Things rarely are black and white, so in looking at what the General Assembly and Governor Donald L. Carcieri accomplished in the now-concluded legislative session, the picture isn’t entirely bleak.
For example, sex servitude is out. If Carcieri signs a bill passed in the closing days, it will be a felony to force someone into “commercial sexual activity” and to traffic in people for that sort of business. Further, if you coerce someone younger than 17 into sexual servitude, you’ll face 40 years in the slammer.
But that’s about it for progress, especially if you are a child and your parents happen to be poor. The State House grownups don’t appear this year to have been much in your corner.
Instead, they’ve turned that old family values standard on its ear, the one which says that parents always sacrifice for their children. The new standard is: Mom and Dad’s taxes are too high; kids should ante up.
The School Bell Tolls for Thee
The Democratic-dominated General Assembly took away the paltry three percent increase budgeted by the Republican Carcieri for an increase in state aid to schools, suggesting that local school boards talk teachers into cutting costs. That means things are going to be worse for 150,000 public school children. In this case, Mom and Dad may get whacked, too, possibly paying higher property taxes (Rhode Island’s most onerous tax). Or some schools may cut programs and services. But only in the General Assembly’s dreams is it likely that unions and school boards will negotiate cheaper contracts for teachers, as House leaders suggested. Nor should teachers be scapegoated, if labor leaders, like Robert A. Walsh Jr. of the National Education Association Rhode Island, are correct in saying teachers here are paid on par with those in Massachusetts and less than their peers in Connecticut.
Off to the Big House We Shall Go
I’ve heard higher estimates, but at least 200 young people aged 17 (but who can’t vote, drink, or do other grownup things) are now to be tried in adult courts and sent to the Adult Correctional Institutions. So, instead of going to Family Court and the Training School, both of which are rehabilitative systems, they will be taking advanced courses in adult crime at the ACI. No one even bothers to argue that the ACI is a better place for them, just cheaper: $40,000 a year at the ACI; about $98,000 at the Training School. Family Court Chief Justice Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. told me that the new standard will exclude 17-year-olds from such programs as a special drug court, which, he says, has a repeat-offender rate of less than three percent.
Lights Out. And Stop Shivering
The new budget postpones an expensive, if modest, program that would have helped some of the thousands of families who every winter get their gas and electricity shut off, or whose furnaces run out of oil, because they can’t pay back bills. Maybe 9000 of the very poorest families were to get extra help. Now their hopes rest on accelerated global warming, or on Congress coming up with more heating-assistance. (Less money is expected from Washington than last year). In the meantime, kids, grab a sweater.