TGIF: 20 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Dec 30, 2016

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2017! Welcome to my last TGIF column of 2016, and thanks for following my reports throughout the year. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Immigration loomed large in the nation's psyche in 2016. President-elect Donald Trump captivated supporters with his early campaign focus of building a wall along the Mexican border. He disparaged many Mexicans as criminals and labeled Syrian refugees as "a great Trojan horse" that will bring terror attacks to the US. Trump's political calculation paid off, since a sense of grievance and concerns about the slipping middle class fueled his campaign. Yet Pew reports that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the US was waning in the years before Trump launched his campaign. Meanwhile, the New England News Collaborative -- in which RI Public Radio is a participant -- offered a detailed series this week on how immigration is changing New England. A few highlights: As the region ages, immigrants make up a higher percentage of healthcare workers; Business leaders say immigrants can help fill a workforce shortage in New England; and immigrant workers who take on some of the grueling agricultural jobs shunned by other worker, face indiscriminate arrest. There's "brain waste," too -- a phenomenon that may cost the US almost $10 billion a year in untapped tax revenue.

2. The property tax is widely considered Rhode Island's most regressive tax, so does it make sense for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to focus on phasing out the $215 million collected by cities and towns each year in car tax revenue? Conservative writer Justin Katz offers this take: "Other taxes have a more negative effect on jobs and the economy.  That means not only that the state would be better off applying its tax-cutting motivation to other taxes, but also that replacing the car tax with other revenue, as Mattiello suggests .... is by itself a job-killing reform." But state Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) believes that eliminating the car tax is a good idea. "Since it was one of our priorities in the Republican Party last session, I'm glad to see the speaker moving in our direction, so obviously it's a good move," Newberry said during a taping of this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "But in all seriousness, the arguments against doing it, about the property taxes, there's some validity to it. But the car tax is one of those taxes that causes disrespect for the law. I paid a tax -- I just get rid of one of my 17-year-old cars last year. I paid a tax on it; it wasn't the amount of money I paid, it was the principle of paying the tax. It's not a fair tax. It disproportionately hits the middle class and the poor. It also hurts car sales. There's a whole lot of reasons why it's a bad tax, and you know, I didn't agree with Lincoln Chafee on many things, but his argument that property taxes were a serious problem in Rhode Island -- be it the car tax and real estate tax -- is a very valid one. We need to start addressing the property tax issues and that's the place to start."

3. If you're looking for a show to binge-watch, the new season of "General Assembly" starts Tuesday on Capitol TV. Governor Gina Raimondo has mostly had the political stage to herself, but that will change with the return of lawmakers. Here are seven key questions for the new session: 1) How will Raimondo and lawmakers wipe out a $110 million deficit, while accommodating Speaker Mattiello's plan to begin phasing out the car tax? 2) With Massachusetts slowing down the retail process for selling marijuana, will Rhode Island move more slowly on legalization? 3) Will the enhanced progressive caucus in the House make a sustained push to be more forceful? 4) Will Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed implement an exit strategy, and if so, when? 5) Will legislative Republicans be more effective in leveraging their small numbers? 6) Will the General Assembly move past the ethics issues (Gallison, Carnevale) that attracted a lot of attention in 2016? 7) Most importantly (kidding), will the final day of session end at a reasonable hour?

4. Matt Bucci, one of Governor Raimondo's closest advisers, is leaving at the end of January to take a job in the Providence office of AECOM. His assignment will focus on growth and strategy, according to the governor's office, and will not include lobbying or government relations. Jon Romano is joining the governor's staff as a senior adviser.

5. John DePetro, a controversial and longtime presence on local talk-radio, used a pre-Christmas news dump to announce his exit from WPRO. There was no explanation of the reason behind this, or any detail on DePetro's next destination. DePetro's fans lamented his exit, while his critics cheered. Maureen Martin, chair of the For Our Daughters group that led a boycott of WPRO, claimed mission accomplished, adding, "We encourage station leaders to formally adopt policies to prevent this type of situation from happening again." Yet the boycott was more than three years old, so it seems likely other, yet-to-be explained factors played a role.

6. Peter Garino, a top player in Peter Alviti's attempt to re-make the state Department of Transportation as a more responsive state agency, is leaving the DOT at the end of January. Garino said he first got interested in transportation as a college intern while at Georgetown for the late New Jersey congressman Robert Roe, known for enacting massive transportation, clean water and other initiatives. Garino said it's a good time to leave DOT now since, despite persistent political in-fighting in Washington, there's bipartisan support for improving infrastructure. The outgoing RIDOT COO said he hopes to lead with a private sector firm on the West Coast.

7. The Top-10 Rhode Island stories of 2016, as chosen by the RIPR newsroom: 10) Major changes in the healthcare landscape, including financial troubles and the uncertain outlook for Obamacare; 9) Opponents of education reform gain ground; 8) Debate grows louder over the proposed Burrillville power plant; 7) Speaker Mattiello squeaks out a victory over Steven Frias; 6) Governor Raimondo touts a string of job announcements, but many Rhode Islanders continue to struggle economically; 5) settlements are reached with most of the 38 Studios defendants; 4) the Block Island wind farm comes online; 3) the Cooler & Warmer fiasco; 2) the death of Rhode Island's rascal king, Buddy Cianci; 1) Bernie Sanders wins Rhode Island's Democratic presidential primary over Hillary Clinton, while Donald Trump has a better-than-expected showing in November.

8. An improving trend at the state Board of Elections may be one of the more overlooked RI political stories of 2016. This was the year when the board fired its long-embattled director, Robert Kando, and an earlier referral made by the board to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin this year produced charges against Providence City Councilor Kevin Jackson. (The board also filed a report involving findings against City Council President Luis Aponte.) Meanwhile, Board Chairman Richard Dubois fired off a detailed response, rebutting what he felt was unjustified criticism from Arlene Violet.

9. In a prime example of how a legacy news organization can grow in the Internet age, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post plans to add more than 60 reporters. That makes it a good time to review media critic Dan Kennedy's take on five things publishers can learn from how Bezos is running the Post. Writing last June, Kennedy concluded, "No newspaper executive has figured out a way to prosper during the twenty-year era of the commercial internet. As is the case with the Post, news organizations need to be willing to experiment, to abandon experiments that aren’t working, and to keep embracing new ideas in the hopes that some of them will prove to be not only journalistically sound but an enhancement to the bottom line as well."

10. WPRI-TV's Kim Kalunian attracted a lot of out-of-town media interest through her interview with incoming White House communications director Sean Spicer, a Barrington native, earlier this week. That's no surprise since Spicer will be on the frontline of managing President-elect Donald Trump's interactions with the media. Thus far, Trump has eschewed news conferences while getting his message out via Twitter. Spicer offered some further insights during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, as Politico reports: "Spicer has previously indicated that a practice as basic as the daily White House press briefing would be examined and possibly scrapped in favor of a new system. On Thursday, he told Hewitt that news conferences will continue, but social media engagement targeted directly at Trump’s base and the American public at large will also play a role. 'When he talks about Americans first, he means 'I don’t care what a bunch of elites tell me or people at a dinner party,' Spicer said. 'He wants to know what American workers care about, what American families care about, what’s going to help American businesses grow. And so, yes, if we have to maintain some traditions, we’ll maintain them.' "

11. RIPR's most read web stories in 2016: 1) Commentary: Just How Did The Raimondo Administration Allow The Botched Tourism Campaign? 2) Yale Publishes Mysterious Medieval Manuscript 3) R.I. DLT Rules Verizon Workers Eligible For Unemployment Compensation 4) RI Drops Standardized Testing For 10th & 11th Graders 5) Top Heart Surgeon Singh To End Surgery 6) RI Political Legend Buddy Cianci Dead At Age 74 7) Rhode Island: Cooler And Warmer? 8) The ProJo Is Reassigning Katherine Gregg From The Statehouse 9) RIC Offers State's First Undergrad Certificate For Students With Intellectual Disabilities 10) First Presidential Debate: Live Fact-Checking From NPR

12. Representative Newberry isn't playing favorites with the prospective GOP gubernatorial field that may include Robert Flanders, Allan Fung, Ken Block, and Joe Trillo, among others. "I will see who actually wants to run first, and then I will decide if I want to get behind one candidate over another," Newberry quipped during RIPR's Bonus Q&A.

13. Malden, just north of Boston, plans to break ground on a minor league baseball stadium next summer, with play starting in 2019, The Boston Globe reports.

14. "David Fahrenthold tells the behind-the-scenes story of his year covering Trump"

15. Omar Bah on how Rhode Islanders can help to build a free press in Gambia: "I only have to look at the bayonet scar on my left hand to remember how Gambian President Yahya Jammeh treats a free press: The dictator’s soldiers beat, kicked and tortured me when I attempted to cover a secret trial in The Gambia, my native country. And I barely escaped with my life, fleeing the smallest nation on the African mainland before finding refuge here in America’s smallest state. I thought I would never set foot in The Gambia again. But Jammeh, the authoritarian president for the past 22 years, lost the presidential election on Dec. 1. While it remains unclear if he’s going to willingly step aside, I hope to establish a private, independent newspaper there. Rhode Island is now my family’s home, so I plan to remain here. But I hope to visit The Gambia soon to launch the paper -- for the best way to cherish and protect this newfound freedom is to strengthen the pillars of democracy. The best way to avoid another oppressive regime is to establish a free, vibrant press. The best way to ensure that government leaders do not abuse their power is have reporters holding them accountable. The best way to ensure that this fragile democracy thrives is to report the truth -- to give citizens the facts and not propaganda. I not only want to give the people of The Gambia the news. I not only want to give the country a media outlet separate from the government-controlled newspaper. I want to give the people a way to express their views without fear of reprisal, torture and death. I want to give them a voice."

16. A must-read from former ProJo reporter C.J. Chivers: "The Marine Corps taught Sam Siatta how to shoot. The war in Afghanistan taught him how to kill. Nobody taught him how to come home."

17. Jim Hummel and the crew at A Lively Experiment were kind enough to invite me back for the always-fun year-end show. We talk about the highs and lows of Rhode Island politics in 2016 and make a few predictions for the new year. Tune in at 7 pm Friday or noon Sunday.

18. With the legislative session starting, fundraisers aren't far behind. Speaker Mattiello goes first, as is tradition, with a January 18 time at the Providence Marriott, followed by Senate President Paiva Weed at the same venue on January 26. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio gets his turn February 9 at Roger Williams Park Casino.

19. In 2017 -- if not some point in the future -- we're going to eat seaweed that tastes like bacon.

20. Happy New Year: the story behind the cocktail at the smallest bar in one of the world's largest cities.