Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Dec. 13

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. There’s zero doubt in Angel Taveras’s mind that he made the right decision by refusing to put Providence into municipal bankruptcy, despite the arguments made by mayoral hopeful Dan Harrop and others that it would allow the city to rip off the Band-Aid fiscally. “This is not a good solution,” Taveras said Friday in an exit interview on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “This is not like a personal bankruptcy where you come out with no debt and you start all new and you can keep going. This is a reorganization. And it would be devastating.” Alluding to what happened in Central Falls, he continued: “Could you imagine Providence closing all the rec centers? Closing all the libraries? Cutting our staff even further? And then imposing maximum tax increases for five years?” Taveras later returned to the topic while discussing a conversation he had with would-be 195 developer Richard Miller after Miller criticized the city in a Providence Journal article. “Can you imagine trying to market that in a bankrupt city?” Taveras said. “It’s like, ‘Come on, come to Providence, spend hundreds of millions of dollars – we’re in bankruptcy but, you know, come on down!’ I think it would be a lot more difficult.” Considering Jorge Elorza largely shares the same views as Taveras on the matter, it seems clear Providence is going to have to muddle through its financial predicament over the coming years and hope that economic growth eases the burden.

2. Three months after he lost the Democratic primary for governor, Mayor Taveras is finally revealing his future plans: “I’m taking a vacation. That’s the first thing,” he said on Newsmakers. Where to? “I am going to go somewhere nice and warm and sunny – and I’m going to not worry about snow.” Professionally, Taveras told Tim White and me that he expects to return to the private sector, most likely at a law firm, though the type of law he’ll practice “may be a little different” from what he did before. He also said he’ll “be involved in some other things in terms of education,” though he didn’t offer details. Taveras didn’t commit to staying in Rhode Island, though. “We’ll see,” he said. “I would like to, but we’ll see where the path leads me. But Rhode Island will always be my home, no matter where I am.” And while he didn’t rule out running for office again in the future, he made clear his focus will be on earning money to provide for his growing family. “I’m looking forward to being a dad,” he said.

3. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from my colleague Dan McGowan: “Providence hasn’t yet become the ‘envy of American urban education’ like Mayor Taveras talked about during his inaugural address in 2011, but the work he’s done to lay the foundation for improving city schools is easily the most underrated accomplishment of his tenure as mayor. He likes being known as the mayor who helped save the city from bankruptcy, but he wants to be remembered as the mayor who fixed its schools. Taveras said this week that Providence is now ‘on the map’ when it comes to its work around early childhood education, pointing to a $5 million grant the city received to close the ‘word gap’ for poor children, as well as an innovative program to teach kids to read. While it will take many years to evaluate the full scale of Providence’s recent educational initiatives, Taveras said he thinks the city’s emergence as a national player will help Jorge Elorza, whose ambitious agenda includes a plan to keep schools open longer and provide more social services to students. For Elorza to accomplish those goals, he’ll likely have to compete with cities around the country for grant money. The groundwork Taveras laid will certainly provide an advantage.”

4. Speaking of Dan McGowan, congrats to him on being one of Providence Monthly’s 10 to Watch in 2015!

5. A special Saturday Morning Post dispatch from retired Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst: “When former Senate Minority Leader Lila Sapinsley died this week at age 92, she left a magnificent legacy of public service inside the legislature and out. She was bright, caring, persistent, a fierce advocate for such causes as women’s issues, education, and open government and ethics regulation. She was personable and fun, but also tough, and when Senate Democratic powers sought in a 1982 reapportionment plan to rid themselves of her or maverick Democrat Richard Licht by placing both in one East Side District, she (through the GOP) and Licht fought back in the courts. The 1982 Senate election was put on hold. They ultimately prevailed and the 1983 special election turned out to be tumultuous. Republicans cut sharply into the Democrats’ majority, and Rocco Quattrocchi was forced out as Senate majority leader and Democratic state chairman. Sapinsley was immersed in politics, but not for self-gain, and, as a matter of fact, one day on the Senate floor she made one of the most stinging but accurate assertions I ever heard in the State House. The Senate was debating some smelly bill, some special deal, perhaps involving pensions. Sapinsley got up and declared there are three kinds of animals in politics: Donkeys, elephants – and pigs. How could you not admire a woman like that who saw the truth and spoke the truth?”

6. Rhode Island’s Quote of the Week goes to Smithfield Town Councilman-elect Gregory Tocco in a Q&A with The Valley Breeze’s Mel Thibeault: “By the way, I’m single.”

7. Can Gina Raimondo do for Medicaid the same thing she did for pensions – find a palatable-to-Democrats way to stabilize a growing financial burden on the state? She’ll probably need to try. The state will spend $1 billion more on Medicaid this year than it did just two years ago, as the program eats up 32% of general revenue. One of the biggest challenges for incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts will be the same one faced by the current secretary, Steve Costantino: lowering Rhode Island’s above-average spending on elderly and disabled Medicaid enrollees. Brown’s Kali Thomas suggests the state invest more in keeping seniors out of nursing homes, but as the Carcieri administration’s 2007 Future of Medicaid report noted, that requires simultaneous upfront investments in a new long-term care system while continuing to spend money to keep the existing system stable. On top of that, Medicaid is a major source of jobs and income for nursing homes and other industries that have a voice at the State House. Plus, cuts or changes that anger seniors will make politicians queasy considering what a reliable voting bloc they represent. The problem could get even bigger if the state passes Social Security tax cuts that attract more elderly residents, as Speaker Mattiello has said he wants to do. As with so many of Rhode Island’s problems, the Medicaid one will be far easier to solve if Raimondo, Mattiello and other state leaders can boost economic growth going forward.

8. Classic Rhode Island: House Majority Leader John DeSimone is the lawyer representing Coventry Fire District Chief Paul Labbadia, who was suspended after Tim White’s recent investigation.

9. Mike Stenhouse and the RhodeMap RI plan’s other critics may not have blocked the document from getting approved by the State Planning Council, but they still won at least a partial victory by making it politically radioactive. Speaker Mattiello all but declared the plan dead on arrivalGovernor-elect Raimondo has distanced herself from it, and Senate President Paiva Weed hasn’t even responded to a request for comment about the topic; meanwhile, rank-and-file lawmakers such as Sen. Lou Raptakis want to pass anti-RhodeMap legislation come January. Combined with the repeal of the master lever earlier this year – not to mention Mattiello’s embrace of tax cuts – it’s a good reminder that those on the political right in Rhode Island can make a real impact despite their continued struggles at the ballot box. (Here’s a PDF of RhodeMap RI.)

10. Hard to believe but true: one of Rhode Island’s largest private companies got sold for nearly $400 million two months ago, and nobody in the state noticed until this week.

11. The stunning drop in oil prices – now below $60 – looks like good news for the Rhode Island economy (as long as it doesn’t cause broader global economic problems). The state mostly imports its energy from elsewhere and, particularly with wintertime upon us, lower prices at the pump should give a boost to local consumers at a time when they’re also facing higher electricity bills. The impact on consumers may be fairly large: Goldman Sachs calls the drop in oil prices the equivalent of a $125-billion tax cut nationwide. Gregg’s co-owner Bob Bacon told me this week he’s already seeing a positive impact at his restaurants. “That’s just more disposable income,” Bacon said on Executive Suite. “People that have a limited budget, when all of a sudden $30 or $40 more dollars a week comes into their budget, fortunately they tend to spend it on things that they take pleasure out of, like going out to eat or going and having a drink somewhere, that sort of thing – and that’s been an advantage.” But Bacon said he and other business-owners are growing increasingly alarmed about the rising cost of energy in Rhode Island, and they’re going to push policymakers to address that going forward.

12. Also on the economy: Rhode Island’s unemployment picture looks very different if, as Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride suggests, declining labor-force participation is mostly about long-term trends rather than a still-weak economy. The state’s labor force has shrunk by 19,000 workers since April 2010; if those people were still in the labor force today but out of work, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate would be 10.4% rather than 7.4%. But if they left the labor force for non-economic reasons – to retire, to go to school, to take care of their families – and aren’t interested in working even if work was available, it suggests the job market really has improved significantly in Rhode Island.

13. Sheldon Whitehouse will debate Karl Rove about the torture report on “Fox News Sunday” tomorrow.

14. My colleague Sean Daly’s announcement this week that he is retiring after three decades in Rhode Island TV news left me surprised and saddened, though happy for him as he embarks on new adventures. Sean understands the power of a pointed question – especially when it’s paired with a pointed camera. He leaves his own inimitable mark on every story he tells, and he also has the institutional knowledge that comes with years on the beat; during this year’s campaign he would regale us with stories about covering Buddy Cianci’s first and second administrations. Sean has been a generous colleague to his fellow reporters here at WPRI 12, myself very much included, and we’ll miss him. And for some fun memories of Sean from Tim White, Dan McGowan and me, check out item #11 in Ian Donnis’s weekly roundup.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Gregg’s Restaurants co-owner Bob Bacon; BlumShapiro office managing partner Gregory Cabral. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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