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

Apr 3, 2015

Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column, recapping another eventful week in Rhode Island. As always, your tips and feedback is welcome, and you can follow me on the twitters. Best wishes to my readers for Easter and Passover. Here we go.

1. Governor Gina Raimondo is arguably the biggest beneficiary of the proposed pension settlement unveiled Thursday. A multi-year, multi-tiered legal battle over Raimondo's 2011 pension overhaul loomed as a serious distraction from the governor's preferred focus on the economy. That will no longer be the case if the settlement is implemented by the May 18 deadline set by Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter. Raimondo said the settlement preserves more than 90 percent of the $4 billion in savings from the 2011 overhaul. Sure, that's less than the projected savings from the settlement offer narrowly rejected last year, and taxpayers will foot the bill for another $32 million in annual pension costs. Yet the settlement, if implemented, will also eliminate the unpredictability of what could happen in Superior Court and eventually the state Supreme Court. "To take the litigation risk off of the table is the right thing to do," Raimondo told reporters during an availability Thursday. Observers like former state Supreme Court justice Robert G. Flanders Jr. believe the state would have had the advantage in court. Even so, there might be a broader psychic benefit for the state in avoiding a protracted large-scale legal battle. Treasurer Seth Magaziner took up that theme during the availability with Raimondo. "This uncertainty issue is important for a number of reasons," Magaziner said. "The ratings agencies constantly state the uncertainty around the pension litigation as one of the factors in why our state's credit rating is below average, for example. It's a tremendous uncertainty for the business climate of the state. And don't forgot about those 50,000, 60,000 families who are in the pension system, the uncertainty for them, too, not knowing what their future is going to hold."

2. On the other hand, there's plenty to criticize with the pension settlement process, including the gag order that veiled much of the process leading to the proposed settlement .... The criteria for initial acceptance of the settlement has remained a mystery, although Frank Williams, the special master in the case, tells me it was based on a simple majority of the member unions. "We weren't going to let one [wipe out] the whole deal," Williams said. (He declined further comment, pointing to a modified gag order that remains in place.) .... Critics like RI Taxpayers and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity fault the settlement for leaving unanswered the legal question of whether the state can make unilateral pension changes. (Raimondo responded at her availability by calling that a valid point. “But I’m in the position of being practical," she added, "and it is my job to protect the interest of all the people of Rhode Island and this is a deal that solves a problem and allows us to move Rhode Island forward, and that is my job.”) .... Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Raimondo's Republican opponent last year, expressed disappointment in the settlement, noting how Cranston faces both increased retirement costs and possible added legal expenses for defending against the local police and firefighters' unions that rejected the deal.

3. With the new PawSox ownership getting ready to unveil a formal proposal for a Providence ballpark, different views and theories abound. Some Providence area professionals are high on the concept of being able to go to a ballgame after work, provided taxpayers don't take a bath. Other observers clamor for using part of the Allens Avenue waterfront or the former Victory Plating site instead. Still others are convinced that a bait-and-switch is in the works that will ultimately land the PawSox near Patriots Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts, or somewhere else. To hear team president James Skeffington tell it, his ownership group is serious about using part of the former I-195 land, as a way to enhance Providence. And as Angus Davis points out on Twitter, we're hearing a lot less about the redevelopment of other parts of former highway land (although Kate Bramson had a noteworthy story Friday).

4. Setting a cap on executive compensation at not-for-profit healthcare organizations has emerged as an idea during meetings of the Raimondo administration's working group on Medicaid. "We're looking at everything as these proposals come in," Elizabeth Roberts, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said during this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A. "It is tough for us in government [to set rules on compensation] when we don't pay all of those bills." Roberts said. The issue is relevant since George Vecchione, the former head of Lifespan, was known for compensation that topped $9 million in 2009. More recently SEIU, 1199NE, is using a mailer, entitled "Greed is Good," to cite total compensation of more than $6 million for 19 vice presidents at Care New England and Women & Infants. According to the mailer, "Hospitals' executives should be investing in quality patient care - not lining their own pockets with Medicaid and other public dollars." Asked if Medicaid is helping subsidize compensation for local healthcare execs, Roberts said, "To the extent that Medicaid is a major payer for care at most of our healthcare providers, all of those revenue sources -- Medicare, Medicaid, Blue Cross -- all help to pay that salary." 

5. In contrast to the proposed religious freedom law that generated national headlines from Indiana this week, Rhode Island's Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a non-issue since it became law in 1993. Steve Brown of the RI ACLU said the law was passed with broad support from civil rights and religious groups in response to a 1990 US Supreme Court decision that denied the right of Native Americans to use peyote in religious ceremonies. "The purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Rhode Island and elsewhere, and in Congress which also passed a law at that time, was to try to restore that standard and provide some religious freedom to individuals under state and federal laws," Brown said. Prior to the passage of RI's law, Brown said, the ACLU sued on behalf of a Hmong family whose child had been autopsied against the family's religious wishes. "A federal court actually agreed with our position, ruled that their rights had been violated," Brown said, "and then in the interim, the United States Supreme Court issued this [1990] decision that completely overturned the precedents regarding the First Amendment. And the judge [Raymond Pettine of US District Court] was forced to reconsider his decision. And I think that prompted a lot of people in Rhode Island to recognize there was a need to try to address this issue to try to prevent tragedies like that from occurring in the future."

6. Related: Prior to the passage of Rhode Island's same-sex marriage law in 2013, opponents expressed concern that the law would infringe on the rights of florists, caterers and other merchants with a religious opposition to same-sex marriage. State Senator Harold Metts (D-Providence), a same-sex marriage opponent, said he hasn't heard anything recently about those concerns being realized. The ACLU's Steve Brown said RI's same-sex marriage law "does have some language designed to address sincere beliefs from religions about things that they can or cannot do. We think that the exemption that was put into law was more than appropriate in terms of recognizing those narrow instances when religious beliefs should trump these types of laws." (Meanwhile, the Washington Post's The Fix blog declares, "The political war over gay culture is over, and the gays have won." Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, no enthusiast for same-sex marriage, basically said as much two years ago in explaining why the Senate passed same-sex marriage.)

7. The Rhode Island Democratic Party this week posted its delegate selection and affirmative action plan for the 2016 Democratic National Convention -- just in time for a required 30-day public comment period ahead of a DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee deadline.

8. Arnold "Buff" Chace Jr. hopes to complete the purchase of the Providence Journal Building in May, and talks are continuing about trying to retain the Journal as a tenant. "We're still in the running," Chace, who has met with the ProJo's new publisher, Janet Hasson, told me. "Hopefully, we're one of their top choices." Other sites said to be under consideration by the newspaper include One Weybosset Hill  in Providence, and a site in Johnston.

9. "I am in the job of my dreams right now -- I am [a] diehard policy wonk," Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts told us during Bonus Q+A. Check out that segment and Political Roundtable as we talk with Roberts about Medicaid, RI's healthcare landscape, marijuana, and a host of other subjects.

10. A meta-question as Governor Raimondo's team tries to remake Medicaid, streamline tourism spending, and possibly the structure of the state's five transportation-related agencies: Will Rhode Island remain change-averse, even as its economic indicators show the need for dramatic change? Meta-meta question: Will Raimondo act on the findings after getting around to reading Ken Block's fire-services report?

11. Small World, Part I: Michael Halle, the significant other of Tara McGowan, a former deputy press secretary for Senator Jack Reed, is setting up the Iowa operation for Hillary Clinton.

12. Small World, Part II: Tara Gorman, a first cousin of former WPRI-TV reporter Sean Daly, works in DC for the same law firm that former Providence mayor Angel Taveras joined back in February.

13. On Thursday, the City of Providence held its first meeting, at the Rhode Island Foundation, on a "Cluster Development Strategy" for improving the city's economy. Background here.

14. In his weekly essay, Scott MacKay finds more generous social programs in some of Rhode Island's New England neighbors.

15. The Twitter Express is alive and well in 2015 -- thanks to how Judge Taft-Carter prohibited reporters covering Thursday's pension hearing from tweeting from her courtroom. Instead, a number of us heard part of what was unfolding, hastily stepped outside the fifth-floor court to share the news with the universe, and then zoomed back inside for more details. The situation reflects how the media policy for the Rhode Island courts hasn't been updated in more than 30 years, and the process was still in the works in 2013. We asked court spokesman Craig Berke for an update, and did not get a response by the deadline for TGIF.

16. H. Russell Taub, the Republican getting an early start in his 2016 challenge to First District Congressman David Cicilline, is having a reception Wednesday, April 7, 6:30 pm, at Oak Harbor Village in Exeter. The special guest is former Texas congressman Steve Stockman (not exactly a favorite of the political press), and contribution levels range from $25 to $2600.

17. "West Virginia and Rhode Island use the most drugs. They have very little else in common."

18. Johnston-based FM Global latest Global Resilience Index rates 130 countries on potential supply chain disruptions. Norway remains tops in its class, Venezuela has problems, and Ukraine and Kazakhstan both tumbled significantly over the past year.

19. Don't look now, but Sports Illustrated picks the Red Sox for first in the AL East. Plus, Curt Schilling is not Clay Buchholz' psychologist (and neither are you)