence of the competing ideas necessary for a democracy to thrive. The first Providence Journal op-ed he ever wrote was an impassioned argument against the proposed elimination of high school sports and other extracurricular programs due to budget cuts in his hometown of Cranston. “It resonated,” he says. “I got a ton of feedback. People started reaching out to me and that’s how I ended up in the think tank.”

THE PRINCIPLES

The clearest articulation of the Center’s ideas is likely found in their 16-point “Prosperity Agenda,” a list comprised, “of both high-impact, game-changing reforms as well as other policies to reverse what the Center refers to as ‘death by a thousand cuts syndrome,” as the Center describes it.

It’s here where you’ll find a roadmap to achieving a leaner (some would say “meaner”) state government: proposals to reform the state’s estate tax and repeal the $500 minimum franchise tax for businesses; encouragement to roll back corporate taxes and income taxes; recommendations for passing “Right to Work” legislation allowing citizens the option to opt out of compulsory union membership; and arguments for repealing laws requiring that a certain amount of purchased energy in Rhode Island come from renewable sources. (The Center is not big on climate change. In August 2013 Providence Journal op-ed, “Climate Alarms Deny the Reality in RI,” Stenhouse called out “global-warming alarmists” for a “shameless display” of support for a nationwide bus tour to raise awareness about the changing environment. “Whether global warming continues to exist or whether the contribution of human beings to climate change and whether tolerable behavioral changes can make a decisive difference are now in open dispute,” he wrote.)

The top item on the Prosperity Agenda — and a continual RICFP rallying cry — is the elimination of Rhode Island’s 7.0 percent sales tax. Such a policy, if enacted, would create more than 25,000 jobs, the Center says. It would also eliminate over $600 million in annual state revenue and nearly 6000 public sector jobs, the chief of the state Office of Revenue Analysis told The Providence Journal in February. The Journal also reported that the Center played a consulting role behind the scenes of Representative Jan Malik’s (D–Barrington, Warren) recently submitted bill to repeal the sales tax.

Another good place to dive into the RICFP’s oeuvre is that “Spotlight on Spending” report. The document, which identifies more than $220 million worth of “non-essential spending and taxes” in Governor Lincoln Chafee’s “bloated and unwieldy” Fiscal Year 2015 budget, received perhaps its sharpest response for a section that called for drastic reductions in funding for the Rhode State Council on the Arts. “[G]overnment funding of art rests on the chilling notion that a group of government officials, rather than art consumers, know what art is worthwhile,” it read.

Other recommendations in the report included eliminating the state Film and Television Office, reducing payroll on the governor’s staff and General Assembly staff by 15 percent each, reducing state-employee overtime expenses by $19 million, eliminating the quasi-public agency previously known as the Economic Development Corporation, and suggesting that URI hand off its nuclear reactor — response for “vaporizing more than $1 million per year”— “to an organization whose mission it fills more directly than the RI government” (that report is available at rifreedom.org/wp-content/uploads/ricfp-spotlightonspending-fy15.pdf).

THE OPPOSING VIEW

What do folks on the other side of the political spectrum think about the Center? Bob Plain would know.

As owner and editor of the lefty blog rifuture.org, Plain’s site is a veritable library of essays tossing darts at the RICFP, from posts lambasting the Center’s 2012 report, “Closing the Gap: How Hispanic Students in Florida Closed the Gap with All Rhode Island Students” to a local union chapter president’s retort to the Center’s Prosperity Agenda (“The unstated goal is to frame public servants as the enemy to a thriving economy.”) to Plain’s own post calling the Center a “stink tank” advocating “on behalf of out-of-state corporate interests and often against the working people of Rhode Island.”

“I’ve always called it the Center for the Freedom for the Prosperous,” Plain tells us. “They advocate for prosperity (not really freedom so much) for the people who are already prosperous.”

“Even though Rhode Island probably has as many far-right pundits as registered Republicans,” he adds, “the collective organism known as the mainstream media tends to pay much closer attention to right wing economic advocacy than left wing economic advocacy.”

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