TGIF: 18 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Apr 17, 2015

After two snow-packed months, the apparent settling of the pension conflict, and Lincoln Chafee's surprising emergence as a possible presidential hopeful, Rhode Island confronts a sharp debate involving baseball, public dollars, and the future of the state. No pressure, right? Thanks, as always, for stopping by for my weekly column. Feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Make no mistake: The bottom line of the debate about the PawSox' proposed stadium in Providence is whether the Boston Red Sox' top minor league team stays in Rhode Island or goes somewhere else, most likely Massachusetts.

2. The framing of the PawSox' proposal matters a lot. If described as a lump sum (albeit one spread over 30 years), $120 million in public subsidy for a minor league team owned by wealthy business people strikes many as a massive pile of cash. Yet according to the team's ownership, the net cost to the state would be about $2 million a year -- not that much in the context of Rhode Island's almost $9 billion annual budget. (Yes, a requested 30-year exemption on Providence property taxes is unusually bold.) To hear the PawSox ownership tell it, it's a no-brainer for the state to spend $2 million a year to help spur more than $12 million in annual economic impact. Then again, the team's consultant said it didn't assess the current economic impact from McCoy Stadium, so critics call the putative Providence bump a zero-sum form of growth. That's the view of the RI Republican Party's new chairman, Brandon S. Bell, who likens the proposed Providence ballpark to the state's disastrous investment in 38 Studios: "We were fooled once by one former Red Sox pitcher when he wanted a $75 million loan guarantee. Let's not get fooled again by the 'pitch' of the new owners of an entire baseball team." Given the sharply clashing views on this topic, it may not be surprising that two sports economists come down on opposing sides of the proposal. Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester thinks the ask is simply too much. Yet Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College -- one of the nation's top sports economists -- believes the ballpark proposal is a great opportunity for Providence, with the potential to spark further development nearby.

3. Think Rhode Islanders are change-averse and suspicious of government spending? Don't forget how voters in 1984 rejected the Greenhouse Compact, a plan designed by Treasurer Seth Magaziner's father, Ira, to seed the high-wage jobs of the future. Be that as it may, the fallout from 38 Studios appears to have poisoned a lot of attitudes toward public investment; Curt Schilling's failed video game company is a go-to reference point for many opponents of the PawSox' requested subsidy -- even if there's no reasonable connection between the two. Remember, though, private developers are hardly racing to make proposals for the land made available by the relocation of I-195; Governor Raimondo's budget includes $25 million in incentives to prime that pump, and additional tax benefits are also considered a necessary part of the mix. To be sure, reasonable people can disagree on the PawSox' proposal -- and a vigorous debate should play out in public. (Art Norwalk offered a contrasting view via an email responding to this item, suggesting 38 Studios has appropriately reduced Rhode Islanders' tolerance for potential boondoggles; like some other critics, he sees the PawSox' proposed financing plan as a way to use state lease payments to pay off the bank loans likely needed to build the stadium -- a process akin, Norwalk argues, to a speculative state loan, a la 38 Studios.) Yet the danger is that a prolonged post-38 Studios paralysis will keep Rhode Island from pursuing potential opportunities.

4. One of the top questions facing the PawSox' Providence stadium proposal is the amount of room for negotiation in the team's pitch for a public subsidy. During the news conference outlining the proposal Wednesday at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, team president Jim Skeffington said, "We're open to all sorts of dialogue -- whether we can reach accord or not will be determined. I will say to you that we're not laying out a proposal here with the expectation that people think we're high-balling them, we're not. We're putting something that we think will allow us to stay here and accomplish our objectives."

5. Watch for the Raimondo administration to vet the PawSox' proposal based on the numbers. Governor Raimondo reacted cautiously on Wednesday, praising the idea while saying the affordability of the project requires study. “We’ve made a request of the new ownership that they present us with a budget that expresses the ways in which they’ve calculated their request to the state," Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "We haven’t received that yet. It’s understandable. They’re moving at a quick pace. We do need to receive a response that helps us understand how they’ve arrived at their facts and figures.” It would seemingly make sense for the administration to make case studies on the overall experience of minor league ballparks and subsidies in similarly sized cities. And though the PawSox ownership includes sophisticated deal-makers like Jim Skeffington, Terry Murray, and Tom Ryan, the Raimondo administration has its own ace in 195 Commission chairman Joseph Azrack, a longtime real estate investment expert (who spearheaded the REIT industry and is a veteran of the Urban Land Institute). "He's a key point person, definitely," Pryor said during RIPR's Bonus Q+A.

6. Scott MacKay suggests former GOP governor Lincoln Almond to lead an independent review of the PawSox proposal: "When he was governor in the 1990s, Almond shaped a deal to build the Providence Place Mall  that was notable for protecting state taxpayers against any liability if the project went sour. Almond is now retired and his political ambitions are long in the rear-view mirror. More importantly, Almond walked away from another stadium deal, the proposal by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to move from Foxboro to a new stadium in Providence. Despite relentless cheerleading by other politicians, including Bruce Sundlun and Buddy Cianci, Almond had the fortitude and foresight to pull the plug when he sensed, correctly, that he and Rhode Island taxpayers were  being scammed, used as leverage to get Massachusetts government to give Kraft  money to help build the new stadium in Foxboro, which is what happened."

7. The PawSox ownership doesn't plan a paid advertising campaign to promote its ballpark plan, according to one of the team's PR people, Patti Doyle. (Duffy & Shanley is also working for the PawSox, along with the prominent lobbyist Robert Goldberg.) "In the weeks to come we hope to talk to as many people as we possibly can about the merits of the proposal and proposed ballpark," Doyle said. "To do that, we'll reach out to business, civic and community groups for opportunities for Jim [Skeffington] to share his enthusiasm for the project and its specifics."

8. State general revenues are up by about $61 million over expectations in the current budget year.

9. Non-Surprising News of the Week: Lincoln Chafee sometimes gets ahead of himself.

10. David Pyle, who ran the AP's Providence bureau in the late 1980s, was a serious newsman who didn't take himself too seriously. He went on to work for the AP in Dallas and then spent 21 years as bureau chief in Minneapolis. Sadly, David, who had diabetes and underwent a kidney transplant in 1999. passed away this week at age 61. I had a temporary vacation-relief stint in the Providence AP office during Pyle's tenure, and he was a great guy to work for, teaching me about covering the Statehouse and regaling me with stories about Ralph Pari and RIHMFC, a student prostitution ring at Brown University, and some outrageous guy named Buddy who used to be the mayor. 

11. Governor Raimondo's budget proposal would allow the Commerce Corporation to issue tax credits for large-scale projects in Providence (h/t Andrew Morse, #6), and let them bypass certain local requirements. Here's how Pryor responded when asked on Bonus Q+A if he has a short-list of projects under consideration for these credits: "No, we're not assembling a short-list for the variety of tax credits and other programs. We are actively talking with aspirants and potential applicants about their projects even before we designed the legislative package we wanted to make sure that their were actual real estate projects and actual businesses within the state borders especially, but even ones that are growing beyond their walls in Massachusetts or Connecticut -- that they would make use of these tools."

12. Noteworthy finding from Pew: more than 60 percent of Americans think crime is increasing, even though downturns in crime are holding steady. Excerpt: "Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV and political rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this trend is not without consequence. Today, those who say that crime is rising are the most opposed to gun control: Just 45% want to see gun laws made more strict, compared with 53% of those who see crime rates as unchanged or dropping."

13. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor on the future of McCoy Stadium: "I believe that's a question for Pawtucket, first and foremost. I don't think that's a question for the state from the top-down. But when they do have some ideas, we are eager to assist, to think about what's feasible, what's practical, what's doable." 

14. Meanwhile, Pawtucket got some welcome good news this week when it became one of just 10 US cities to receive to get a grant from the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. According to a release on the $1.5 million grant, "The Connecting Futures Operation AmeriCorps project, led by the Pawtucket School Department, will support 64 AmeriCorps members over the next two years to improve graduation rates and connect more than 900 graduating Pawtucket seniors with one of five postgraduate opportunities: education at a two- or four-year college; employment; military service; national service, such as AmeriCorps; or a paid internship, registered apprenticeship, or job training program."

15. People on the move: Former ABC6 reporter Andrew Gobeil, who served as Dawson Hodgson's campaign press secretary last year, is taking a job as deputy director of communications at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport .... The hardworking Talia Policelli, after years working for Gina Raimondo, most recently as deputy legislative liaison, is heading off to grad school at DC's Georgetown University for a master of policy management program.

16. David Chase Breaks Down the Final Scene of The Sopranos.

17. Local filmmaker Cherry Arnold, known for her Buddy Cianci documentary, has a new film, Bluebirds Fly: Love and Hope on the Autism Spectrum, screening April 25 as part of a film fest at the Columbus Theatre; It's also at the Jane Pickens in Newport on April 28.

18. While football now lays a claim to being the national pastime, some opponents are actually arguing that baseball's waning popularity makes the PawSox' proposed Providence ballpark a bad bet. In fact, despite challenges, the grand old game isn't exactly fading away.

This post has been updated.