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

Jun 2, 2017

June is here, Speaker Mattiello's long-awaited car tax plan has arrived, and the end of the legislative session is coming into view. 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. One of the most striking things about House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's reveal of his car tax phaseout plan this week: his explanation of how to pay for a move that will eventually cost the state $220 million a year was virtually identical to what he told me months earlier -- economic growth and leaner government. To some, that sounds a lot like perpetual campaign-season promises about curbing unspecified "waste and fraud." Yet this is a signature moment for Mattiello's speakership, potentially magnifying his record as a tax-cutter, keeping more money in Rhode Islanders' pockets (an initial $26 million is hardly chump change), and helping solidify the speaker's standing in his conservative-leaning Cranston House district. To hear Mattiello tell it, finding the money to pay for the phaseout won't be a problem; he likens the situation to how lawmakers delivered on a commitment to implement the state education funding formula. "If you prioritize this is not the most difficult thing in the world to do," the speaker told reporters earlier this week. "It depends on what level of priority you want to put to it. I"m giving it a significant priority, because the people are giving it a significant priority. So we will get it done on the people's behalf." Critics question the sustainability of the car tax phaseout (see item #2). But Mattiello certainly has the juice to initiate the tax cut, with close to 70 lawmakers backing the bill, including at least six of 11 House Republican (Justin Price, Anthony Giarrusso, Ken Mendonca, Robert Lancia, Sherry Roberts and Bobby Nardolillo; others may sign on). A House Finance Committee hearing on the legislation is slated for Tuesday, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (who expressed earlier concerns on sustainability) has introduced a companion bill.

2. Is a car tax phaseout sustainable? Can a state marked by perennial budget deficits absorb an added $220 million in costs each year? And will Speaker Mattiello still be in office by the time of the tax's envisioned elimination in 2023? Those are some of the top questions surrounding this issue. Mattiello's GOP rival from last year, Steven Frias, predicted that any tax relief from the car tax will be short-lived and add to the state's structural deficit. "Permanent car tax relief will only come about through a combination of state and local spending  cuts," Frais said. "Mattiello has failed to propose any spending cuts to fund his car tax relief plan." Former House Finance Chairman Tony Pires, who initiated the late '90s phaseout of the car tax, is supportive of Mattiello's effort. But he's also mindful of how state officials backtracked on that effort when the economy took a turn for the worse. "I think if I had to do this all over again what I would have done would have been initiate the car tax repeal," Pires said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "I also would have gone one step further, to make it much more difficult to repeal in the future, would have been to then put it on the ballot so that Rhode Islanders could actually make a change to the Constitution to eliminate car taxes completely. That would be my recommendation."

3. Watch for the House version of Governor Gina Raimondo's budget proposal to emerge the week after next, and for the General Assembly session to most likely extend until the end of June.

4. Pawtucket officials still hope to convince Governor Raimondo and state lawmakers to vet the PawSox' latest stadium proposal, perhaps during a fall session. That seems like a remote hope, but it's also understandable, given the role that a stadium would have in injecting momentum into downtown Pawtucket. "My concern, very frankly, is if this deal is put before other communities, we're going to have a difficult time retaining the club," Tony Pires, now director of administration for Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "It’s not because they’re threatening it, it’s just the reality of baseball. You gotta remember, Triple A and Major League, there are only 60 franchises – 30 Major League franchises and 30 Triple A. These are very desirable economic engines in all of the communities that these clubs are located in." Pires argued that opposition to the PawSox proposal can be overcome, even though 63 percent of respondents in a PawSox-commissioned poll opposed using subsidies to build a ballpark. "If you call everybody up and you ask them, 'do you like liver?' The answer is no," Pires said. "But if you have liver and eat liver, you're going to live longer, you're children are going to be smarter, that changes the poll."

5. A stream of reports over the last few years suggest that Connecticut is supplanting Rhode Island as the economic sick man of New England. Now Aetna is leaving the Nutmeg State. As Henry Grabar writes in Slate, "If corporate flight is the long-term problem, the immediate crisis is with the income tax. The governor’s office warned in April that projected revenues for the two-year budget would fall short by $1.5 billion, largely due to a “precipitous drop” in income tax receipts. The contribution of the state’s hundred biggest earners fell by 45 percent, mostly thanks to changes in reported capital gains, dividends, and investment earnings."

6. Back in Rhode Island, a sense of self-inferiority has been part of the cultural landscape for a long time. So the first sentence in this innocuous Village Voice travel piece on the Ocean State caught our notice: "For New Yorkers, Rhode Island is often viewed as little more than the place you drive past on the way to Boston." That conjured memories of how a 1983 Wall Street Journal story dismissed Rhode Island as "little more than a smudge beside the fast lane to Cape Cod." The response in Rhode Island was sharp and swift: As the ProJo reported at the time, "Republican John H. Chafee condemned the story on the U.S. Senate floor. His Democratic colleague, Claiborne Pell, denounced it in a Congressional Record statement. And an angry General Treasurer Anthony J. Solomon dispatched a letter asserting that the 'thoughtless' article could threaten the state's credit rating." Governor Joseph Garrahy wound up leading a delegation to the Wall Street Journal's office to protest, joined by Fleet's Terry Murray, Bruce Sundlun, union official David Baricelli, Gary Sasse, and GOP leader John Holmes. Interestingly, the offending story -- headlined "Rhode Island Blues Aren't Going Away, But Summer Is Nice" -- was written by a former Journal-Bulletin reporter, Stephen P. Morin, who resided in Pawtucket while writing for the WSJ's Boston bureau. Morin died in 2003, at age 53.

7. Governor Raimondo and First Gentleman Andrew Moffit dined in Boston this week with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and his spouse. One topic -- the same one taken up by Raimondo during an appearance (video) at The New York Times -- was the issue of college accessibility. Meanwhile, for a sense of the relationship these days between Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello, consider this: Mattiello said several weeks have passed since he last spoke with the governor about his car tax plan.

8. Friday news dump: State Police release more 38 Studios documents, including a fresh transcript of an interview with Steven Costantino. One of his interviewers asks him to explain the process on Smith Hill since, "I'm not fluent in ... Statehouse"

9. The RI chapter of America's Future Foundation is staging a Friday evening launch party at Ladder 133 in Providence, with House Minority Whip Blake Filippi as a special guest. "It's time for Rhode Island millennials to ditch the safe-spaces and coloring books, because the leading liberty-minded young professional network is coming to town," reads an invite for the event. "The America's Future Foundation (AFF) will be working to advance individual liberty, personal responsibility, free-markets, and clean government. In short, the opposite to the progressive agenda running rampant in the Ocean State. AFF is for conservative and libertarian young professionals who believe that they know how to better run their own lives than some bureaucrat." .... Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle: "Emerge America, in conjunction with its affiliates Emerge Massachusetts, Emerge Maine and Emerge Vermont, will host a Northeast Regional Candidate Boot Camp in Marlborough, Mass. for Democratic women running in 2017 - 2018. Top political strategists and trainers will teach attendees critical elements of campaigning, including developing a campaign plan, fundraising, messaging, press operations, public speaking, grassroots field operations and much more. Democratic women running for office in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware or New York are encouraged to apply. Emerge America is bringing their proven model to women running in the Northeast. In the November 2016 election, 150 of the 214 Emerge alumnae on the ballot won their races—a 70 percent win rate. This Regional Candidate Boot Camp has been developed by Emerge America to give Democratic women the skills they need to turbocharge their campaigns this year. Only candidates appearing on the ballot in 2017 or 2018 are eligible for this program."

10. Bruce Gellerman offers an in-depth look at the closing of the last coal-burning energy plant in Massachusetts, in nearby Somerset. To some, the plant's demise was part of an artificial attempt to drive up energy prices. Anne George of ISO New England told Gellerman that closing the plant will drive up demand for natural gas: "And, so you take away a large non-gas resource that just adds to the pressure on the natural gas system."

11. The state put out a call this week for expressions of interest in creating a so-called innovation campus, with the idea of bringing commercial ideas to market. Yet questions remain about whether $20 million, via borrowing approved by voters last year, is enough realize the aspirations for the concept. The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, for example, is often cited as an inspiration for RI's innovation campus, but CU-ICAR was launched with a lofty $250 million in backing. And Cornell's tech campus came with $150 million in housing and legal help, and other backing.

12. A cautionary tale about tax-cutting from Oklahoma, via the Washington Post: "School districts staring down deep budget holes have turned to shorter weeks in desperation as a way to save a little bit of money and persuade increasingly hard-to-find teachers to take some of the nation’s lowest-paying jobs. Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules — nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall or by shortening the school year, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association found in a survey last month."

13. You hear about the controversy this week involving Mr. Met? Well, what if one of our fine local colleges had a mascot based on part of the male anatomy?

14. CNN and The Wall Street Journal have reported on opposition in Rhode Island (and Connecticut) to Simple Contacts, a start-up that is disrupting the sale of contact lenses. CNN: "In 2016, optometrists came out hard against startups like Simple Contacts and Opternative, a startup offering at-home testing for contact lenses and glasses prescriptions. Three states successfully pushed to outlaw ocular telemedicine companies. In Indiana, the ban against them was grouped with controlled substances and abortion drugs. It is currently facing battles in Connecticut and Rhode Island." And this from the WSJ: "The idea has attracted $10 million in venture capital and has lured customers eager to skip their annual visit to the eye doctor. But it has also come under scrutiny with lawmakers in several states. Optometrists, who also write prescriptions, have been lobbying to ban prescribing contact lenses via telemedicine in states like Connecticut and Rhode Island, saying the technology could be unsafe for patients. 'Patients will always use technology to make their lives easier,' Simple Contacts Chief Executive Joel Wish said. 'Over a long time horizon, technology always ends up winning.' Upstart players wading into regulated industries have spawned high-powered clashes against legacy competitors, from Uber Technologies Inc. battling taxis to Airbnb Inc. taking on hotels. For Simple Contacts, the debate over eye-exam apps highlights the steep challenges for fledgling startups that have only early-stage financing behind them."

15. As the AP's Matt O'Brien reports, Governor Raimondo's incentive program may get cut back by lawmakers this year. Yet for better or worse, incentives remain in play across the land. Just consider Michigan, where officials hope to use a new set of incentives to lure a $4.2 billion Foxconn plant with 5,000 jobs.

16. Kudos and congrats to Scott Isaacs, who has been hired as the new news director at WJAR-TV (Channel 10). "After a nationwide search NBC10 has hired Scott Isaacs to lead all aspects of the television and news operation that Rhode Island viewers have come to depend on," WJAR General Manager Vic Vetters said, in a news release. Isaac joins WJAR after 13 years at WCVB, Hearst Television's station in Boston, where he served as executive producer and sports director. Vetters said Isaac's mission will be "to take a high-performing news team to the next level by providing our viewers reliable and relevant local news on TV and digitally."

17. "The Science Behind the Super Abilities of Sherpas"

18. Rhode Island is joining the US Climate Alliance formed by the governors of California, New York and Washington. "President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a tremendous mistake. Rhode Island may be a small state, but climate change can have a big impact on our communities," Governor Raimondo said in a statement. "We are determined to fight climate change from the front lines so that we can preserve our environment - including our Narragansett Bay - for future generations and create good-paying, future-proof jobs in the process. I'm proud to join Governors [Andrew] Cuomo, [Edmud] Brown and [Jay] Inslee in this effort and hope other governors - from both parties - join as well."

19. A museum dedicated to Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel (who created illustrations to promote Narragansett Beer) opens this weekend in Springfield, Massachusetts.

20. The J. Arthur Trudeau Memorial Center is establishing a memorial fund in the name of the late state Sen. William Walaska, who died earlier this year, to support a summer camp that offers one-on-one support for children with autism. Via news release: "The Senator Bill Walaska Pathways Pioneer Fund will be announced in the Senate Lounge on June 14, 2017 at 3:00 pm., with state officials and members of the Walaska family on hand. Senator Bill Walaska embraced the mission of the Trudeau Center to promote an enhanced quality of life for children and adults with developmental disabilities. He was a pioneer during his 23 years of service in the Rhode Island Senate as President Pro Tempore and Vice Chairman of Commerce. 'Bill worked hard for the people of Warwick and proudly served his district; we all lost a good friend,' says Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. 'The Pathways Pioneer Fund in his name is a fitting tribute to him because Bill loved kids and loved serving on the board of Trudeau.' ”  

21. Steve Inskeep, one of our favorite NPR reporters, had an eye-opening report on 60 Minutes last week: "Why fighting wildfires often fails and what to do about it"

22. Weekend Reads: "How Twitter Is Being Game to Feed Misinformation" ..... "Canada Figured Out How to Win the Drug War" .... "Locally Owned Publications Remain Viable in Parochial Rhode Island, But for How Long?"