TGIF: 12 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

May 9, 2014

Welcome back to my Friday column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me through the week via the twitters. Let's head in.

1. A state-commissioned report by SJ Advisors of Minnesota says Rhode Island's debt will sink to junk bond status if the state skips paying back 38 Studios' bondholders. The finding buttresses the refrain from Governor Lincoln Chafee and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, among other state leaders. So how will House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello balance an unpopular decision to include $12.3 million for repaying 38 Studios' investors in the fiscal 2015 budget with his support from many opponents of repayment? (After taking over from Gordon Fox, Mattiello boosted Representatives Karen MacBeth, Spencer Dickinson, and Charlene Lima; he also attracted backing from the GOP caucus in the House, which has likewise taken a dimmer view of repayment). Suffice it to say, the level of House opposition to repayment bears watching. For now, Mattiello is taking a page from Teresa Paiva Weed's playbook by offering this oblique reaction to the findings by SJ Advisors: “This report provides House members with some good information that will help us to formulate a fact-based decision on the bond repayment. The report will be considered, along with the examination of various aspects of this issue by the House Finance and Oversight committees, that will be reviewed and analyzed by all members of the House before a decision is made."

2. For another perspective on the issue of repaying 38 Studios' bondholders, consider this entry from Andrew Morse of Anchor Rising/The Ocean State Current. Excerpt: "[A] blithe dismissal of some very clear language in the bond authorization is a blithe assertion that everyone — legislators, citizens and investors — should know that the rules that the financial industry makes up for itself (and for its own benefit, by the way) can automatically override the plain text of a law. Finance industry decrees are the real final law of the land; the law made by legislatures, on the other hand, is only real to the degree that it does not conflict with the limits that financiers lay down." (Did Andrew like last week's New York Times Magazine cover story about how only one top banker went to prison for the financial crisis ?)

3. Democratic secretary of state candidate Guillaume de Ramel offered some tough rhetoric about increasing scrutiny of lobbyists, following Tim White's WPRI-TV report this week about Michael Corso's lucrative contract with 38 Studios. Via news release, de Ramel said, "As Secretary of State, I will create a clear and concise definition of lobbying, increase penalties for noncompliance, and expand scope of the office’s lobbyist tracking capabilities to increase openness and transparency to ensure Rhode Islanders are protected from anything like 38 Studios ever happening again.” Yet de Ramel was less ambitious when asked on RIPR last December (at about 4:10) what he would do to focus more attention on lobbyists: "I'd love to see the information that the secretary of state currently gets with the lobbyists connected with other agencies, such as the Board of Elections and [its] campaign finance [division] and really connecting that web, if you will. There's no doubt that we need to start communicating from agency to agency."

4. Meanwhile, with Corso's status as what looks like an unregistered lobbyist ricocheting in the LG race between Democrats Ralph Mollis and Daniel McKee, state Representative Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) is thinking about jumping into the LG race. Ferri raised eyebrows with the price point ($250/$500/$1000) for his Thursday fundraiser at Town Hall Lanes in Johnston, and his ability to raise money remains to be seen (Ferri had a modest $1875 in his war chest at the end of Q1). The upside for Ferri is that he's well-liked, has a vote-rich base in the state's second-largest city, and might generate some enthusiasm in the LG's race (especially from progressives), not to mention campaign contributions from a national network of same-sex marriage supporters. As it stands, labor dislikes McKee's profile as a champion of mayoral academies, and Mollis' backing for Voter ID generally leaves liberals cold. Still, Ferri's core supporters might wonder whether he'd be more effective by remaining in the House. The Warwick Democrat first won election in 2007, and turnover in the chamber means he's already among the top half of most experienced reps.  

5. In the wake of the NBA's Donald Sterling racism controversy, the only African-American in the state Senate, Harold Metts (D-Providence), rose on a point of personal privilege Wednesday to excoriate a Providence Journal editorial. The ProJo editorial faulted Metts and a number of other Senate Democrats for sidetracking passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee of master lever repeal, adding, "They have chosen to side with their Senate masters rather than the public-spirited leaders, good-government groups, state representatives, citizens and others who recognize that Rhode Island must change." Metts (at about 14:10) referenced the Sterling and Cliven Bundy matters, asserting, "My motives and personal integrity have been brought into question." He went on to defend his support for the master lever and his advocacy for his constituents, adding that accusing him of " 'siding with the masters' was the wrong thing to say .... The last time I checked, this is still America and my constituents are entitled to their opinions just like all Americans. My constituents are hard-working, they care about their future of their families, and I will not stand idly by while insults are hurled at them about being misinformed, uneducated, ignorant and lazy."  

6. Can Angel Taveras turn Gina Raimondo's campaign-fundraising prowess from lemonade into lemons? In a news release this week, Taveras' campaign criticized the amount of money Raimondo raised in the first quarter from the financial sector as well as the much-publicized John Arnold. For her part, Raimondo touted her continued fundraising success. Fleeting gripes about campaign contributions probably won't register with most voters in the race for governor. Still, it's worth noting, as Politico reported this week, that when it comes to big money in politics, "both parties are investing in turning their opponent’s sugar daddies into bogeymen."

7. Speaking of campaign finance, fundraising season for state lawmakers is heading into heavy rotation.

8. While Republicans mostly remain on the outside of Rhode Island politics, looking in, the situation could be increasingly reversed elsewhere after November. The Washington Post says the GOP has a strong chance of retaking the Senate, and the Wall Street Journal says Republicans could also wrest control of more state legislatures.

9. Why would an investment group with ties to Goldman Sachs pay millions to buy the Brayon Point electricity plant in Massachusetts last year and then close it? David Cay Johnston offers this answer: "Under the rules of the electricity markets, the best way to earn huge profits is by reducing the supply of power. That creates a shortage during peak demand periods, such as hot summer evenings and cold winter days, causing prices to rise. Under the rules of the electricity markets, even a tiny shortfall between the available supply of electricity and the demand from customers results in enormous price spikes." (h/t Sam Bell)

10. For an overview of Rhode Island's 2014 political landscape and the top issues facing the state, come to the Providence Athenaeum next Tuesday, May 13 (reception at 5:30 pm, program at 6 pm). I'll moderate an hour-long discussion featuring RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay, URI political science professor Maureen Moakley, and Pablo Rodriguez of Latino Public Radio. It's free, but registration is required.

11. The race to replace Gordon Fox is House District 4 is percolating. Aaron Regunberg went on RI Future to explain why he's running. Miram Ross used a news release to tout her credentials (work as a corporate lawyer for Textron and GTECH/her own private practice focusing on small business/professor at RWU Law), and Heather Tow-Yick has attracted support from Maryellen Butke, among others.

12. Instead of a perp walk, it's time for a pep talk. The Providence Phoenix on why Rhode Island DOESN'T suck!