TGIF: 19 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Oct 9, 2015

The leaves are falling, and fight over truck tolls remains hot and heavy. So thanks for stopping by for my weekend roundup. As always, your tips and feedback are welcome via my email and you can follow me all week long on the twitters. Here we go.

1. It will be a stunner if the General Assembly doesn't pass some version of Governor Gina Raimondo's RhodeWorks plan in the new session starting in January. The bridge-repair proposal has emerged as Raimondo's flagship initiative since she took office in January; The governor has put more time and energy into RhodeWorks than anything since her 2014 campaign and the widely heralded pension overhaul she spearheaded in 2011. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has taken a measured approach in responding to the proposal, and he plans to vet the impact study released this week with his own economist. Yet Raimondo's persistence appears bound to yield dividends, in part since there's no real debate about the condition of Rhode Island's bridges. Sure, RhodeWorks will benefit the Laborers -- a union with links to the state Senate, DOT director Peter Alviti, and longtime Raimondo supporters like Armand Sabitoni. But it helps the governor that 76 percent of Rhode Islanders believe the state spends too little on road and bridge maintenance, according to a new Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership poll. Further, a majority of those asked said they support a toll on large trucks. Critics say tolls are bad for business and that Raimondo's plan has too much in borrowing costs; Raimondo responds by saying a big problem demands a big response. For now, it remains to be seen what kind of tweaks the legislature will make to her signature proposal. Meanwhile, Mattiello quickly signaled this week that an alternative approach suggested by the GOP is DOA.

2. Here's an update from RIPR's Kristin Gourlay on the latest revelations at the troubled state Department of Children, Youth and Families: "The governor ordered a complete overhaul of the state’s child welfare agency earlier this summer, and that painstaking work continues under new management, with turnaround expert Jamia McDonald at the helm. They’re combing through layers of dysfunction, in particular financial mismanagement and impropriety. A recent audit’s findings were serious enough to be referred to the state Ethics Commission and the State Police. McDonald has determined that every single contract DCYF has with an outside agency worth more than a million dollars must now be audited -- and that’s just one item on a long to-do list. A team has been brought in from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help reduce the number of kids -- especially those under the age of 12 -- in group homes. And there’s an effort to streamline the training program for new DCYF workers, to make recruiting and retention of frontline social workers easier. Meanwhile, the number of children referred because of abuse or neglect has risen significantly over the past couple of years. In an ideal world, a 'complete overhaul' means the agency becomes more efficient with the money it spends on outside agencies, fewer children linger in group homes, caseworkers have manageable caseloads, and children and families get the help they need when and where they need it. That’s a ways off, though; it takes time to turn around $250 million, 600-employee behemoth." For more, don't miss Kristin's audio debrief on DCYF.

3. One of the significant revelations from last month's 38 Studios document dump is how the business leaders who approved the $75 million loan guaranty didn't delve into the company's financials, saying instead they relied on staff at the state's economic development agency. So why did Don Carcieri paint a very different  picture in a 2013 interview with Matt Bai? According to Bai's story in The New York Times, "When we talked, Mr. Carcieri emphasized to me that the board, far from being bullied by the governor or star-struck by Mr. Schilling, had engaged in a laborious process of due diligence and had come to see 38 Studios as a solid opportunity. 'These are people who are not just going to roll over, even if it’s something I wanted them to do,' Mr. Carcieri told me." (As Bai points out, concerns raised within the former state Economic Development Corporation by portfolio manager Sean Esten were buried at the agency, according to the state's lawsuit.) His story also notes the warning sounded about 38 Studios in July 2010 by Gina Raimondo, who urged then-EDC head Keith Stokes to "proceed very carefully on this." She noted how 38 Studios was "in the Boston area where there are 200 venture capital firms, and it is in a very hot area of gaming so if it were in fact a compelling investment I would have to think it would be well funded already by venture capitalists; the fact that many have looked at it and passed is a red flag.”

4. Three weeks and 1 day until Halloween.

5. As six mostly Republican lawmakers unveiled a proposal Wednesday to fix bridges without new truck tolls, Representative Patricia Morgan said the approach marked the difference between Republicans and Democrats. "Whenever Democrats want to spend money, they go looking for new revenue, instead of using what already exists. Republicans tend to see that we already pay high taxes, and we just need to use better use of the funds we already have." Members of the GOP Policy Group say their plan to steer $875 million to bridge repairs represents less than 1 percent of the state budget -- an amount that should be easy to compile. House spokesman Larry Berman said it's not so simple, however, since just about 40 percent of all state funds, or $3.5 billion, are discretionary. "The fact is the state has current needs that outstrip its expected revenues (structural deficit) and in this upcoming budget, new resources or further spending reductions will have to occur just to get back to balance -- before dedicating any more existing funds to transportation," Berman said via email. "This has always proved challenging given that one-third of the budget goes to local aid, which is mostly education. Another roughly one-third goes to supporting the state’s safety net with services to poor, disabled and elderly. Last session was yet another example of how difficult it is to get savings from those programs. The rest goes to things like higher education, public safety and general government operations. These are all examined annually for opportunities for efficiencies and changing priorities."

6. Bonus Read, from The Pew Charitable Trusts: "In a conservative Republican state, how does a governor raise taxes, issue bonds and ask local taxpayers to pay even more for transportation? According to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, you do it by building a coalition of business, industry, churches and educational groups united on one goal: moving people around the state."

7. Five groups dedicated to open government this week asked Governor Raimondo to issue an executive order calling on state agencies “adopt a strong presumption in favor of disclosure in addressing requests for public information.” This follows what the groups call a "pattern of disturbingly inadequate" responses to open records requests involving governor's truck toll proposal, the hiring of Donald Lally, and the state's Unified Health Infrastructure Project. On Twitter, meanwhile, Tim White cited a "shocking reversal" from the previous administration on the release of worker timesheets, and Katherine Gregg said the governor's office "shouldn't have anything to hide." In response to the concerns raised by the five open government groups, Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger vowed improvements. "Our administration takes transparency seriously, and holds our team accountable for results," Aberger said in a statement. "In our first few months in office, we've provided details about decades of challenges within agencies from DCYF to RIDOT. We've seen thousands of pages of 38 Studios documents released following a request from the Commerce Corporation under our Administration. We work to respond to public records requests in a complete and timely manner and look for ways to always be better and do more. We also recognize there is always a balance. We plan to invite the involved groups to sit down with us and discuss how we can work even more cooperatively together."

8. The state Judicial Nominating Commission is slated Tuesday evening to designate interview candidates for a series of judicial vacancies, including a new position in District Court, openings in Superior Court, Workers' Compensation Court, and a spot for chief judge of the Workers' Compensation Court (h/t Common Cause of RI).

9. Worlds Colliding: Lincoln Chafee will finally get his chance to go toe to toe with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the CNN debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday at 9 p.m. Meanwhile, the RI Democratic Party and its LGBTQ Caucus will stage a debate viewing party ay 8 pm at Mirabar, 15 Elbow St., Providence. (The juxtaposition makes some fundamental sense since Chafee was the governor who signed Rhode Island's same-sex marriage bill into law.)

10. Best wishes to Teny Gross as he heads to Chicago to pursue non-violence work. Gross said he plans to maintain his Rhode Island home, due to his love of the ocean, and he outlined some parting thoughts during an exit interview this week: "Some people will say that we saved their lives, that we planted the seed, in a visit to jail or teaching them non-violence. I'm not sure we deserve all the credit. I think we work with humans as they mature, as their frontal lobes develop, as they're tired of the violence. With marketing and fundraising and everything, everyone claims success all the time. I think we all need to be a little bit more humble. I think we did our part. We tried never to give up on anybody. There were some young people that I thought were really heading into complete disaster; I think the police thought so, too. And they found the wherewithal to change."   

11. Rhode Island Working Families is set to formally launch next month, under the leadership of Chris Torres, as the latest entry in an emerging network of state-based labor/progressive groups. Although Torres said the group will initially focus on issues, it remains to be seen if the group can have an impact in legislative and other elections. Meanwhile, the National Education Association Rhode Island (which worked closely with the now-defunct Ocean State Action) is noticeably absent from the unions backing RIWF. "We certainly wish them well," said NEARI executive director Robert Walsh, "but we're satisfied with our existing formal relationships with the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and Working Rhode Island, and our strong informal relationships with groups like Clean Water Action, Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, and Fuerza Laboral."

12. Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy continued a media blitz this week to promote his new book. In the process, Kennedy has upset some family members while underscoring his need to speak out. Given his current profile, it's easy to forget that Kennedy was once the fifth-ranking Democrat in the US House, seemingly on track to emulate his father as a lifetime lawmaker with a substantial legislative legacy. Instead, Kennedy had some high-profile and very public lapses in behavior, setting him on a different course to become a spokesman for mental health, recovery, and self-help.

13. Since the General Assembly came to a bumpy ending in June, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has steadily rejected the idea of a special fall legislative session. So with the legislature not planning to gather until January, has she been vindicated?

14. Comings and Goings: Warwick native Matthew McDermott, an ace on polling and data, may be steadily working his way back to the Ocean State. He's joining Whitman Strategies as a senior analyst later this month and moving to New York. McDermott is coming from Washington, D.C., where he joined Lake Research as field director in 2013 ... the affable Ray Henry, who covered Smith Hill in his time with the Providence AP, is leaving the wire service's Atlanta bureau to become an economist with Ernst & Young in D.C.

15. All Aboard Florida, a $2.5 billion private railroad baked by Wes Edens -- a top exec with the investment company that owns ProJo parent GateHouse Media -- is gathering steam, although it also faces heavy opposition. In August, the Florida Development Finace Commission voted to allow the project to issue $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds. Imagine trying to sell that project in Rhode Island!

16. About a year after the demise of The Providence Phoenix, Philadelphia City Paper ceased publication. Providence newcomer Daniel Denvir penned this elegy and also offered some context in a piece aired this morning on NPR: "At this moment, we can find out more about the conflict in Syria, more perspectives on the Greek debt crisis and various national and international issues than ever before on my smartphone. That's fantastic. But on the local level, news gathering is just being eviscerated."

17. Ian Barnacle, a broker with Residential Properties in Barrington, shared these thoughts following the release of HousingWorkRI's most recent report on housing affordability in Rhode Island: "RI housing stock is very old with very little new construction. I would much rather see federal money allotted to home improvement projects for individual homeowners of our existing neighborhoods/housing stock than for larger developers to build cluster affordable condos and rentals, in a local district designated for single family housing on minimum 7500 sq. ft. lots. Most new affordable housing built today will be obsolete in 30 years, anyway. [Also] it is a shame that I should be punished for bringing my own house in Providence back from near-derelict condition to the proud (and energy efficient!) historic Fox Point home that it is with higher property taxes when developers and large non-profits are rewarded with TSAs or relatively low payments in lieu of taxes. Because homeowners are punished or burdened, rents are relatively high in RI -- operation of old buildings is expensive, and so is our property tax and utility burden, etc."

18. One last skirmish in the toll wars, for now at least: The GOP Policy Group bridge-repair plan proposed using $200,000 a year allotted to the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. House spokesman Larry Berman said the Republicans confused the RI Historical Society, a nonprofit, with the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, a state agency. "The Society gets about $121,000 through a community service grant, along with the $9,000 directly for the Museum of Work and Culture," Berman added. "This is a total of $131,239 in direct state support for the society and the museum combined. But to say that the museum itself gets $200,000 in state aid is totally false. The museum holds fundraisers and has other sources to meet its needs, but it only receives about $9,000 from the state." For a different perspective, read what Justin Katz has to say

19. With the historically hapless Chicago Cubs and the traditionally competitive St. Louis Cardinals squaring off in the National League Division Series -- starting this evening -- two staffers with Governor Raimondo connections have bragging rights on the line. Eric Hyers, who managed Raimondo's campaign last year, is scaring his cats with his all-out devotion to the Cubbies. Stephen Neuman, the governor's chief of staff, comes from the Show-Me State and touts his love of the Cards on his Twitter profile. So with the Red Sox and Yankees on the sidelines this October, who will Rhode Island's baseball fans support? For Sox fans, sympathy for the Cubs seems a bit more natural, due to the two teams' long bouts of frustration and the Cardinals' place as a periodic post-season rival for Boston.

This post has been updated.