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

May 19, 2017

A number of thorny issues are maturing in time for the final weeks of the legislative session. So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The 2017 General Assembly session has been quiet and uneventful, punctuated mostly by the transition of power in the state Senate. But crunch time is coming, now that a $134 million revenue shortfall has been identified for the current and next fiscal year. That's a relatively small amount in the context of a $9 billion state budget. Still, an array of interest groups can be expected to protest particular cuts, a regular feature of Rhode Island's perennial deficit dance. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello plans to forge ahead with the first step in phasing out the car tax -- a move that will eventually cost the state more than $215 million every year. The PawSox' proposal for a new $73 million stadium at the Apex site in Pawtucket is sparking sharp debate. And the ghost of 38 Studios has once again re-emerged as lawmakers move to finish their session. Add to this the power dynamics of the Statehouse -- marked over the last year or so by a chill in relations between Mattiello and Governor Gina Raimondo, and the potentially mediating influence of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. In other words, get ready for an eventful few weeks on Smith Hill.

2. The lines in the battle over the PawSox stadium battle are drawn: Supporters tout the team's plan as a solid deal that will keep the Triple-A team in Rhode Island and bolster economic development in Pawtucket. Opponents object to how the PawSox want to borrow about $23 million in state funds and $15 million from the City of Pawtucket -- a combination that leads up to the unfortunate number 38 -- and they express broad distrust for the plan and the team's ownership. Governor Raimondo and Senate President Ruggerio sounded positive notes about the PawSox' proposal, but Speaker Mattiello remains a big question mark. "I will look at this [PawSox] issue when I get a proposal," Mattiello told RIPR Wednesday. "There's nothing before me, and it's May 17, so those facts speak for themselves at this point." (The speaker's car tax phaseout plan hasn't emerged in legislative form yet either, but is there any doubt that that will clear the House?) Let's remember part of the back story here: 1) Mattiello narrowly won re-election last year after a tough challenge in his conservative-leaning district from Republican Steven Frias; 2) Mattiello was out-front in supporting the PawSox' Providence stadium quest in 2015. That effort came up empty after facing broad public opposition, so that helps explain why Mattiello is guarded this time around. Meanwhile, opposition to borrowing millions in public dollars transcends ideological lines in the post-38 Studios General Assembly. But few people want to see the PawSox leave Rhode Island, and labor and some other interests see the stadium proposal as a good one, so the outcome of this debate remains less than clear in the short term. It seems clear, though, that for the PawSox deal to happen, Governor Raimondo will need to become an unabashed supporter.

3. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor was closely involved with talks leading to the rollout of the PawSox stadium proposal. To some, that suggests Governor Raimondo (who chairs the Commerce Corp) has taken ownership of the process, even while trying to maintain enough distance to walk away if public opinion turns against the PawSox proposal. Raimondo offered this response when asked if Pryor's role indicates her tacit approval for the stadium deal: "What it shows is that I have been very forcefully telling this ownership team, 'don't come to me with a proposal that looks anything like last time, don't expect us to buy you a ballpark,' and I have asked my team to give them some guidance on what would be good for the taxpayers. And so that's what it shows."

4. The PawSox say their envisioned stadium will generate more than enough money to pay back public borrowing over 30 years. Critics say the team should be on the hook for the obligation if revenue falls short of projections. So would PawSox be willing to take on that obligation? Here's the response from Dan Rea, the team's general manager and executive vice president: "While the PawSox are unaware of any such existing provisions in sports facilities in minor league sports, this proposal is laden with layers and layers of protection to the taxpayers. For example, the most likely and realistic risk is ballpark construction cost overruns, and the team has agreed to take that risk on in its entirety, in addition to our contribution of an aggregate $45 million via equity, rent, and naming rights, as specified in our lease agreement. As for the state’s investment, the annual debt service will be more than covered by the state revenues that this ballpark and ballclub generate.  National economic impact expert firm, Brailsford and Dunlavey, projects roughly $3 million in annual revenues to the state, and that’s without even considering surrounding development state tax revenues.  (Even the state tax revenue generated at McCoy currently more than covers the state’s projected debt service.)  In effect, the state’s investment is revenue positive to the state by a substantial amount -- both annually and over the course of the lease. To put it plainly, there are multiple layers of risk protection for the public in this agreement.  We see a framework that has minimal risk for the public given the stability of the game of baseball, which has been around for a century and a half and has seen tremendous growth across the industry in recent years."

5. Central Falls native Marielena Hincapié remains on the frontline of battles over immigration with the Trump administration. She serves as executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. In January, the NILC filed the first lawsuit challenging President Trump's order banning refugees from the U.S. Hincapié was born in Colombia and grew up in CF as the youngest of 10 children. She returned to Rhode Island last week, speaking as the keynoter for Latino Public Radio's annual gala.

6. When Vistaprint Corporate was welcomed to Rhode Island earlier this week, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor called it the 17th job relocation/expansion on Governor Raimondo's watch. That string of announcements could find its way into campaign advertising in next year's gubernatorial race, supporting Raimondo's message that Rhode Island's economy has gathered momentum during her time in office. Pryor said Vistaprint will return more than twice as much in state revenue as it gets in incentives. But to critics like Justin Katz, the tax incentives are an example of how government meddles in the marketplace, without regard for competing businesses. "A representative government respectful of individual rights and the free market isn’t supposed to do that," Katz writes. Asked for a response, Commerce RI spokesman Matt Sheaff said, via email, "Vistaprint Corporate has announced that they are creating a national sales office and they have chosen Providence as the location for those 125 jobs. Vistaprint Corporate solicits business from mid-size businesses all across the country, these national sales job positions were going to be created somewhere. We believe that Rhode Islanders, rather than Bay Staters or Floridians or residents of any other jurisdiction, deserve the opportunity presented by these good paying jobs."

7. Is the jobs picture in RI half-full or half-empty? Governor Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, offers this viewpoint: "Governor Raimondo's Office has always been quick to point to the Gov's focus on job growth. Her office noted that since December 2014, the month before the Gov took office, Rhode Island has added 12,000 new jobs and the state's unemployment rate has fallen below the national average. Some critics argue that the unemployment rate is lower because the labor force is declining, but the April jobs report out this week was the fourth straight with a growing labor market. Of particular note this week, the state added 900 manufacturing jobs." Yet the Republican Governors Association this week pointed to Ted Nesi's report on how fewer working-age Rhode Islanders had a job in 2016. (As Ted notes, this is a long-term trend and not limited to Rhode Island: "The size of Rhode Island’s prime working-age population – employed or otherwise – is also about 10% smaller than it was a decade ago, declining from 462,000 in 2006 to 415,000 in 2016, according to the federal data. The number of residents ages 55 and older has jumped 31% over the same period, from 247,000 to 323,000.")

8. More PawSox reaction: tech entrepreneur Angus Davis is no fan of subsidies. He tweeted: "R.I. facing $100 mm rev shortfall, pensions underfunded, schools cut, taxes high. But hey, let's toss $38 mm to new PawSox ballpark. AYFKM?" .... But Robert Walsh, the one-time banker who is now executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, likes the proposal (while emphasizing he's offering his personal opinion): "I've looked at the numbers and I believe it's a revenue-positive deal. The math is favorable to the state." He said the team's request for state borrowing is considerably less than the money it would take to renovate McCoy Stadium. If Ben Mondor's widow had not sold the the PawSox, ran the team as a trust and requested a similar amount for a similar proposal, Walsh said, "I think people would be saying, 'This is a great thing.' "

9. Old friend David Bernstein found the inevitable Massachusetts angle in the big news out of DC this week: former FBI Director Robert Mueller once worked for William Weld in the U.S. attorney's office in the Bay State. Yet Rhode Island continues to punch above its weight in this matter, since two of the key figures in Mueller's probe have Ocean State connections: Mike Flynn, of course, is a Middletown native, and Paul Manafort served as a consequential campaign adviser. As we noted last year, "Manafort was part of the team that vaulted Republican Edward DiPrete from Cranston City Hall to the governor's office in 1984, with the motto, 'The Change We Need.' "

10. Providence City Council President Luis Aponte has resigned. In a statement Friday afternoon, he said, “After much deliberation, I have determined that it is in the best interest of my constituents, colleagues, and city to formally submit my resignation as Providence City Council President. Serving the people of Providence is one of the greatest honors of my lifetime, and I remain committed to representing my constituents in my capacity as Councilman. While it has been a privilege to serve my colleagues as Council President, I believe this is the appropriate time to step down from my leadership position and focus on the best opportunities to serve the needs of my community. I understand that some of my Council colleagues wish to amend the Council Rules to allow for the removal of a Council President at any time. I urge my colleagues to take a more measured approach, and refrain from rushing into a reactive rules change that undermines our democratic principles. In recent weeks, I have been fortunate to receive an outpouring of support from my constituents. At this time, I’d like to offer my deepest gratitude for all their well-wishes and support throughout this process.” Aponte's resignation came ahead of a special meeting was set for Monday to remove him from his post as president. That was after only two councilors, Aponte and Carmen Castillo, attended a meeting this week.

11. House GOP Whip Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham) said he hates debating whether to raise the minimum wage every two years. "Let's pin it to inflation and be done with it," he said on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, "and stop every two years like a money throwing darts at a dart board, picking out a number. There's been no economic analysis what the real inflation rate is in this state when they're deciding on the numbers ... we're just looking at our neighbors, picking a number and saying, you know, that sounds good. What we need to do is take the federal government's actual rate of inflation, tie minimum wage to it and just be done with it and stop doing this every year, and let our businesses actually plan based on that rate of inflation, not the whims of the General Assembly every two years."

12. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung declined to comment on his expected gubernatorial run after a closed breakfast with supporters last weekend. But there's no mistaking the signs that Fung is getting ready: an invitation bills a June 8 fundraiser at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick as "a preview of great things to come." Suggested donations range from $75 to $250.

13. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is critical of the FCC's 2-to-1 vote Thursday regarding net neutrality. “The Internet has thrived under the principle of net-neutrality and the Trump Administration’s move to roll back these protections is misguided and counterproductive," Reed said in a statement. "It may be a boon for big companies that sell Internet access, but it will likely harm consumers and strip Internet users of access to a truly open Internet. The Trump Administration moved toward giving big ISPs the power to erect virtual toll booths for some customers and fast lanes for others on the information superhighway. This decision by the FCC came in the wake of overwhelming public feedback in opposition to proposals that would allow ISPs to prioritize certain content streams over others."

14. Speaking of Reed, conservative news outlet Newsmax calls him one of the hardest-working senators in DC. "Reed is a graduate of both Harvard Law and West Point and one of a few cadets in U.S. history to be elected to the Senate. Despite being one of the less visible senators, he is admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Republican Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby once said of Reed: 'He is to be commended for his tenacity, for his never-give-up.' And Sen. Schumer noted that 'Jack does it in his quiet, steadfast way, and it is extremely effective,' referring to Reed’s deal-making and legislative style."

14. Arthur Gregg Suzlberger, a one-time Providence Journal reporter, has been assigned to oversee the eitorial pages at The New York Times. According to a memo sent by his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., "As he did in the newsroom, I expect A.G. to safeguard Times values and standards even as he presses for new voices and new forms of opinion journalism that will help us deepen relationships with our loyal readers and form relationships with new readers," the note read. "Doing this work means asking hard questions about the old ways of doing things and taking some risks with new ways." Not bad for a guy who was staffing the ProJo's bygone Wakefield bureau back in 2006.

15. During one of her periodic sit-downs with reporters, Governor Raimondo fired back this week against Lincoln Chafee: " 'I don't have much to say,' she said when asked how her predecessor, former governor Lincoln Chafee, has been raising his profile through a series of interviews in recent weeks. 'People keep asking me, 'why is he doing this? Why is he doing this?' I really don't know why he's doing it. I don't. What I do know is, for every almost every month of the year I ran for office we had the highest unemployment rate in America, and now we have the lowest unemployment rate that we've had in 15, 16 years. So I'm leading the state in a direction that is leading to more opportunity, more jobs and better jobs."

16. For a sense of Roger Ailes' impact on American media and politics, consider this: when I looked into why the traditionally Democratic town of Johnston gave Donald Trump a 14-point victory over Hillary Clinton last year, the town's Democratic chairman, Richard Delfino Jr., pointed in part to how Johnston residents get their information from Fox News. As Jonah Golberg writes in National Review, Ailes discovered an underserved market: "half the country. Most of the people who decry Fox News as 'right wing' either don’t watch it or cherry-pick quotes from the opinion side. The truth is, Fox was always more nationalist and populist — patriotic, if you prefer — than ideologically conservative. Ailes had a healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) contempt for the journalistic establishment, which by the early 1990s had become ideologically cosmopolitan." Yet Fox News also disseminated patently false information, like baseless claims that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S.. In the conclusion of media critic Jay Rosen, "Roger Ailes authored the most successful lie in broadcast history in the U.S. That Fox was not the conservative alternative but just 'news.' "

17. The first anti-slavery statute in the U.S. was passed in 1652, in what is now Rhode Island. So why was it ignored?

18. Deepwater Wind is encountering ornery neighbors in its quest to create New England's largest solar farm, in Connecticut.

19. Rewind a wild week in Washington.

20. From Forbes' look at "Bangle Billionaire" Carolyn Rafaelian of Alex + Ani: "It's rare that the public markets ever encounter a CEO like this 50-year-old free spirit, who has been known to consult planetary charts during decision making. Rafaelian says she was the sort of kid who had an imaginary friend. And while she was raised in the Christian Armenian Apostolic faith, Rafaelian borrows bits and pieces from other religions and traditions. She keeps dried bundles of sage in her office drawer to burn when she needs to smoke out negative energy and a healing quartz crystal on a file cabinet behind her desk."

21. Don't miss Providence AP reporter Michelle Smith's in-depth look at the Greatest Show on Earth, the final days of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

22. East Greenwich native Mark Thompson, ex of Time, reports on how the mental ravages of war continue to take a harsh toll: "For active-duty troops, nearly 44 of every 100 days they spent in the hospital were due to 'mental disorders.' While high, it kind of makes sense: active-duty troops do the most fighting, most often, and many mental-health woes don’t surface for years. And, as the report makes clear, individual hospitalizations for mental woes last longer than those for physical ones."