TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jan 22, 2016

Winter is here in earnest, with weekend snow, and the political beat is revving at full throttle. Thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and feedback are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. A crowd of business, government and civic leaders gathered at the Rhode Island Foundation for the release Tuesday of the Brookings Institution's strategy on improving the Ocean State economy. To simplify things, the overriding advice came down to: (1) improve the state's business climate; and (2) invest in promising job sectors. Not exactly radical stuff, right? Indeed, it was a bit reminiscent of the Greenhouse Compact, the 1984 plan designed by Ira Magaziner (the father of General Treasurer Seth Magaziner) to seed the high-tech jobs of the future. Yet Rhode Island voters rejected the $250 million strategy, and the state has fundamentally lacked any kind of long-term economic plan since then. Brookings came through with a 198-page report thick with pertinent background on the state's economic malaise and detailed recommendations on how to move beyond that. Is there an element of Brookings providing cover for what Governor Gina Raimondo would want to do anyway? Perhaps. Are conservative critics alarmed about what they perceive as "corporate welfare to the insider few"? You bet. There's also an echo of how Raimondo rallied different stakeholders around the need to overhaul the state's pension system, ahead of what would have once been a surprising outcome in 2011. Moving forward, the biggest questions about RI's new economic plan are about its implementation; Brookings' Bruce Katz said the responsibility for moving the recommendations forward extend beyond the governor and General Assembly to include business leaders, universities and civic groups, in a new "partnership." That could be a heavy lift in a state where the business community remains considerably checked out of politics. Speaking with reporters after the event, Raimondo was somewhat vague in outlining the next steps, although she also called some of the recommendations "an extension of the path we're already on." Clearly, the stakes are quite high. As one longtime observer noted after the Brooking report was unveiled, what will it say about the state if a go-getter like Raimondo can't nudge Rhode Island into a better economic future? The governor herself sounded optimistic notes: "The best news about today," she said, "is we have an outside group of experts who've done work all over the world, did an independent analysis and said, Rhode Island has what it takes to be successful. Rhode Island has the ingredients and assets to have a vibrant economy in the 21st century. It's on us -- are we ready to embrace that and make it happen? I think we are."  

2. The much-anticipated 38 Studios trial is tentatively scheduled to start with jury selection on September 1.

3. Wexford Science and Technology and CV Properties have signed a purchase and sale agreement to move ahead with their much-anticipated mixed-use development in the I-195 District. While the extent of public incentives remain to be determined, the prospect of tangible construction on the former highway land -- and new jobs -- represents a win for the Raimondo administration. Construction is expected to start in 2017.

4. A curious scene unfolded in Room 35 as the House Finance Committee received an update on Governor Raimondo's economic incentive program on Wednesday. Following a detailed presentation by House Fiscal Adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor took a seat to field questions from the committee. Seemingly frustrated with what they considered a lack of information, some committee members pressed Pryor for details on how the incentive programs are working out. The only problem, as Pryor noted, was how most of the incentives have just very recently come online or are about to. In response, lawmakers who've been in office for years basically blamed Pryor (in office one year) for RI's economic woes. Chairman Ray Gallison (D-Bristol) asked the Commerce secretary why Rhode Island lost Teespring, and Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) inquired about the loss of Honeywell jobs. Representative Jan Malik (D-Warren) chimed in, "We lost GE, supposedly." Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick) wanted to know how Rhode Island's economy will be different in a year, while Rep. Ken Marshall (D-Bristol) suggested the state needs a five-year plan. Gallison was miffed that Pryor hadn't supplied committee members with hard copies of the new Brookings report (although could be found online on a host of local news sites, as Pryor noted). So it went, as the Commerce chief patiently answered questions, touted the hire of talented Commerce staffers like Jesse Saglio (whose bio says he led the unwind of the US Treasury's $70 billion TARP investment in AIG), and outlined efforts by Commerce to be more transparent. Pleasant to a fault, Pryor said he would get committee members copies of the Brookings report the next day.

5. Some positive economic news: Yes, Rhode Island has yet to replace all the jobs lost during the Great Recession, but more jobs were added in 2015 (8,400) than in any year since 2000. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce reports, "The office market is rebounding. Rents have increased across all classes. Class A rents in downtown Providence are $31.05/sf and there is an 11.1% vacancy rate. In the industrial market, vacancies are down to the lowest recorded level in 15 years at 4.3% and 1.9 million square feet of space has been absorbed." Meanwhile, The 2016 RE/MAX INTEGRA, New England Housing Forecast showed that RI home sales were up almost 10 percent from 2014, and that average median single-home price climbed by 4.4 percent.

6. To some, Rhode Island's new chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta, is a top talent with the potential to make significant improvements in state government. Yet state Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence), who has a bill to make the hiring for Culatta's post subject to Senate confirmation, believes the governor ran around the process for a Cabinet appointment. Jabour said he's open to talking with the administration, but believes Culatta must undergo Senate confirmation if his role is indeed defined as part of the governor's cabinet. The same contrast in views marks Governor Raimondo's scrapped trip to Davos. Critics say it was wrong to look to the URI Foundation to pay $7,000 in costs. Boosters say that would have been a small price to pay for the chance to network with heads of state and business leaders.

7. Susan Areson, deputy executive editor of The Providence Journal, is among the staffers poised to leave the newspaper through the latest buyout. Areson has been with the ProJo since 1986 and was part of the editing team for the paper's last Pulitzer, the 1994 investigative reporting prize for exposing corruption in the state court system. "She'll be a loss," said Providence Newspaper Guild President John Hill. He called Areson a communicative editor who was willing to discuss changes in stories, and a manager who held no grudges during past Guild-management clashes. "Her door was always open," he said. Areson has also been a strong advocate for open government, as she was in representing the Journal during a meeting with the Raimondo administration last year. Areson said she doesn't yet have particular plans for the future. "I've had a great run at this news organization," she said, serving in such roles as copy editor, bureau manager and Sunday editor. Areson said she decided to depart because "the time to leave a job is when you still love it," and since it's time for a new generation to lead the Journal forward.

8. Brown University's launch of an executive master in cyber-security program jibes with Brown's move to play a bigger role in technology and innovation. As the university said this week in announcing the program, "Cyber-security represents one of the greatest threats to industry and governments today, yet the majority of cyber-security professionals feel they lack the necessary skills and resources to keep up with the ever increasing demands for cyber-security.  Rather than trying to do the impossible by walling off the organization, students in the Executive Master in Cyber-security program develop the skills and depth-of-knowledge to deploy and manage an effective security strategy that successfully defends against immediate and future cyber threats, and related enterprise challenges."

9. With the close of business Monday looming at the deadline for the latest ProJo buyout, some readers wonder when the cuts will end. While the Journal remains the state's best-staffed news organization, GateHouse Media -- which bought the paper in 2014 -- is not exactly known for beefing up the reporting capacity at its properties. GateHouse has nonetheless enjoyed some financial success, so a radical change in the ProJo's operating structure seems unlikely, at least in the short term. Yet it's worth noting how The Philadelphia Inquirer -- a swaggering daily in the not-too-distant past -- is now part of a nonprofit journalism institute meant to perpetuate reporting in the digital age. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that the paper's ex-owner donated $20 million to the effort.)

10. What's to explain a lack of more widespread political participation by Rhode Island's business community. Some observers point to the relocation of corporate headquarters to other states, while others cite the hangover from corruption. Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, said that her board has been active, but more broadly the situation isn't new: "There's just not enough bandwidth. It kind of gets into the same issue of why isn't there critical mass in industry concentration? We've seen an exodus, a tremendous exodus of business leadership to the Boston market, quite honestly. A lot of the headquarter operations have gone there, a lot of the talent has gone there, the center of the universe has shifted for a lot of these companies to Boston because that's where their client base is." (White was among the people who offered comments for the Brookings report, and she said she's bullish about the recommendations.)    

11. Kristin Murphy, who worked on Guillaume de Ramel's 2014 run for secretary of state and later assisted Paolino Properties, is now part of the campaign team for US Senate candidate Deborah Ross of North Carolina. Ross, a former state lawmaker in NC, has won the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ahead of her March 15 primary battle with two fellow Democrats.

12. Jonathan Keith, a product designer at TACO, is running as a Republican to challenge Democratic state Sen. Hanna Gallo (D-Cranston). He's staging a February 2 campaign launch at Chelo's of Cranston and has joined other Republicans in opposing Governor Raimondo's truck toll plan. Gallo, first elected in 1998, has repulsed challengers by large margins in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In the most recent contest, she beat GOP rival Sara Sweeney, on a 61 percent-39 percent margin.

13. A revamped truck toll proposal could emerge next week. Meanwhile, with some opponents questioning the legality of tolling only trucks, state Department of Transportation spokesman Charles St. Martin offers this explanation: "The [Federal Highway Administration] clearly states that 'Decisions regarding the amount of the toll rates to be charged for the use of a toll facility are to be made solely by the public authority with jurisdiction over the facility or the private operator of the facility… tolling policy decisions, such as whether tolls will be collected on one direction of travel or both, the classes of vehicles upon which tolls are charged, and any toll exemptions or discounts for designated users, are also at the discretion of the public authority or private operator.' Please see http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/revenue/road_pricing/tolling_pricing/section_129_faqs.aspx for more information. Furthermore, it is common practice for states to toll cars and trucks differently -- for example, take the George Washington Bridge: a car pays $15 to cross the bridge, while a tractor trailer pays $126. RhodeWorks proposes a much smaller differential - $30 (max) for a truck to cross the state and $0 for a car."

14. Patch, the hyper-local news, is doing more than just plugging away in the current challenging media landscape. The company was profitable in 2015 and it remains in the black, as the redoubtable Mark Schieldrop tweeted this week: "In case you were wondering, Patch had another profitable quarter in Q4. Not bad for a news org considered dead by media critics (who lose $)"

15. State Rep. Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham) has a suggestion for addressing concerns about how truck tolls could potentially one day be applied to cars. Filippi outlined his plan last November to use a constitutional amendment to block the implementation of car tolls, and he followed up by introducing the legislation this week. He's calling for amending the Constitution to require statewide and local voter approval for any new car tolls.

16. The ProJo is bolstering its excellent Statehouse duo of Katherine Gregg and Jennifer Bogdan with the likewise stellar Patrick Anderson for the remainder of the legislative session.

17. A multi-faceted take on the currently stratospheric level of voter discontent, as expressed by DC lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, national counsel for the George W. Bush and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns, to NPR this week: "It seems to be a combination of things. They expected a great deal of hope and promise out of the current administration and Congress. That, I think, has not been delivered to anyone's satisfaction on either the left or the right. There's a great deal of unease about the U.S. economy. There is a great deal of unease about our standing in the world as a whole. And Washington itself has presented people with a feeling of dysfunction. They're not listening to me, and that -- and that's all combined together to give us an angry electorate that's picking candidates out of the mainstream in both parties."

18. RIPR's Kristin Gourlay looks at the 10th anniversary of the legalization of medical marijuana in Rhode Island. Among her findings: nearly 13,000 patients are enrolled, and more than 200 caregivers. The state Department of Health gets so many requests from new would-be patients and caregivers that there's a backlog of about 200 applications at any given time.

19. RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison has been keeping a close eye on the unfolding story involving St. George's. She reported this week that the school forgave almost $200,000 in loans for its headmaster (which were used to buy a home on Cape Cod), even though he lives on campus.

20. A musical tribute to the season courtesy of the great Irving Berlin.

21. Energize Rhode Island, the new coalition aimed at trying to make Rhode Island a leader in the clean energy economy, is set to join state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) as he unveils a carbon-pricing bill on Tuesday (January 26. 3:15 pm, in the State Room). Energize itself has attracted a number of partners and hired Laufton Longo (ex of Tom Wolf's winning gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania) as its campaign manager.

22. What better way to pass the cold days of winter than with some of McDonald's new chocolate-drizzled McChoco Potatoes? If you're into that kind of thing, book a lengthy flight, since the choco-spuds are available for now only in Japan.