TGIF: 21 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jun 19, 2015

Thanks for stopping by. The legislative year is almost over -- the traditional part, anyway -- but the political world always keeps spinning. I welcome your tips and thoughts at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. When Nicholas Mattiello won the House speakership last year, consolidated his support, and attracted a measure of positive initial reviews, the conventional wisdom held that it would be difficult for Mattiello to top those first few months in office. Well, the conventional wisdom was wrong -- as Tuesday's lightning fast budget vote made clear. Sure, beyond tradition, there's no good reason for the budget vote to devolve into a maddeningly long, mind-numbing annual rite, marked by rising tempers and sweltering temperatures in the House chamber, ending long after most of Rhode Island is sleeping; it was taken for granted that this was how things were and would always be. The Ocean State isn't an outlier in this curious ritual; neighboring Connecticut, for example, used a stupefying all-nighter as part of its most recent budget debate. Yet Mattiello marked a symbolic break with the past, stunning lawmakers and reporters alike, by gaveling the budget through in under three hours. More significantly, the speaker and Governor Gina Raimondo have forged a close working relationship, as can be seen from the content of the budget (see #1 from last week). And yes, Mattiello does have unquestioned control of what his friend, former speaker William Murphy, once dubbed "the House of Ambition," even if Mattiello prefers to frame it this way: "I would say that we have a united House that’s committed to work on behalf of the state of Rhode Island and its citizens." Regardless, getting the budget vote done before sundown jibes with the speaker's pro-business mantra, And in a state where many residents retain a dim view of the General Assembly, Mattiello continues to exceed expectations. (For a dissenting view, check what Justin Katz has to say.)

2. For now, It remains unclear if lawmakers will return for a special session later this year. House spokesman Larry Berman says two unresolved issues could determine the outcome: 1) if the truck-toll plan is not taken up next week, "which is still to be decided," he said; and 2) whether a deal comes together on a Providence stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. According to Berman, "Talks with PawSox owners are on hold until after the session. The speaker has promised that there will be public hearings on a stadium proposal first before a fall session would even be finalized."

3. Governor Gina Raimondo is so on-message that she used a statement on the state's dip below 6 percent unemployment to touch on the top yet-to-be-resolved issue of the legislative session: "Although it is encouraging to see Rhode Island's unemployment rate fall below six percent, there are still far too many families struggling. It's particularly concerning that we are not seeing more growth in the construction industry, especially as we move into the warmer weather when work should be picking up significantly. That's why it is critical we move quickly to put people back to work repairing our roads and bridges and strengthening our economy in the process." In contrast to the pension overhaul and the governor's "Reinventing Medicaid" pitch, Raimondo's truck-toll proposal was rolled out without first airing the details publicly. So why the late-session rush? The governor and her people point to the urgent need to fix bridges, as well as the lack of work in the construction trades (and labor is pushing hard). The Rhode Island Trucking Association is keeping up a stiff fight, even with a revised pitch from Raimondo. A Senate Finance vote is scheduled for Tuesday, and we suspect a House committee vote is likely, in part since Majority Leader John DeSimone is among the House bill's sponsors. UPDATE: DeSimone's bill is now slated for a Monday House Finance hearing (no vote expected) at 3 pm Monday.

4. Don't look now, Providence, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio's TSA bill is on for a Senate Finance vote Tuesday.

5. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who came into office without previous elective experience, has had his challenges since moving into City Hall. Yet the first incarnation of Elorza's International Arts Festival capped what was likely the mayor's best week in office. First, the firefighter OT bill died at the Statehouse, giving Elorza more time to seek a negotiated settlement with Local 799. Then, Elorza got his first budget through the City Council, GQ praised Providence, and the Arts Festival showcased Rhode Island's capital city at its best: hundreds of city residents and visitors, of various ages, races, and ethnicities, mixed happily, took in a variety of performances, and lent a New Orleans-style sense of street party-carnival to downtown. As Elorza said in an email -- subject-lined "Big Week" -- "It was phenomenal to see the City come alive with excitement this week, and with everyone’s voice and engagement, we will create the New Providence. Thank you for all you do to make Providence the great city that it is."

6. The charter school movement is shaping up as one of the top losers of the legislative session. Legislation imposing a de facto moratorium is expected to pass. So is a bill requiring the state Education Department to find that new charters or charter expansions don't have a negative impact on the financial or academic performance of sending districts. It tells you something about the breadth of support that House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) and liberal Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence) were among the reps backing the latter measure during a House floor vote Thursday. Charter supporters say the legislation will cripple the local charter movement; lawmakers say steps are needed to counter the fiscal impact of students moving from traditional public schools to charters. The big question now is whether Governor Raimondo will veto the measures; the governor's office hasn't responded to requests for comment.

7. Although the usually contentious end-of-session abortion debate was limited this year to HealthSource RI, RI Right to Life is describing the impact as nothing short of monumental. In an email to supporters, the group said the budget vote capped "a pro-life victory of great significance, impacting thousands of pro-life Rhode Island individuals, families, and employers who obtain insurance (both individual and employer-provided) through HealthSource RI. The victory is the fruit of six years of intense legislative, political, and legal battle led by your Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee. Due to the complexity of Obamacare, and its implementation in Rhode Island, neither the media nor our opponents at Planned Parenthood and in the pro-abortion caucus of the General Assembly, yet appear to understand the extent of our victory. We will thus withhold a detailed explanation until after the budget clears the Senate and is signed into law by the Governor." Meanwhile, Jamie Rhodes, government relations director for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, also claimed victory in this message to supporters: "We are pleased the House and Senate were able to quickly respond to concerns that the budget proposed by Governor Gina Raimondo did nothing to protect abortion access for employees of small businesses in Rhode Island. In the wake of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, we were surprised the Governor did not seek protections for employee access to comprehensive reproductive health care. It is clear that leaders in the House and Senate recognized this budget loophole. The passed budget includes an invaluable amendment that will allow employees of small businesses that claim an objection to covering abortion, to enroll in the HealthSource RI Full Employee Choice program. While we were disappointed the Governor unnecessarily chose to widely expand the number of plans that do not cover abortion beyond federal minimum standards, the action by the General Assembly today ensures employers cannot unilaterally limit reproductive health care service coverage for their employees. This amendment will require employers and insurance carriers to clearly indicate when an employer is opting out of covering certain reproductive health care services, so that no one will be surprised by a lack of coverage for routine procedures.”

8. Bills to phase out cesspools and to examine racial inequities in police stops are among the perennials whose time has seemingly come to pass out of the General Assembly. Legislation to regulate transit services like Uber, meanwhile, is shaping up as a last-minute special, with no report and a bill introduced Thursday, with just a few days left to go in the General Assembly session. (Correction: an earlier version of this item failed to indicate the introduction of an Uber-related bill.)

9. During Tuesday's budget vote, when Representative Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) tried using an amendment to launch an investigation of the state's disastrous investment in 38 Studios, it took less than 20 seconds before Speaker Mattiello could be heard saying, "Will someone raise germane on this?" House Majority Leader John DeSimone dutifully made a point of order to ask that Morgan's amendment be ruled not germane. And of the 11 Republicans in the House, only Representative Anthony Giarrusso of East Greenwich voted with Morgan, against 64 reps, on the issue of whether her amendment was germane. So much for the once-fiery debate over how Rhode Island taxpayers continue paying back bondholders in 38 Studios, to the tune of millions of dollars each year.

10. Asked on RIPR's Bonus Q+A this week whether lawmakers should investigate 38 Studios, House Majority Whip Jay Edwards of Tiverton said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is the one who should be conducting such a probe. "That's the source that should be -- he has subpoena powers, he has the entire full weight of the state behind him. That's the entity that should be investigating 38 Studios." Asked why there should not be a public report similar to Carved in Sand -- which documented the causes of the state credit union crisis -- Edwards said, "I think our AG is perfectly capable of carrying out a thorough investigation of anything, let alone 38 Studios." (For the record, Kilmartin spokeswoman Amy Kempe says via email, "The investigation remains active and ongoing. I cannot comment more than that until such time as the investigation concludes."

11. Representative Morgan, meanwhile, has taken on the provocateur role once played by Robert Watson during his bygone days as House minority leader. Although Morgan typically casts herself as a taxpayer advocate, she twitted majority Democrats during the budget debate for not supposedly not knowing much about lean government -- to a chorus of ensuing groans and a mild rebuke from the rostrum. In the end, of course, Morgan voted for the budget, along with Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who called it about a good a spending plan as can be expected in a Democratic state. Morgan, an Ohio native, came to Rhode Island when her husband was assigned to the Naval War College in 1976. The daughter of a union tire builder at Firestone, she became a GOP convert at Kent State, attracted by the message of fiscal conservatism and personal responsibility, as Morgan once told me. She rose to become state GOP chairwoman in 2003 after chairing Don Carcieri's West Warwick campaign a year earlier. Despite repeat attempts by Democrats to dislodge her, Morgan has maintained a hold on the rep seat once held by former Speaker Murphy since she regained office in 2010.

12. Don't hold your breath if you're looking for a statewide solution to the problems faced by communities, like Coventry, where a string of local fire districts are straining local budgets. While the General Assembly seems likely to back the dissolution of one such district, following a vote this week by Coventry residents, the parochial nature of Rhode Island and its politics suggests future changes will come on a case-by-case basis.

13. State Democratic Chairman Joseph McNamara is hosting a meet and greet, Monday, June 22, at 5:30 pm, at Vanity Supper Club, for young Democrats (36 and under) on getting engaged in the political process. According to a statement, "Representatives of the state party, the Rhode Island Democratic City & Town Committee, elected officers and others will be on hand to talk about internships, volunteering in campaigns, running for committees and public office, and participating in the Delegate Selection Process and 2016 Democratic Convention." 

14. With Speaker Mattiello on something of a roll (see #1), the House could further burnish its reputation by giving voters the chance to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers, right? Here's how House Whip Jay Edwards views that question, via RIPR's Bonus Q+A: "I think it all comes down to the issue of the freedom of speech and debate. If they can clear that up, so that we can actually talk on the floor and not have to worry about any possible prosecution. If they could clean that up for us, I don't think you'd have anyone in the General Assembly, including the speaker, who is a very ethical man, who would have any issues with it." Then again, the legislature and the Ethics Commission have always had an adversarial relationship, even if lawmakers tend to lack concrete examples of how their speech and debate rights were compromised prior to the state Supreme Court's 2009 weakening of the commission .... Meanwhile, in related news, the OCG Institute, an arm of Operation Clean Government, said it's creating CLEAN RI, "a coalition of organizations to support the strengthening of Ethics Commission oversight of the members of the Rhode Island General Assembly."

15. Lincoln Chafee isn't having any trouble getting national media attention, from "Fox and Friends" to MSNBC. Yet the free press hasn't translated into a surge of support, since Chafee is still polling at a mere 1 percent in a poll out this week: "Suffolk University Poll Shows Sanders Closing Gap on Clinton in New Hampshire"

16. Take a listen to what the new director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, has to say about the many issues faced by DOH, in this interview with RIPR's Kristin Gourlay.

17. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung was on the speaking list at the 2015 Northeast Republican Leadership Conference, taking place through Saturday in Philadelphia. "We are ecstatic that the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference has included him in the lineup with the other prominent national Republicans," RI GOP chairman Brandon Bell said in a statement. "Last year, Mayor Fung was a featured speaker for the 2014 conference focusing on fiscally conservative leadership and getting two major unions onto 401ks.  This year, he will be speaking at the session entitled 'Building a Winning Majority: How the GOP is the Grand Opportunity Party,' on engaging the minority vote for the upcoming 2016 election." 

18. The 225th anniversary of Providence's US District Court will be marked during a 3 pm program next Tuesday, June 22. The celebration includes a reception and a panel discussion featuring Bruce Selya, senior circuit judge of the US Court of Appeals' First Circuit; Chief Judge Patti B. Saris of the US District Court of Massachusetts; and Brown University emeritus professor of history Gordon Wood.

19. Mayor Elorza this week unveiled a new Millennial Task Force "to launch a public engagement campaign and help inform the City’s efforts to attract and retain talented young professionals in the capital city." Here's the makeup for the group: "Sierra Barter, CEO and co-founder of the Lady Project, and Student Services Social Media Coordinator at Johnson and Wales University, her alma mater; Travis Escobar, Community Engagement Coordinator at ONE Neighborhood Builders and founding member of the Millennial Professional Group of Rhode Island; Grace Evans, recent Wheeler School graduate who will be attending Harvard University in the fall; Tyrene Jones, Talent Development Coordinator at the University of Rhode Island; and Drew Milligan, Performance Analyst with the Rhode Island Department of Education."

20. "Why Political Campaigns Are Raising Money Faster than Tech Startups"

21. Need help with your love life? Amid concerns about too many young singles, the Iranian government has launched an official dating site.

This post has been updated.