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

Dec 29, 2017

We're on the cusp of an exciting new year in Rhode Island, with lots of political intrigue and big elections up for grabs. So thanks for stopping by. As usual your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. With the General Assembly set to embark on a new session Tuesday, the biggest question looming over Smith Hill involves the fate of the PawSox. For supporters like General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the proposed stadium deal checks all the major boxes. "I think that is a good plan that will keep the PawSox in Pawtucket; that will be affordable to the taxpayers; and will help improve the quality of life and the economy for Rhode Islanders," Magaziner said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. Gov. Gina Raimondo recently told me that losing the PawSox would be a failure of public leadership. And the Providence Journal editorial board took up that frame while invoking the can-do spirit of Winston Churchill and Bruce Sundlun: "Our bitter experience with such debacles as 38 Studios should awaken us to be cautious and insist on the full and public vetting of proposals. But it should not render us incapable of ever doing anything again." Yet House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has remained unmoved by arguments in support of the PawSox deal. "There is no compelling reason to do a ballpark, so you have to listen to the will of the people," the speaker said in a recent interview. "What I find is that my constituents are pretty reflective of what I'm hearing from all of my colleagues .... there's not a lot of them that are anxious to do the PawSox." For now, more questions remain than answers. Will Worcester swoop in with an appealing offer for the PawSox, leaving Rhode Islanders with an eventual sense of regret (and a hole in the psyche of Pawtucket)? Or is the threat from Worcester less serious than some think? While the outcome remains unclear, a conclusion may emerge relatively early in 2018.

2. Speaker Mattiello is among the key RI elected officials to watch in 2018. Two years, Mattiello barely retained his Cranston state rep seat after a close challenge from Republican Steven Frias in 2016. So all eyes will be on Frias if he pursues a rematch. Meanwhile, Mattiello's emphasis during a year-end interview centered on heeding the public. Continuing the phaseout of the car tax "will go a long way towards people recognizing that their government is finally listening to them," he said, "because that's what I think people want. I think people want to know that their government's listening to them and executing what they want for their benefit and their family's benefit." Totally eliminating the car tax will cost the state upwards of $220 million a year, since it will need to make up lost revenue to cities and towns. Asked what justifies that additional stress on the state budget, Mattiello said, "That's what the people want, and we're here to serve the people."

3. "The Science of Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work"

4. A 15 percent spike in the unfunded liability for RI's two top state pensions is a byproduct of the state Retirement Board's move in May to lower the expected rate of return from 7.5 to 7 percent. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner nonetheless maintains that the pension funds are stronger than in the past. "If you step back and you look at the actual fundamentals," he said on Bonus Q&A, "15 percent investment return [over the last 12 months], more money in the fund today than there was a year ago or three years ago, and the benefits that we're paying out are stable, so the system is getting healthier." Be that as it may, the slide in the pensions' funding will require taxpayers to pay an additional $23 million or so just in fiscal 2020. Magaziner's response is that "over the long run having more realistic and honest accounting assumptions is going to save the taxpayers money. The whole reason that the pension system in Rhode Island and elsewhere around the country got into so much trouble in the first place was because we were using unrealistic accounting assumptions .... When you have more honest and realistic assumptions, yes, you have to pay in a little bit more in the front, but it's going to save money in the long run by avoiding a future crisis."

5. After the House-Senate budget dispute that flared last June, Speaker Mattiello said he planned to unveil a new effort to try to prevent standoffs from repeating. “We’ll work on creating systems that this never happens again,” Mattiello told me in August. “That’s the ultimate goal, and the Senate president and I have a very good if not great working relationship. This is a hiccup that I hope never happens again." But in our year-end interview, Mattiello said he's discussing ideas on the flow of legislation with his legal counsel, Danica Iacoi, but might not reveal the results of the effort. "We're going to have procedures and policies and means of moving legislation forward, and the timing of legislation perhaps," Mattiello said, "so that just may be a strategy that I keep in my thought-process to make sure that the public's work gets done."

6. One of the top RI issues of 2018 -- beyond the PawSox, the deficit, the budget, UHIP, and the elections -- will be the campaign to overhaul the state's outdated school buildings. Gov. Raimondo has signaled her support for the effort, although it remains unclear for now what level of borrowing ($250 million? $500 million?) she may propose (a task force co-chaired by Treasurer Magaziner and state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner recommended using two separate $250 million bond issues, separated by four years, to initially address the estimated $2.2 billion cost of bringing school buildings up to more contemporary standards). So what does Magaziner say to Rhode Islanders who wonder if a state beleaguered by persistent deficits can really afford this level of borrowing? "Rhode Island is scheduled to pay off $1.4 billion of old debt over the next 10 years .... which means we have plenty of capacity to do the proposed $500 million to fix our schools and still bring our overall level of indebtedness down over time, and still bond for some other priorities like open space and affordable housing and so on," he said. "With $1.4 billion of old debt coming off our books, we do have the capacity to make a once-in-a-generation investment in the quality of our schools and we should do it."

7. Here's a late addition: Rest in Peace, Tom Morgan, an old-school reporter who helped make Rhode Island and The Providence Journal a more colorful place.

8. Can Pawtucket catch a break? The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution has been taking it on the chin of late, what with the winding down of Memorial Hospital, the departure of the Gamm Theatre, and the ceaseless debate about the future of the PawSox. Hasbro may also be pulled its HQ out of the Bucket -- a situation that appears far more likey if the PawSox leave for Worcester or some other destination. Pawtucket's legislative delegation has staunchly supported the PawSox stadium proposal. Yet if the team pulls up stakes, political challengers could point to Pawtucket's litany of woes in making the case for a change in representation.

9. About 15 years ago, some reporters lamented the growing ownership of newspapers by publicly traded companies. The thinking was that the emphasis on making short-term profits sparked ongoing cost-cutting. But private equity firms are a far worse steward of media properties, according to a deep dive in the American Prospect written by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger, a pseudonym for an employee at a small paper owned by GateHouse Media (which owns the Providence Journal, Newport Daily News, Fall River Herald News and many other papers in southern New England): "Private equity has been gobbling up newspapers across the country and systematically squeezing the life out of them to produce windfall profits, while the papers last. The cost to democracy is incalculable. Robust civic life depends on good local newspapers." The story focuses in part on GateHouse and Fortress Investment Group (which helps manage Gatehouse), where Fortress CEO Wes Edens got $54.4 million in compensation in 2016, even as Gatehouse properties faced ongoing cuts.

10. The Greenhouse Compact -- a $250 million plan to reinvent Rhode Island's economy -- was voted down in 1984, leaving hanging the question of how the state might be different had it passed. John Metz has an interesting look-back at the Compact in the current Brown Political Review. He notes the overly centralized process that spawned mistrust of the proposal, while pointing to what he sees as the worthiness of the basic motivation: "The Greenhouse Compact, for its various and sundry flaws, was nevertheless the last, best effort by an American state to approach economic development with a coherent, all-encompassing strategy." The Compact's architect was Ira Magaziner, the father of Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who takes a glass-is-half-full view of the missed opportunity to move RI forward. "There's still time for Rhode Island," Magaziner said on Bonus Q&A. "There's still time for us to invest in education, in workforce development, to attract high-tech companies to move here. So I think we can take some of the same principles from back then and put them into effect today. The other big lesson from the Greenhouse Compact is, you really need to listen to the will of the people. You can't just have a top-down approach to economic development. You have to make sure you are engaging stakeholders in a real grassroots way." 

11. RIPR is counting down our top Top 10 stories for 2017.

12. The Economic Progress Institute of RI has a study well worth reading -- The State of Working Rhode Island: 2015 Workers of Color. Here's an excerpt from the executive summary: "Although Rhode Island’s overall economy continues to slowly but steadily recover from the Great Recession, workers of color — particularly Rhode Island’s Latino community — continue to bear the brunt of a vulnerable economy. Some of these economic hardships reflect the lingering effects of the Great Recession – a recession that has left the state with over ten thousand fewer jobs today than at the onset of the recession, relative to the state’s current population. Other effects reflect long-standing systemic barriers facing the Ocean State’s minority populations that have impeded their educational attainment, and have consistently resulted in higher levels of unemployment and lower wages. This report, “The State of Working Rhode Island: Workers of Color,” highlights the many challenges facing Rhode Island workers, showing the many areas where workers of color fare less well than others. The accompanying Policy Recommendations document shows that there are policy solutions within our grasp that can shift economic trends that have been holding Rhode Island families back. Because minority workers in Rhode Island have levels of educational attainment that lag levels of  white Rhode Islanders, their prospects for future prosperity are also reduced. One of four Black Rhode Islanders of working age, and one in three Latinos lack a high school credential."

13. "I believe that the country's going to hell in a clutch purse and that you are the answer," Rhode Island activist Kate Coyne-McCoy told an audience of 26 prospective female political candidates in New Hampshire, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reported. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Kurtzleben that the number of woman candidates for the U.S. House has nearly doubled from 2016. "This is a surge," Walsh said. "We're seeing it in the House. We're seeing it in the Senate. We're also seeing it for governor. This is unprecedented, and it is real." As is stands, women hold fewer than a third of the 113 General Assembly seats in Rhode Island -- 12 in the Senate, and 23 in the House. So one of the key things to watch in the 2018 election season is whether women significantly raise their presence in the legislature. The heightened level of enthusiasm may yield dividends since women candidates in RI (and Massachusetts) tend to win when they run for elective office.

14. John Marion of Common Cause of RI talks with Huffington Post ("How a Small New England State is Becoming a Trailblazer in Democracy") about the automatic registration of voters and risk-limiting post-election audits. Here's Marion's explanation of the latter: "Right now, most states use equipment to tabulate the votes that people mark on their ballots, and of those, most simply examine a percentage of the ballots (one percent, two percent, etc) to verify results. But that really doesn’t tell us anything about the overall performance—only that one or two percent of ballots were recorded correctly. About a decade ago, statisticians developed risk-limiting audits in which you pick a degree of confidence—say 90 or 95 percent—and then you use a mathematical formula to select some ballots to get that level of confidence. It sounds complicated, but there’s software involved to make it easier. An election official inputs the margin of victory and the number of ballots cast and it tells you how many ballots you have to examine to yield the proper level of confidence. And if those ballots match the results generated by the machine, then you have the specified level of confidence that the election yielded the correct outcome. If the sample doesn’t match, then you pull a bigger sample. Ultimately what this process is designed to do is catch any problems and correct them. Colorado was the first state to do this. They just started implementing it in November and we will be the second state."

15. The odds of Rhode Island lawmakers legalizing marijuana during an election year appear to be somewhere between slim and none. Discussion may focus instead on an expansion of compassion centers. Meanwhile, with Massachusetts gearing up for cannabis cafes and the like, some ripple effects from legalization will make their way into the Ocean State.

16. The days of a full-time three-person Providence Journal bureau at the Statehouse appear to be in the past. But Patrick Anderson will be spending more time under the dome on Smith Hill, joining the indefatigable Katherine Gregg, with the start of a new session. And if the past is any indication, additional ProJo reporters will be dispatched to cover various stories on a case-by-case basis.

17. Rutgers professor Domingo Morel, a former president of Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and co-founder of the Latino Political Institute at Roger Williams University, has a new book: "Takeover: Race, Education and American Democracy." The Brown alum is set to return to College Hill on January 26 to discuss the book, touted as "the first systematic study of state takeovers of local governments and their political causes and consequences."

18. With critics continuing to mount opposition to Invenergy's proposed Burrillville power plant and an envisioned LNG facility in Providence, some observers see Canadian hydro-power as a smarter source for meeting Rhode Island's energy needs. Meanwhile, a decision is expected in February on a project that could bring that energy source to New England. (In one sign of the challenges facing energy choices, the Northern Pass transmission line would affect more sensitive habitat than previously expected.)

19. Kara Pollard, the executive director of Dog is my CoPilot -- an animal rescue operation based in Wyoming -- was once a toddler in Barrington.

20. Give a listen: RIPR am host Chuck Hinman's latest installment of trying to learn the cello as an adult. (This may be helping Chuck to avoid some of the serious illnesses associated with advancing age. "Research shows that learning to use a musical instrument in older age can help protect you against dementia and Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Jessica Alber, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Butler Hospital Memory and Aging Program in Providence.)

21. RIPR's stalwart morning producer, Ximena Conde, left us this week for a one-year reporting fellowship at WPR in Wisconsin. Despite facing the misfortune of sitting between your humble correspondent and Scott MacKay in the RIPR newsroom, Ximena did a stellar job while flashing a winning personality and a sharp sense of humor. We already miss her. Before setting off on her new adventure, she completed an audio postcard on the RI State Archives.

22. Thanks for hanging with me in 2017. Happy New Year!