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

Jan 20, 2017

Just another quiet Friday in America, right? Thanks for stopping by as we hurtle into a new area, with lots to watch on the local and national level. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Governor Gina Raimondo is taking a page from Bernie Sanders' playbook by making two years of free college tuition the centerpiece of her latest budget proposal. That's worth noting, particularly since Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island's Democratic presidential primary last year, and since Sanders' inverse image, Donald Trump, is now president of the United States. Offering Rhode Islanders two years of free tuition is a bold concept, one that could help the state make a national splash while boosting locals' skills and relieving the high cost of a college education. (For more on the outlook in the General Assembly, see item #2). More broadly, the free tuition initiative shows how Raimondo is taking left and trying to broaden her support in the run-up to the 2018 campaign season. (She did the same thing while formally launching her 2014 run for governor, calling for driver's licenses for undocumented residents, banning assault weapons, and universal pre-K for four-year-olds.) This time around, Raimondo is supporting the progressive priority of earned sick time, better pay for home care workers and those working with the developmentally disabled, and making another run at hiking the minimum wage. (That move appears likely to win General Assembly support this time around, although perhaps not at the same 90-cent increase, to $10.50 an hour, sought by the governor). In the rhetorical heart of her State of the State address on Tuesday, the governor asserted, "Because we have come together as one state to invest in ourselves, I stand here this evening with optimism, confidence and pride and say that the state of our state is getting stronger every day." Yet despite some noteworthy strides on Raimondo's watch, Rhode Island's economy remains much like a Rorschach test -- the state's condition is subject to interpretation, depending on the different circumstances of different individuals. That's largely a reflection of how deep-rooted economic problems can't be solved in just a few years. Yet with 2018 drawing steadily closer, the political task for Raimondo remains building her support and the state's economy at the same time.

2. Will we see an executive-legislative battle on Governor Raimondo's free college tuition plan? Time will tell. For now, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello offered a telling response when reporters asked him about the initiative following Raimondo's SOTS address Tuesday night. "I think it’s a laudable goal," Mattiello said. "We’re going to receive it. I haven’t seen particulars on it. We’re going to send the budget over to our Finance Committee – they’ll vet it. The process will be transparent, open, and the public will weigh in, and we’ll see where it goes. I don’t have any preconceived notion. We’ll let the Finance Committee vet it." The speaker's opaque tone reflects the questions that some lawmakers have about the free tuition proposal: Is the 2.0 GPA requirement a tacit acceptance of mediocrity? Does free tuition get at the underlying problem of how many incoming CCRI students need remedial education? Is it fair to exclude from a new free tuition giveaway students who graduate not long before the program is introduced? With state workers taking a hit in the 2011 pension overhaul and truckers being targeted for new tolls, is it equitable to give free tuition to students, including undocumented immigrants and those from prosperous homes? URI President David Dooley said critics are losing sight of the big picture, however. Asked about some of the criticism of Raimondo's proposal, Dooley said during a Smith Hill budget briefing: "Investing in higher education, particularly public higher education, is a critical step to making the state more economically productive, more successful and providing a greater, I think, quality of life, standard of living and income to Rhode Islanders." Regardless of how one views free tuition proposal, the eventual $30 million annual cost is certainly not overwhelming in the context of the state's $9 billion budget. Two years of free college tuition could be a difference-maker in a variety of ways, nudging some Massachusetts residents over the state line, for example. Looking ahead, Raimondo didn't waste time in staging a Cranston East rally for her free college tuition plan on the day after her State of the State address. That suggests she's willing to make the kind of public campaign that built support in 2011 for the once unthinkable notion of pension reform. So watch for lawmakers to take the temperature of public opinion while airing their own questions in upcoming hearings.

3. Governor Raimondo's budget made no reference to the subject of legalizing marijuana -- another sign of how legalization seems to be on a slow path in Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, lawmakers recently voted to delay, until July 1, 2018, retail sales of marijuana for recreational use. Small wonder then that things may be bogging down here, considering how Colorado's top marijuana regulator, during a stop at the Statehouse last year, called legalization "a heavy lift" for everybody and said it's not a panacea for cash-strapped states.

4. Can Democrats make a difference in Washington, with Donald Trump in the White House, GOP control of the House and Senate, and a looming conservative takeover of the Supreme Court? US Representative David Cicilline says they can; he points to how Democrats criticized Republicans when the House GOP moved to weaken independent ethics oversight. "It was Democrats who came out immediately and called it out; we activated the public and they expressed their outrage, and the Republicans changed course," Cicilline said during a taping of this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "So we're going to have to do that a lot." While Cicilline acknowledges things will be different now, he maintains that Democrats will make their voices heard in the legislative process. Asked about why Democrats lost so much ground in legislatures and governor's offices during Barack Obama's presidency, Cicilline said the party needs a stronger economic message and to better define issues relevant to voters' lives.  

5. Sam Bell is handing off the leadership of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America to Bill Deware, who waged an unsuccessful run against state Rep. William O'Brien (D-North Providence) last year. Bell said he considers it a good time to move on (although he'll remain on the group's board) after progressives scored a string of legislative victories last year. "I'm pretty excited about all the work we've done," Bell said. He said he plans to take on some other projects, possibly issue-oriented activity, although the specifics haven't been firmed up. While Bell has previously talked about wanting to find a Democratic challenger to Governor Raimondo in 2018, he said building a coalition to elect a progressive speaker is a bigger priority for the Progressive Dems. (Note: the top priority was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this item.) "I think the goal for the next cycle should be to gain numbers rather than oust specific high-profile legislators in a primary," Bell said.

6. While Governor Raimondo sounded an upbeat tone in her State of the State address, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) was considerably more downcast with her GOP rebuttal. In short, Morgan said the state's economic focus needs to shift to cutting regulation and boosting the small businesses that supply most of the jobs in the state. Here's an excerpt from her speech: "There is great insecurity among average, every day Rhode Islanders – both job insecurity and financial insecurity. Too many report they are barely managing to keep up with increasing bills, and, quite disturbingly, they are unable to save for their children’s future and their retirement. The constant increases in our already high cost of living worries them and darkens what should be their bright futures. They are fed up with a broken government, a government that makes their lives harder, a government that takes too much, wastes too much, and refuses to be held accountable to the people who pay the bill. Many have lost hope. This is the reality that they live with. Year after year, taxpayers continue to pay some of the highest tax rates in the country for dysfunctional leadership, constant blunders, and a failing economy – with no end in sight. Rhode Islanders have seen their money squandered on the glitzy New York 'Cooler and Warmer' ad fiasco, and they barely escaped wasting hard-earned money on a foolhardy waterfront stadium for multimillionaires. They have struggled to get the complete answers behind the 38 Studios deal. They've wasted their time waiting in line at the DMV and wondering why we can't get the computer program fixed after 10 years and tens of millions of dollars."

7. The arrest in short succession this month of former Reps John Carnevale and Peter Palumbo is a bit reminiscent of how five state reps got pinched in 2011, on various charges. In Palumbo's case, it's the just latest instance where lawmakers have gotten jammed up over campaign finance issues -- and where the state Board of Elections played an important role in sparking a law enforcement investigation with an audit.

8. Sen. Jack Reed's comment on President Trump's inaugural address: “Donald Trump was sworn in as President. He now has the awesome privilege and responsibility of leading the strongest, most resilient nation on Earth. He isn’t just the president of those who voted for him, he is the President of the United States of America. Our nation faces many complex economic, security, and technological challenges and the President’s decisions and actions will have a profound impact on people’s lives and our nation’s future. I am determined to uphold our national values and global alliances. As I always have, I will try to help build bridges rather than walls, and advance policies that expand opportunity for all Americans, not just the wealthy few. That was one of the darkest inauguration speeches I have ever heard. President Trump’s inaugural message briefly touched on unity, but for many Rhode Islanders his past words and deeds are rightfully worrisome. It is his responsibility to serve all Americans with respect. It is incumbent upon all of us to be engaged in our country’s future, to confront injustice, and to hold our leaders accountable. In our democratic system of checks and balances, the greatest check of all is the American people. America is constantly undergoing periods of renewal and realignment.  What remains constant is the pillars of our democracy and the strength of our people.  We can’t let apathy and cynicism set in. When civic engagement is high, America always thrives.”

9. First, a series of state reps rolled out the "Fair Shot Agenda." Governor Raimondo's State of the State had a number of references to giving people a shot. And now comes the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, saying, "All Rhode Islanders need a fair shot to get ahead and stay ahead."

10. Democrats like Congressman Cicilline have raised an alarm about how millions of Americans could be left without health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare. But do Democrats bear some responsibility for the situation, considering how voters have expressed a preference for a GOP majority in Congress? "I think the reality is even people who voted for Republicans didn't think they were voting to lose their health insurance," Cicilline said on Political Roundtable. "I think most people think they actually wouldn't do that .... The problem is a lot of these benefits didn't kick in until the last few years and now finally the momentum is changing. The poll that came out just last week, more Americans support the Affordable Care Act that not. Everyone goes through each of those elements of the Affordable Care Act, they love it, and they say, 'do you support Obamacare,' and they say, 'no.' We haven't done a good job of selling it, but we're going to fight hard to protect Rhode Islanders from losing their insurance."  

11. Ethan Shorey broke the news in the Valley Breeze this week about how the PawSox are mulling the landmark Apex Building as a potential site for a new ballpark. While the lack of parking may be a problem, the building has an unusual pedigree, as Tim Lehnert revealed in a 2004 story in the Providence Phoenix: The Apex structure was devised by "Andrew Geller, a key associate of Raymond Loewy, the man considered the father of American industrial design ... Geller, who enjoyed a long and successful career as an architect and designer, was employed in New York by Loewy from the mid 1940s until 1976, when he struck out on his own. Loewy, known as "the man who shaped America," ran an empire that produced designs not only for houses and offices, but also appliances (the Coldspot refrigerator); transportation (the Studebaker, the Greyhound bus, the interiors of three spaceships); packaging (Lucky Strikes’ cigarettes, the Coke bottle); and logos (Shell, Exxon, the US Postal Service eagle). Geller, whose principal focus was residential and commercial architectural design, was an integral part of the Loewy firm and served for a number of years as its vice president and director of design."

12. Congrats to Providence's own Rachel Hulin, the significant other of StreetFightMag major domo David Hirschman, on the upcoming publication of her novel Hey Harry Hey Matilda -- a novel told through email.

13. The New York Times is out with another internal report on how the paper needs to adapt in the digital age. Here's a shorter summary of the findings.

14. Common Cause of Rhode Island is staging "Demystifying Democracy," a series of talks that will focus "on empowering citizens to participate in our state and local democracy by providing a behind-the-scenes look at government." The series starts February 11 with "I'm just a bill (held for further study); Understanding the legislative process in Rhode Island." Future installments will cover testifying at the General Assembly ("Making your point in three minutes or less") and understanding the state budget process. The events are free and open to the public (at Roger Williams University's Providence campus), although registration is required.

15. Best wishes to RIPR environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza as she heads west for other opportunities. Ambar has become a familiar face on the local enviro beat, and she's done a lot of strong reporting on the impact of climate change in Rhode Island. I know she'll do well in whatever she sets her mind to. Meanwhile, RIPR is continuing the search for a new environmental reporter.

16. Governor Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, on why her latest State of the State address was chock full of footnotes: “One of my political science professors at PC knocked me down a letter grade because I forgot to include footnotes. That lesson has stuck with me for 15 years.”

17. The January 20 episode of Jeopardy! will feature a locally shot category entitled, "The Art of Learning at RISD." (Please form your answer about Andre the Giant in the form of a question, right?)

18. Via The AP: "Lacking authority to change the laws of physics to allow more sunlight on the darkest days of winter, a special commission is instead considering whether Massachusetts should change the laws of man and observe daylight saving time year-round. If adopted, Massachusetts residents wouldn’t have to set their clocks back in November and forward in March, as most of the U.S. does. Benefits of having daylight saving time throughout the year could include energy savings and less seasonal depression, proponents suggest."