TGIF: 23 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Sep 22, 2017

Nothing like a long afternoon-into-night at the Rhode Island Statehouse to add a dash of September excitement, right? We've got it all covered, 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. When it comes to budget deficits in Rhode Island, it's deja vu all over again. A projected gap of $237 million will greet lawmakers returning to the Statehouse in January, sparking another search for creative ways to close the deficit. Meanwhile, the state Department of Revenue reported this week that state revenue for the first fiscal month was off by $11.4 million, a decline of five percent. Connecticut is a fiscal mess and even mighty Massachusetts is wrestling with budgetary issues. But that doesn't mean that closing RI's deficit will be any easier. As I reported back in 2013, the state lacked a plan for curbing persistent deficits, and the persistence of the red ink hurts the state's ability to invest in various needs. The Raimondo administration made some progress in curbing long-term deficits, but now a big hole has opened up for FY19. Gov. Gina Raimondo said the deficit is due in part to how the state has given up revenue to cut taxes. "That means we have to tighten out belt on the expenses on the even more," she said on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A. "Also, it's a problem that's happening in Washington," she said, since wealthy people and corporations are holding off on tax payments, because they're holding out hope for tax cuts by the Trump administration.

2. Progressives were among the big winners of Tuesday's special General Assembly session. The General Assembly passed the paid sick days bill championed by state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), a likely LG candidate next year. The measure will offer an initial three paid sick days to workers at firms of 18 or more employees in 2018, four days in 2019 and five in 2020. “This is a big deal," Regunberg said in a statement. "When parents send their kids to school sick; when people skip necessary care because they can't afford a day off; when workers are let go because of medical emergencies - these are matters of basic human dignity." (Opponents say the bill will hurt small businesses and lead to job losses.) Advocacy group RI Working Families got talked up in a lot of out of town reports, and RIWF will certainly try to bolster its legislative support next year .... Meanwhile, approval of Rep. Teresa Tanzi's (D-South Kingstown) bill, to remove guns from domestic abusers facing a final protective order, marked a rare defeat for the gun lobby on Smith Hill. The NRA's Institute for Legislative Action vows that in 2018, "we will be more determined than ever to stop these anti-gun politicians." (And the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity said the General Assembly did more harm than good by coming back into session.)

3. The most dramatic question before the Senate closed business at about 10:30 pm Tuesday was whether the chamber would vote on the highway surveillance bill backed by state Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston). The legislation had steadily moved forward, getting a House vote earlier in the year, despite a lack of visible public support beyond Jacquard. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio called the underlying concept is a good one, since a firm would be hired to scan cars for uninsured out of state motorists and split the resulting ticket revenue with the state. Yet the RI ACLU said the bill is an assault on privacy and the car insurance industry panned it as unnecessary. Even the understated Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) was sharp in his criticism. "I have to draw the line somewhere and this is where I draw the line, where we have government intrusion and surveillance on citizens driving on our highways," Algiere told me during the lull in action. "What it's doing -- it's taking pictures of people's license plates and determining whether or not they're complying with the law. What's next? Taking pictures of occupants in a motor vehicle where they're traveling? Where do you draw the line? This is a slippery slope. And to be honest with you, the only one that makes out on this is the vendor. I'd be interested to see who the vendor is and how much they're going to pay the vendor to pass out these tickets to people." In the end, the Senate did not vote on the highway surveillance bill, even though it had been posted for a vote. Asked for an explanation, Ruggerio pointed to controversy about the measure and concerns from senators. But he said he likes the bill, so don't be surprised if the license-plate reader measure returns in the future.

4. In a setback for labor, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's office announced ahead of the special session that the House would not vote to override Governor Raimondo's veto of Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson's continuing contract bill. The measure hadn't passed in the Senate, and the House was unwilling to move forward, despite a push to convince lawmakers by the National Education Association RI and Vella-Wilkinson herself. (The Warwick Democrat said she plans to support the contracts bill again next year.) Yet labor fared better with Sen. Frank Lombardi's (D-Cranston) bill enabling firefighters with three years on the job to get a tax-free disability pension at two-thirds of their play if they acquire a disabling heart condition. (The Senate did not pass the House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown). Supporters say a majority of states have a similar measure, and that the benefit is justified by the health risks that come with being a firefighter. But the measure is expected to cost cities and towns more than $2 million a year. In a statement a day ahead of the special session, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner urged lawmakers to reject the bill: "This bill prevents the state Retirement Board from listening to independent doctors and - unlike many other states with similar provisions - does not consider other factors that can cause heart disease, like tobacco use. Removing these safeguards from the process for awarding a lifetime tax-free benefit is irresponsible and unnecessary." Gov. Raimondo tells RIPR she is "inclined" to veto the disability pension bill.

5. The initiative announced this week by Raimondo to aid Dreamers in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) checks a lot of boxes. The Dreamers are generally so impressive and sympathetic that even President Trump talks nice about them. Yet the effort to aid RI Dreamers also got Raimondo a lot of favorable out of town media attention and it could help to shore up her progressive support.

6. Lincoln Chafee has been known to reflect fondly on his tenure as mayor of Warwick in the 1990s. Chafee was catapulted into a different political orbit -- and ultimately the governor's office -- when Governor Lincoln Almond named him to fill the unexpired part of his late father's U.S. Senate term in 1999. Yet amid ongoing rumors about whether Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian may pursue a course next year other than seeking re-election, Chafee is ruling out the possibility of running for mayor of Warwick. "Zero chance," said Chafee spokeswoman Debbie Rich. "He likes to fix things [and] Warwick is running well ([but] they do need a teachers' contract)." Avedisian, meanwhile, said he's not ready to reveal his plans for 2018.

7. It's only a matter of time until one or more Republican candidates launch campaign commercials next year condemning Gov. Raimondo for the problems associated with the UHIP debacle. The idea of needy people struggling to get their state benefits, after all, is an easy made-for-TV message. So how will Raimondo respond when Republicans brand UHIP as a signal failure of her leadership? "As I've said, there's no question that we've made a lot of mistakes," Raimondo during Bonus Q&A. "I regret that, because we have to do better. Having said that, what you want in a leader --- you're never going to get a leader who doesn't make mistakes. What you want is someone who acknowledges mistakes, makes changes and fixes the problems. That's what we're doing. I can't find a state that rolled out an IT system of this kind without similar problems -- Massachusetts, Kentucky, Maryland. So what we've done is, I've got a whole new team, I got a huge credit back from Deloitte. We're not paying them and we've made substantial progress from a year ago. I think it's important to own your mistakes, to fix them and to deliver, and that's what we're doing." 

8. Gov. Raimondo offers this defense of her upcoming campaign-style PR blitz -- utilizing Cabinet officials and other state employees -- surrounding her time in office: "People are always saying to me, what have you done, Governor? What's going on? People want to know, people deserve to meet whoever runs DEM, who runs DLT, and know what we've accomplished in our first couple of years in office, so I'm excited for it. I think it's a great opportunity for the people of Rhode Island to hear what we've accomplished, to give us feedback on the work we still have left to do, and frankly to meet people."

9. Then again, as Scott MacKay notes, by putting the plans for the PR blitz in an email, the governor's team botched Martin Lomansey's sage political advice for the ages: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”

10. With Attorney General Peter Kilmartin prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, Matt Lenz is the first key staffer in the AG's office to leave for another job. Lenz has worked for Kilmartin since the AG's 2010 run, and he managed Kilmartin's 2014 re-election campaign before shifting into a role as senior policy adviser. A frequent presence at the Statehouse, Lenz is leaving the AG's office as of September 22 to become Northeast head of government affairs for The Toy Association.

11. Rest in Peace, Superior Court Judge Walter Stone, aptly remembered by Scott MacKay as "a grand raconteur blessed with a rapier sense of humor."

12. With the Senate Finance Committee's second PawSox hearing set for Tuesday, September 26 (6 pm) at Tolman High School in Pawtucket, Gov. Raimondo remains agnostic about whether she'd prefer to see a vote on the stadium proposal this year or in 2018. But she's getting a bit more vocal in her support for the ballpark. Raimondo downplayed the risk faced by taxpayers while speaking on RIPR's Political Roundtable, saying it's a better deal to invest in a new stadium and bolster Pawtucket's economy than to spend tens of millions fixing McCoy Stadium. Critics like Steven Frias remain unconvinced.

13. The dozens of bills passed by the House Tuesday include legislation calling for the release of additional 38 Studios records (such as those in the possession of AG Peter Kilmartin). The Senate had already passed its own version of the bill. The governor is expected to sign the measure into law.

14. Providence Newspaper Guild members picketed outside The Providence Journal this week to draw attention to changes under the management of GateHouse Media, including how the newsroom is down to 16 reporters. ProJo Publisher Janet Hasson said the Journal is responding to the challenges of being a media company in the current moment.

15. Groundbreaking for Wexford Science & Technology's innovation complex is set for 10 a.m. Monday, September 25. While observers like CoffeeBlackRI question if the project is mostly about real estate, Governor Raimondo is sticking to her line about it being a game-changer for Rhode Island's economy that justifies the use of more than $32 million in subsidies. "It will create over 1,000 jobs over the next couple of years, building it," Raimondo said. "So it's a huge facility. But once it's constructed, there will be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people working there, including in the incubator, Cambridge Innovation Center, which is a beehive of startup companies. So the fact of the matter is it is a game-changer. This is Boston coming down, this is a MIT-related company setting up shop in Rhode Island, and creating hundreds of jobs here." Johnson & Johnson will be part of the development, according to a state official.

16. Just as real estate is about location, location, location, timing is a huge factor in politics. Heightened attention on cyber-campaigning by Russian forces during the U.S. election last year helped build support for a Common Cause of RI-backed bill, first introduced in 2013, to audit RI election results. The measure passed during Tuesday's special session. "These audits serve as a check on the initial machine counts reported on election night, and confirm that our election results are correct," Common Cause Executive Director John Marion said in a statement. “Rhode Island was ahead of the curve when we started using paper ballots in 1998 and with this legislation, we remain ahead of the curve by adopting the most advanced type of post-election audits available.” Marion said the audits will begin as soon as September 2018. Rhode Island becomes only the second state to require risk-limiting audits.

17. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said the Equifax breach involving the private financial data of 143 million Americans is disqualifying as a matter of trust, but he's not ready to decapitate the credit agency. In an interview, Reed tells me he's leaning toward supporting a new oversight system for credit agencies, but that he wants to reserve judgment until after the Senate holds a series of related hearings.

18. Just like that, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush -- known in part for a parody of him on SNL -- said goodbye to his 349,000 Twitter followers because the land of 140 characters is "too much of a distraction."

19. Even though support for a single-payer health plan is rising among Democrats, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse concedes the concept has zero chance of moving forward this session. So why is he among 16 senators joining Bernie Sanders' push for single-payer? "I wanted to kind of put a mark on the horizon of the direction we need to steer in," Whitehouse said in a recent interview with RIPR's Lynn Arditi and Scott MacKay.

20. With Melissa Long moving up to become a Superior Court judge, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has appointed Melissa Husband to take over Long's role as deputy secretary of state/director of administration. Husband's resume includes overseeing the Providence Community Action Program through a receivership, serving on the board of the I-195 Commission, as an advisory board member of the Public Utilities Commission, and an investment board member of the United Way of Rhode Island.

21. Imagine being an investigative reporter in China.

22. If you love Mob-themed entertainments, you've got to love The Godfather, right? Francis Ford Coppola's epic stands up to repeated viewings and it remains a cultural touchstone. On Saturday, September 23 (7 pm), the Jane Pickens Theater and What's Up Newp are teaming up to present a digitally remastered version of The Godfather to mark the film's 45th anniversary. (WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tim White doesn't place The Godfather among his top-five Mob movies. Check #5 for the explanation.)

23. With the MLB regular season winding down, here's a noteworthy upcoming event for lovers of the national pastime: on Friday, September 29, at Cardines Field in Newport, the Naval War College will mark the centenary of U.S. involvement in WWI by recreating a 100-year-old Army-Navy ballgame. "Players will wear historically accurate uniforms created specifically for the event, which will be played under rules from 1917," according to a news release. "Players will be current soldiers and sailors who attend U.S. Naval War College. The event is being organized in close collaboration with Naval History and Heritage Command, the Congressional World War Centenary Commission, and the City of Newport, as is a precursor to the opening of a new WWI exhibit to be featured at the NWC Museum in December. The event is free and open to the public."