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

Jun 16, 2017

It may not yet be time to cue The Final Countdown, but we're getting there with House Finance signing off on a new state budget. 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. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello prefaced his remarks in a briefing about the House Finance Committee's new $9.2 billion budget by pointing to what he called his collaborative approach. "I'm pleased to say that we've been able to successfully reach compromise where there's something of importance that each chamber and the governor have been able to work out and work into a very difficult budget," Mattiello said. "I think that's quite an accomplishment." To some, this may sound overstated, given the importance placed by the speaker on his own top priority -- the phaseout of the car tax over six years. While Mattiello touts the initial $26 million cut in car taxes as an important form of property tax relief, evaluating the staying power of the phaseout will take time. Meanwhile, after offering an initially cool reaction to Governor Gina Raimondo's marquee college tuition proposal, Mattiello supported a scaled-back version of the program, ushering it at CCRI with an initial $3 million cost. Team Raimondo was quick to claim a win (even if critics see it otherwise). “We think it’s great," said Michael Raia, the governor's communications director. "Rhode Islanders need to be able to have the skills to compete. They've all along said that seven out of 10 jobs require a degree past high school, and this gives Rhode Islanders the opportunity to compete for those jobs. Rhode Island’s going to be the fourth state in the nation that offers tuition-free community college." Supporters can point to the scaled-back program as an example of the governor's ability to expand opportunity even in a challenging fiscal environment. And by allowing for face-saving, Mattiello dialed down the prospect of a clash over the budget with Raimondo. On the whole, the generally subdued reaction to the House Finance budget suggests that lawmakers avoided offending various constituencies while wiping out a $134 million deficit, in a difficult budget year.

2. For all the talk about how this year was going to be different, House Finance didn't vote on the new budget until 12:54 a.m. Friday. That came after House Fiscal Adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland gave clipped descriptions of a series of budget articles, and then a slowdown, seemingly caused by the need to reprint one article. The Finance Committee meeting was originally planned for 7 p.m. (but started more than three hours later). The net effect was that spending decisions involving billions of dollars were being made when most Rhode Islanders were sleeping, and GOP lawmakers pointed to a lack of time to review the budget. Speaker Mattiello defended the mission creep, asserting that FinCom members know the budget better than he does. He vowed that debate won't go past 10 p.m. when the spending plan moves to the House floor Thursday, with additional discussion on subsequent days, if needed.

3. Now that the budget is ticketed for passage, we may soon see renewed consideration of the PawSox stadium proposal in Pawtucket. During an appearance this week on RIPR's Bonus Q&A, House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi made it sound as if lawmakers could be receptive to the project -- under the right conditions. "The burden is on them to sell it to the public," he said. "It's one thing to sell it to the legislators and the mayors and the insiders or the political people; they need to sell the deal to the public." Shekarchi said the PawSox ownership could take a page from strategy used by Twin River's ownership, which seemed patient and locally minded in winning support for a new Tiverton casino: "Absolutely, yes. Not only did the Twin River model work, but John Taylor, the president of Twin River, literally went into people's homes. If there was a community event, if there were 10 people at a Rotary or a church dinner, they were there, explaining the benefits to the casino. It passed in Tiverton, which was no easy thing, and it passed statewide. So yes, they need to do that. They need to do some kind of a program, a statewide campaign, they need to bring the public into this process and they need to get public support behind the project."   

4. Tech superstar Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is slated to come to Providence as part of the National Governors Association meeting, taking place July 13-15. According to a statement from Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, incoming NGA chair, Musk will take part in a discussion on emerging technologies and their place in the energy and transportation sectors. Sandoval, meanwhile, will unveil an initiative entitled, "Ahead of the Curve: Innovation Governors." In a statement, Sandoval said, “The topic I have chosen for my NGA chair’s initiative will explore recent advancements in technology and bring to the forefront conversations taking place across the country on new ideas and industries that will soon affect every aspect of citizens’ lives and states’ economies. I am thrilled to announce that over the next year, we will highlight these innovative technologies and examine how governors and those we govern can stay one step ahead in this rapidly changing world.”

5. Will change in the top job at General Electric impact GE Digital's plans in RI? It's hard to know for certain, but the word from Commerce RI is that it doesn't expect any changes.

6. Alan Rosenberg, executive editor of The Providence Journal, sat down for an interview with me earlier this week. That was a welcome change, since ProJo managers have been mostly unwilling for years to speak with reporters. "We are an institution at The Providence Journal that has sometimes tended to talk at people," he told me. "My presence here is one example of how we would like to talk with people. We would like to be an institution that is listening as well as talking." Like other papers, the ProJo has lost circulation, revenue and staff due to the shockwave of the Internet. Rosenberg said the paper is responding by boosting its local coverage, adding more video and being more open to new approaches. In one example, he said Jacqueline Tempera, now assigned to the Statehouse with the intrepid Katherine Gregg, will be put on a new digital tech and digital reporting beat after the end of session. The idea, Rosenberg said, is "pioneering different digital reporting methods for us that we can then export to the rest of the new staff." In talking about a recent staff shuffle, the ProJo's top editor also offered shout-outs to Gregg, Jennifer Bodgan, Patrick Anderson and John Hill.)

7. Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin's paid sick leave bill (allowing hours to earn up to 56 hours of paid sick leave a year) is slated for a Senate Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday. That's a signal of a possible compromise on an issue that has been one of the top grassroots battles of the legislative session. According to Rhode Island Working Families, more than 20,000 doors have been knocked as a result of this effort, and nearly 7,000 postcards sent to lawmakers. The business community has called for a maximum of three paid sick days, while progressives (including House sponsor Rep. Aaron Regunberg) have pressed for seven. Massachusetts and Connecticut mandate five paid sick days, so that may prove to be the point of compromise.

8. A bill that would allow guns to be taken from those convicted of domestic violence is expected to emerge very soon in the House. Speaker Mattiello signaled his desire to foster a compromise on this issue early in the session, although gun advocates remain staunchly opposed to a change.

9. House lawmakers spent considerably more time debating a chicken cage bill Thursday than the House Finance Committee used while considering the budget. The debate was pointed, marked by such real world issues as the cost imposed by government on business and the availability to consumers of healthy food. In a mostly party-line debate, Republicans suggested chickens are better off in cages, while Democrats argued the opposite. By the time, it was all over House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) and Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima (D-Cranston) were debating the competing nutritional benefits of eggs vs. beans. As in years past, the House passed the measure outlawing a certain kind of chicken cage, but the outlook remains unclear in the Senate.

10. Scott MacKay's take on Lincoln Chafee: "It often appears that Chafee is motivated more by dislike of Raimondo than any new ideas he has for fixing what ails Rhode Island. There is no chasm on social issues between he and the governor. So far, Chafee has not laid out a strategy of positive ideas for the state. At 64, one wonders why he wants back into our state’s contact sport of electoral politics. Electioneering is more about tomorrow than yesterday. There are many other paths such a decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow could walk that would make life better in our small corner of New England."

11. For years, lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- have called for the creation of an inspector general's office in Rhode Island. By rooting out fraud and waste, they say, the office would more than pay for itself. GOP lawmakers this week renewed the call for an IG, along with some other measures. But the Democratic leadership on Smith Hill continues to show little interest in the inspector general idea, suggesting the concept will continue to languish without a change in strategy.

12. Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders' U.S. Senate exploratory committee is staging a June 24 fundraiser in East Greenwich. Meanwhile, Flanders sat down with RI Future's Bob Plain for an interview. Excerpt: "A longtime Republican, Flanders confirmed he voted for Trump in last year’s election, saying, 'I thought he was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton.' He supports Trump’s healthcare plan, but added 'I think that is going to get modified in the Senate,' he said. 'I’m for coverage for as many people as possible.' When asked if he supports Obamacare, he said, 'The question is is that the best way to go without forcing people to buy coverage. You want people to have freedom of choice. I’m for freedom of choice, but also requiring minimal coverage for people who need basic coverage.'

13. Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz was hailed as an expert on addiction when the Raimondo administration hired her in 2015 as chief medical officer for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. Now, she's one of the first Rhode Islanders to get an appointment in the Trump administration, although not without some controversy about clashing approaches to mental health care. Via The New York Times, "Dr. McCance-Katz is a psychiatrist whose long career has been focused on treating drug addiction, in particular opioid abuse. She has the support of several prominent groups, including the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, but others, including the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, are skeptical. A central tension in the debate is between the medical model of psychiatry, which emphasizes drug and hospital treatment and which Dr. McCance-Katz has promoted, and the so-called psychosocial, which puts more emphasis on community care and support from family and peers."

14. Give a listen to my RIPR colleague John Bender's excellent sound-rich look at how an additional $3.6 million might help Providence's struggling middle schools, including DelSesto Middle School. As John reports, one approach involves getting teachers like Cassandra Charles to spend more time getting to know her students. Excerpt: “ 'I have learned more about my students this year, because of this allotted time, than I have in my 11 years,' said Charles. 'They trust me enough to come to me and say ‘I need help with this.’ This may be one step to improving this school, but there’s more work to do to get students on track academically. About 80 percent of students here are below grade level in at least one subject. Principal [Arzinia] Gill says tools like the laptops will help. It’s one of the reasons Providence school officials are seeking $3.65 million dollars in new funding for education. They’re also facing a funding cliff. Next year state spending on city schools is expected to flat-line, and federal money has fallen more than 50 percent since 2011."

15. Ray Gallison, the one-time chairman of the House Finance Committee, and a 16-year former lawmaker, has been sentenced to 51 months in federal prison.

16. John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island offers this observation in the ongoing discussion about voting and voting irregularities: "NPR had a good piece this week asking the question, 'If voting machines were hacked, would anyone know?' In Rhode Island the answer is 'no.' The piece concludes with two recommendations; vote on paper and audit the results. Although, thanks to then-Secretary of State Jim Langevin, we were an early adopter of paper ballots, Rhode Island does not audit those ballots. We put complete trust in the machines and the people who program them. In November, a human error resulted in an incorrect initial count in North Kingstown that was ultimately corrected, demonstrating that we can’t have blind faith that the machines will always count the ballots correctly. Common Cause has introduced legislation, House bill 5704 and Senate bill 413, requiring an audit of a random sample of paper ballots, one of six recommendations for securing our elections in a recent Vox piece. If the legislation passes the next time NPR does a similar story the answer for Rhode Island will be 'yes!' "

16. Is carbon pricing necessary to curb climate change or an overly burdensome regulation for business? Give a listen to RIPR environmental reporter Avory Brookins' story.

18. The immigration issue is heating up in Rhode Island, with ICE arresting a Syrian national in the country illegally outside Superior Court in Providence. Paul Suttell, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, responded by expressing concern during a meeting with lawyers. “Our courts are places where everyone is treated with respect, dignity and fairness,” Suttell told the bar association meeting. “If people in our immigrant communities are afraid to come to court, out of fear of federal apprehension, our core mission is compromised and there is a risk of neighborhoods become less safe. It is vitally important, therefore, that in carrying out their responsibilities, federal authorities do so in a way that does not undermine the trust and confidence that people have in our court system.”

19. "The Investor Who Took On Uber, And Silicon Valley"

20. With Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in the news, apropos President Trump, Claudine Schneider -- the only woman ever to win election to Congress from Rhode Island -- has joined CREW's board. In a statement, she said, "John Adams wrote that the founders wished to establish ‘a government of laws, not of men.’ The law applies to everyone, regardless of position or political party, and that principle is particularly vital when it comes to ethics. I’m joining CREW’s board because I believe that today we face unprecedented threats to this founding principle, and we must fight to preserve our government of laws, lest our democracy be dismantled!”

21. "Video: That Time We Tried Pore Vacuuming in South Korea"

22. On a related note, check out this TED Radio Hour talk with Mike Rowe, best known for "the series Dirty Jobs, where he's worked every job from chick-sexer to mushroom farmer, beekeeper to boiler repairman." Here's the setup: "Follow your passion? It won't make you successful, says Mike Rowe. He believes blue collar workers, the people who make life possible for the rest of us, are unjustifiably degraded in society today — and might be the most successful people."