Baseball is back, there are rumors of warmer temperatures, and the political beat continues to run hot. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. Even with the national economy cranking along, warning signs continue to emerge about the uncertain state of Rhode Island's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. For evidence, consider a House Finance Committee meeting this past Wednesday. The focus was parts of Article 4 that would raise a combined $6.1 million in revenue through increased taxes on cigarettes, cigars and vaping products. That's a pittance in the context of a $9.37 billion budget proposal. Yet owners and employees of convenience stores, cigar lounges and vaping businesses packed Room 35 to make a series of well-expressed arguments against the tax increases. The issues ranged from public health to the impact on small businesses. Carrie Wade, harm reduction policy director for the free market R Street Institute in Washington, said it would be bad public policy to raise taxes on the vaping industry, since e-cigs are less hazardous than traditional cigarettes. (Wade said a study done by her center showed that every one percent drop in traditional smoking in Rhode Island will produce a $12 million decrease in state Medicaid costs.) Cigar lounge and vape merchants in communities like Westerly and East Providence said the tax hikes would be so impactful, they'd take their livelihoods over the state line into, respectively, Connecticut and Massachusetts. "I love Rhode Island, I was born here, but we're a quarter-mile from the Seekonk border," said Mike Runshe of Giant Vapes in EP, adding that he doesn't want to leave the state. (Perhaps due to such staunch opposition, the tax hikes proposed in Article 4 are not expected to pass as proposed, according to Statehouse sources.) Meanwhile, Gov. Gina Raimondo's budget proposal has already been criticized for relying on a lot of assumptions, including an expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court will approve a big expansion of sports betting (good for $23.5 million in the spending plan). This being an election year, lawmakers hope to end their session early. Yet the challenge of balancing the budget -- not to mention the recent history of end-of-session clashes between the House and Senate -- could make for another bumpy end to the legislative calendar.
2. Two weeks ago, virtually no one was talking about the U.S. Census. Now, everyone's talking about the ongoing Census test (taking place only in Providence County) and a citizenship question planned for the 2020 Census. Much of the concern is about how that question could discourage participation. A series of elected officials and other speakers are expected to amplify that concern during a 12:30 pm news conference outside Central Falls City Hall on Monday
3. While the big field of candidates running in Rhode Island's 2018 race for governor has become a natural focus for attention, the Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and his challenger, state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) promises to be one of the most fascinating campaign battles of the year. The race pits a progressive rival against a longtime former Cumberland mayor with more of a conservative take on Democratic politics. And while Regunberg talks about bringing fresh ideas and new energy to the Statehouse, McKee doesn't seem worried about the primary challenge. During an appearance on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable, McKee pointed to his experience and advocacy on issues involving National Grid and its performance in stormy weather, among other issues: "visiting small businesses, working with the Veterans Association, working with the National Grid. I think that we are going to finally recover the money that where the tax relief began in January, and the rate relief should have began in January .... We're more than paying for our office." For more discussion with McKee on politics and policy, listen to his interview on Bonus Q&A. Among other issues, McKee doesn't see a real threat to Roe v. Wade, and he supports the search for a runoff-type approach as response to governors winning office with less than 50 percent of the vote.
4. The class-action lawsuit against speed cameras in Providence is set for a court fight. The outcome of the case has statewide implications, since a win for Providence could lead other cities and towns to turn to speed cameras as a revenue source. Then again, the abrupt rollout of the cameras in the capital city -- and the sharp public reaction against them -- serves as a warning on the potential backlash facing public officials.
5. A civics reminder from the Twitter of state Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield): "I will remind everyone of what I have been saying for years: It takes 2/3 of the GA to pass a budget and only 3/5 to override a veto. Every budget is veto proof the day it is passed. The GA controls the budget and always has. If you want to change the budget, change the GA."
6. State Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) introduced a proposal this week that would remake the state budget process. He touted 34 co-sponsors for a measure that, Pearson said, would boost transparency and accountability. In short, voters would decide whether to amend the Constitution to create a budget reconciliation process between the House and the Senate, while also granting the governor a line-item veto. “The lack of a conference committees or any other defined process led to the budget impasse last session that we must work to never repeat,” Pearson said in a statement. “This is an equitable way to process the budget by reconciling the concerns and interests of both chambers. It would also require each chamber to secure the votes required for their respective chamber’s priorities before negotiations with the other chamber." Whatever the merits of the concept, it wasn't a stretch to think the House, given its institutional rivalry with the Senate, would be very reluctant to go along. Sure enough, House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney used a statement to pour cold water on Pearson's pitch: “The Senate’s proposal sounds much like the federal budget process that does not work well. The last thing we need is annual budget gridlock like in Washington. Our current budget process is open and transparent, and this is nothing more than a power play by the Senate.”
7. The Providence Journal is moving ahead with plans to hire two reporters. These are the first newsroom hires since Jackie Tempera and Carol Kozma were brought on almost three years ago. (Kozma later departed for a job at UMass-Dartmouth, and Tempera announced this week she's taking on a reporting role at MassLive.com.) One of the new hires is Brian Amaral, most recently a digital producer at WBUR in Boston (his background also includes experience at Law360.com and the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.) With Tempera leaving, ProJo Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg tells me the ProJo will hire a third new reporter.
8. Tempera did a lot of excellent reporting during her time at the ProJo (while also commuting from Boston). She offered this comment on her departure: "As excited as I am to start with Mass Live and to stop commuting to Providence every day (I will admit in retrospect that was crazy), I am incredibly sad to leave my colleagues here at The Journal. There are so many wonderful people I’ve crossed paths with that have supported me, answered my questions, and advised me during my 2 1/2 years here. I am continuously inspired by the Providence Journal staff, in particular, the women who have as served as mentors, and by how hard they work. Amanda Milkovits, Linda Borg, Katie Mulvaney, Kathy Gregg, Chris Dunn, Maria Caporizzo, Lynn Arditi, and Karen Ziner, among others, have lifted me up in countless ways during my time in Providence. When I came here I was 22 years old and had just graduated from college. I leave with more stories (both personally and those I wrote in the paper) than I could ever have imagined. My writing about a certain Darth Vader-loving police chief, the Dancing Cop, and of course -- the Canadian prime minister’s bottom will always make me smile. I feel lucky I was able to tell the stories of victims of sexual harassment and violence, people experiencing homelessness, and so many others who trusted me with some of the darkest moments of their lives. The Providence Journal newsroom is filled with tough, talented, and wonderful journalists. I will be reading their work from Boston. That said, onward and upward!"
9. Grow Smart RI's Scott Wolf points to two things -- a revived historic tax credit and better public transit -- as steps that could spread more economic growth outside Providence, following some new companies setting up shop in the capital city. “Better they come here than Boston," Wolf said in an interview this week. "That’s a plus, a big plus. But we want to figure out if there are ways to have the Pawtuckets and the Central Falls and the Woonsockets and the West Warwicks be more a part of this new momentum that’s out there.” Wolf said he's hopeful for improved transit, pointing to a recognition that it's important for the young talent sought by some local firms. Yet the outlook on increased funding for the historic tax credit is very uncertain, due to the tough budget outlook.
10. The Rev. Matthew Kai, from the West Side Tabernacle Church in Providence, talks with RIPR's John Bender about President Trump's move to end a program created for refugees of the civil war in Liberia.
11. "Kristen's Law," which would give a mandatory life sentence who gives or sell drugs to someone who dies from an overdose, was the subject of General Assembly hearings this week. Supporters call the measure a way to discourage harm from the widespread opioid problem. But opponents, including the drug policy reform group Protect Families First, say the proposal would have largely adverse effects. "We understand that many people are dying from opioid and other drug overdoses and commend actions that are being taken to address this concern, PFF's Annajane Yolken said in a statement. "However, this law is counterproductive for the following reasons: 1.) These laws mostly target very low level drug sellers, who are often selling or giving drugs to support their own addiction. It doesn't target larger entities we should really be holding accountable. 2.) States that enforce these laws have not se en any decreases in the rate of overdose deaths. We have tried punitive drug policies for decades and have more overdose deaths than ever.3.) These are not a good investment in communities. It would cost millions of dollars per person incarcerated, and many hidden financial and social costs on family members. 4.) These laws have the unintended consequence of preventing people from calling 911 in the event of an overdose, stopping people from getting life-saving care."
13. Grow Smart RI's Scott Wolf on whether Rhode Islanders have an accurate assessment of the state: "No, I think they underestimate the state. I think they underestimate both the progress we have made and the potential we have to make more progress. And I say that as a native Rhode Islander. I would also say as a native Rhode Islander that we natives are worse than the newcomers. The newcomers tend to look at the state with a fresher eye and tend to see more of our assets, whereas a lot of us natives take the assets for granted. I'm not saying we don't have problems and that we haven't shot ourselves in the foot. But I think that we exaggerate our liabilities and underestimate our strengths."
15. From a New York Times op-ed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens this week: "For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a 'well regulated militia.' During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating 'one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.' " President Trump responded by saying the Second Amendment will never be repealed.
16. The WaterFire Arts Center plans to display the 'Rosa Parks Project House.' Via RIPR's Talia Blake: "The house from Detroit, which was once home to the brother of civil rights icon Rosa Parks and his family, has been the subject of a dispute over whether Parks lived there after her move from the south. Now an art installation, the house will be on display March 31st and April 1st at the Waterfire Arts Center in Providence. WaterFire will display the reconstructed house, that was once owned by Parks's brother, in a celebration of the life of Rosa Parks. The free events will include community and panel discussions, music, and poetry. Rosa Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, who saved the house from demolition in Detroit, describes dinners with her aunt in the home and says Parks stayed there when she first moved to Detroit. McCauley believes this house tells a history that’s largely absent from the public conversation around Parks, including the racism she faced after moving from Alabama to Detroit in the wake of the bus boycott, and the difficulty she had finding a job and stable housing once she got there. 'You know we have this opportunity through the house to really tell the clear history of the true Rosa Parks, and it’s a missing gap in our history book,' said McCauley."
17. A hardy perennial: an auto body shop-backed bill (Senate version) that would potentially threaten the use of aftermarket parts in collision repairs, slated for a Senate Judiciary hearing on Tuesday.
18. Via Pew: How Americans feel about social media in an era of privacy concerns. Meanwhile, in an op-ed in The Hill, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline said Mark Zuckerberg "must account for Facebook's moral failure": "Despite its pledge to work with Congress and security researchers to investigate election interference, Facebook has instead attempted to elude congressional oversight of this matter while preventing researchers from analyzing the extent of misinformation and propaganda on Facebook. Facebook has also funneled Americans’ access to quality journalism and trustworthy sources of information. This is a threat to the very existence of the free and diverse press, a lynchpin of our constitutional democracy that is key to rooting out corruption and holding the government and powerful corporations accountable. Internationally, human rights experts say that Facebook has played a “determining role” in ethnic violence in Myanmar, similar to the role of extremist radio in enabling unimaginable violence and death in Rwanda. Facebook has also been outright blocked in other countries due to its role in spreading and amplifying hate speech. Taken together, this string of broken promises and patterns of abuse illustrate why we need more than empty assurances from Facebook."
19. Media notes: 1) The demise of newspapers is making it more difficult to track disease; 2) The things you learn listening to Torey Malatia riff during an RIPR membership drive: Richard Gingras, a top exec with Google News, grew up in Providence and grew addicting to the smell of ink and newsprint while visiting his father at the ProJo; here's a link to a lengthy talk Gingras gave on how to build more trust in the news; 3) Sinclair, the big TV chain that owns WJAR-TV, hired someone from Russian media outlet RT to produce a story on "the deep state" for a Seattle TV station.
20. Spring is here, so three cheery stories for a season of renewal: 1) an accountant prevented any goals when pressed into service for the Chicago Blackhawks; 2) From Mary Lind of Lincoln, RI's Student Journalist of the Year: “Fake news and distrust of news present more of a challenge to reporters, but one that I’m ready for. The accusations inspire me more and more every day to make sure I’m getting the real story, and that everyone on my paper’s staff seek truth.”; 3) Baseball is back.