TGIF: 20 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Sep 15, 2017

Mid-September is here and with it a burst of General Assembly activity. So thanks for stopping by for the return of my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and your can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The PawSox' quest for a new $83 million stadium near Slater Mill in Pawtucket appears to be gaining momentum -- even if it remains short of a done deal. Thurday's Senate Finance Committee meeting -- the first of six public hearings on the proposal -- offered a window on the dynamic: out of a total of 70 or so witnesses, only 15 were opponents. Meanwhile, business and labor interests are coalescing behind the proposal, touted by supporters as an economic catalyst for Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley. Still, the way in which opponents didn't get a chance to testify until four hours in the hearing irked some citizens. "From this experience I can better understand why the average taxpayer does not attend legislative hearings," former House candidate Steven Frias, who outlined his opposition to the PawSox deal in a detailed statement and didn't get to testify until about 11:40 p.m. Thursday, told me. "Allowing the proponents of  a new taxpayer-subsidized PawSox stadium to monopolize the first four hours of the hearing sends a message that these hearings are being used to promote a new PawSox  stadium." Frias has a point: reporters face deadlines, so the latter part of an issue-based hearing typically gets less attention than the first few hours. Still, Senate spokesman Greg Pare noted that stadium supporters arrived early to sign up, and that opponents were given as much time as they wanted to speak; the hearing eventually ended a little after 1 a.m. Friday (Pare acknowledged, too, that the City of Pawtucket's initial presentation went longer than expected.) Moving forward, the Senate Finance Committee plans five more public hearings, so it still has has an opportunity to challenge opponents' perception that the fix is in.

2. PawSox stadium opponents like Steven Frias don't trust the financial projections and pan public subsidies for a sports team with a wealthy ownership. Frias said a comparison to 38 Studios is apt for a public investment for a private entity without public approval. But supporters like Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor point to how the PawSox are set to pay for 54 percent of the project, an above-average amount for a minor league stadium. Meanwhile, Worcester and Montreal haven't publicly offered the PawSox any money. But Pryor, during a brief interview Friday, ruled out the possibility of seeking a better deal. "This is a very favorable deal, one of the most favorable in modern Triple A [history]," Pryor said. "Our view is the focus should be on whether this deal makes sense for Rhode Island. We believe it does." If the PawSox leave Rhode Island, Pryor said, the loss would be "substantial," while the gain of a new stadium will be "significant."

3. An override of Governor Gina Raimondo's veto of the continuing contracts bill remains far from certain when the General Assembly meets for a special session on Tuesday, September 19. The legislation has not been passed in the Senate, so "any veto override would have to start in the House," said Senate spokesman Greg Pare. State Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Warwick), the sponsor of the bill, sent a PDF this week ("Keep calm and override" ) urging her colleagues to scrap the governor's veto. Yet House spokesman Larry Berman said, "No decision has been made on a possible override."

4. Joseph R. Paolino Jr., developer, former ambassador to Malta and former Providence mayor, tells me he has an interest in becoming Rhode Island's next National Democratic Committeeman (although he hasn't made a final determination on pursuing the post). Democrats are set to gather at the Cranston Portuguese Club on October 15 to pick a successor to the late Frank Montanaro Sr. According to a release by the state party, "interested individuals may submit a letter of interest to the Chair, c/o of the R.I. Democratic Party, 200 Metro Center Blvd., Ste. 2, Warwick, R.I. 02886." Paolino said his prospective interest stems from a desire to help Democrats improve their message in responding to the Trump administration.

5. The earned sick time bill is among the significant pieces of legislation set to win passage during the special General Assembly session next Tuesday, September 19. Also ticketed for passage are the domestic violence gun bill and all 13 justice reinvestment bills. 

6. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are also expected to pass a firefighter disability bill that Governor Gina Raimondo is likely to veto. The bill, S-772, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston), would allow a firefighter with heart disease to have a presumption that the illness is work-related and to be able to apply for a disability pension. The bill is scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate on Tuesday, and the House is expected to follow suit. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner initially warned that the bill would cost the pension system up to $7 million. That led to significant changes to the legislation, making the presumption rebuttable and removing hypertension as a criteria. Those changes have cut the potential fiscal impact by $5 million. Supporters note how Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not have a heart disease presumption for firefighters and how 37 other states offer that measure.

7. In the aftermath of the data breach at Equifax, impacting the personal data of 143 million Americans, U.S. Jack Reed is among a bipartisan group of senators calling for a federal probe of a securities sell-off by the company. Meanwhile, The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo expresses the outrage of many Americans: "Equifax, I have to ask: Now that you have failed at your one job, why should you be allowed to keep doing it? If a bank lost everyone’s money, regulators might try to shut down the bank. If an accounting firm kept shoddy books, its licenses to practice accounting could be revoked. (See how Texas pulled Arthur Andersen’s license after the Enron debacle.) So if a data-storage credit agency loses pretty much everyone’s data, why should it be allowed to store anyone’s data any longer?"

8. Some observers are calling for a public vote on the PawSox stadium proposal. "There is simply too much distrust of government right now for the public to accept what will be perceived as a backroom deal," Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the right-leaning Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, said in a statement this week. "If this stadium is to be publicly owned, then the people should have a direct say. This is not your typical corporate subsidy deal and has many subtleties. Proponents and opponents should have the chance to make their case to the public and let the chips fall where they may." Yet Senate Finance Chairman William Conley (D-East Providence) signaled this week that public opinion will not be the driving force in deciding the PawSox proposal. "The process has to be driven by the merits of the proposal," Conley told RIPR earlier this week. "Is it good for the state of Rhode Island? Will there be a good return on investment? What does it mean to the future of our state? It’s not really not a wet finger to the wind process to test which way the public opinion winds are blowing. When I say that we're going to judge it on its merits, it doesn't mean that we disregard public opinion. But it means that we take into account what the public's concerns are."

9. Senate Finance Chairman Conley on the end of the road for Benny's: "I am really and truly going to miss Benny's," Conley said on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "I was in there [last] weekend. I needed a new handsaw to do some trimming, I needed a new sponge mop, I needed some WD-40. That's where you go in Rhode Island for those kinds of things. And Benny's also kind of represented a sense of community. You could go into Benny's, you could run into the high school baseball coach and basketball coach, and find out what's going on. So besides sort of the economic impact, Benny's really does represent a sense of the changing sense of community we have, not just in Rhode Island, but everywhere."

10. To some, a single-payer health care system is a big political winner for Democrats. Others are far more skeptical. Check out this installment of On Point for views from supporters like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and skeptics. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin have expressed their support for single-payer. Whitehouse, a cosponsor of Sanders' Medicare for All Act, offered this comment in a statement: “We have come a long way under Obamacare, but I still hear from Rhode Island families and small business owners that health care costs are too high.  I am committed to bringing down those costs while improving the quality of care for Rhode Islanders, It’s time we had a real conversation about creating a national health plan."

11. Will the projected $237 million deficit for the next fiscal year imperil the phaseout of the car tax? Senate Finance Chairman William Conley said the budget hole shows "that the Senate's concern about prudently managing that car tax phaseout was warranted. There's going to be a lot of hearings about that deficit and how we address it," he said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "That will certainly be one of the subjects. But I'm equally concerned about other priorities that we have," including school buildings (see next item). "The Senate Finance Committee wants to get ahead of the curve, so we're not going to wait for the session to begin. We're going to be scheduling some subcommittee hearings this fall in addition to the PawSox hearings that are going to start to look at important public issues."  

12. Related: Gov. Raimondo this week took up the issue of Rhode Island's crumbling school buildings. "Nearly half of our public schools were built in the 1950s and 60s, and a new report shows more than $600 million in repairs is needed just to make our schools safe, and more than $2 billion is needed to make our schools technologically current," according to a statement from the governor's office. While the need for decent school buildings is tough to dispute, $2 billion is clearly a ton of money. GOP gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo, speaking this week on RI-PBS' A Lively Experiment, said he sees the school-building focus as an effort to create labor jobs, a la RhodeWorks. Meanwhile, with Rhode Island's public debt already topping $10 billion, the need for updated school buildings could force a pertinent debate on state spending.

13. Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry will be the headliner for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's eighth annual (renamed) Energy, Environmental & Oceans Leaders Day on October 20 in Providence. The event brings together local and national officials to discuss policy, create working relationships and exchange ideas. Whitehouse's office said the meeting is invitation-only due to space limitations, although the media is welcome.

14. Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia won a preliminary election by nine points on Tuesday. Now 25, Correia was just 23 when he first ran for City Hall in 2015. Some residents credit him with economic improvements, although Correia has also benefited from good timing, as I reported in a story this week; an Amazon shipping center bringing hundreds of jobs was in the works before he took office. Meanwhile, the young mayor asserts his innocence, but a federal investigation is casting a shadow over Fall River. Correia will square off in November against the number two finisher in Tuesday's preliminary election, City Council Vice President Linda Pereira.

15. Harvard's Shorenstein Center On Media, Politics and Public Policy did a study on network Sunday morning shows. Excerpt: "The primary takeaway is that the Sunday morning interview shows potentially could improve their audience ratings by rebalancing their interviews to feature greater proportions of substantive policy content, relative to process-oriented, purely political content, and those types of interview guests who tend to provide more of the former relative to the latter. They might also benefit, albeit perhaps modestly so, from better matching their most commonly featured topics to those topics that attract the largest audiences, especially women, as well as by diversifying the demographics—race, gender, and even party ID—of guests. Finally, doing so is potentially beneficial not only for audience ratings, but also in terms of agenda setting—that is, earning secondary coverage of interviews in subsequent news reports."

16. NBC's Katy Tur On feeling afraid of the crowd at the rally in Mount Pleasant, S.C., after Donald Trump called her out by name, via NPR's Fresh Air: "I just remember thinking, Smile and wave. Because if you smile at them and you wave, I had learned up to this point, then you diminish the tension, you diffuse the situation, you mitigate it. Because if you look intimidated, if you look scared, people will take advantage, and people will push hard. ... I had felt uneasy before then, here and there, but that day I thought, This is taking it too far."

17. Via Scott MacKay: Gov. Raimondo has another cabinet post to fill. Scottye Lindsey of Warwick, director of the state Department of Business Regulation, is leaving his post to return to the private sector. Lindsey has held the job since November 2016. A Brown University grad, Lindsey came to DBR after a long career at Deutsche Bank. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor has appointed Beth Dwyer as the interim head at DBR.

18. At least two candidates have emerged in the race for mayor of East Providence next year: former state Rep. Robert DaSilva and Nicholas Oliver, executive director of the Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care. DaSilva, a captain with the Pawtucket police, has already announced his run. Oliver is set to launch his bid at noon Sunday at the Riverside Sportsman's Association. The race follows a recent switch toward an elected mayor form of local government.

19. Does a turnaround at the San Francisco Chronicle offer helpful hints for other legacy newspapers? Columbia Journalism Review gives part of the credit to 39-year-old editor-in-chef Audrey Cooper (not to mention he robust economy around SF). Excerpt: "No one in charge is universally beloved, but Cooper is widely respected both in and out of the newsroom. She works hard—her 11-hour, 2,000-email days were the subject of a New York magazine interview last year—and pushes reporters and editors to try new things. 'Audrey wants us to try ambitious journalism, and she gives the newsroom the time and space to do that,' says Joaquin Palomino, one of the Chronicle’s investigative reporters. 'There is this desire to sort of push the envelope and do big projects.' The documentary on living with AIDS was a prime example. The Chronicle didn’t hire a documentary crew; it put a reporter and two of its own photographer/videographers on the project for a year."

20. "Chipping People: Are You Ready?"