PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – New Year’s is a time to look back, and to look ahead.
There are a lot of places on the Web where you can read about the big stories of 2014. But what topics and issues will make headlines in 2015? Here’s a rundown, in no particular order.
1. Governor Raimondo’s first six months. Gina Raimondo will become Rhode Island’s 75th/91st/57th governor when she takes the oath of office Tuesday, ending Lincoln Chafee’s rocky four-year term. She already faces significant challenges: a state budget deficit estimated at roughly $200 million, an unemployment rate that is still the fourth-highest in the country, and a pervasive general pessimism. Raimondo’s first budget proposal, due soon after she takes office, will give some indication of how she plans to put her stamp on state government. Apart from the budget, what she chooses to focus on in her early months – and how she handles inevitable early setbacks – will set the tone for her term. To be effective, she’ll need to build a solid working relationship with the Democratic-dominated General Assembly, particularly House Speaker Nick Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. And they’ll need to figure out how to deal with having a Democrat elected to the state’s corner office for the first time in 20 years.
2. Rhode Island’s slow economic recovery. The unemployment rate in Rhode Island fell sharply during 2014, from 9.2% in January to 7.1% in November, with more than 10,000 more workers finding jobs. The national economy appears to be picking up steam and oil prices have plummeted, which is a particular boon for Rhode Island. All that suggests the state is making some progress in recovering. Will that progress accelerate in 2015, or will the state drift sideways? And what steps will local leaders take to try and improve things? Rhode Island’s recovery remains far from complete: the state has only recouped 24,000 of the 40,000 jobs lost during the recession, and at last count the state’s economy was still nearly $1 billion smaller than in 2006. State officials forecast Rhode Island will have relatively minor job growth next year, with the unemployment rate averaging 6.7%, but decent growth in workers’ incomes.
3. The transition to Mayor Elorza. The 38-year-old former Housing Court judge may be inheriting a city better off than Angel Taveras found it four years ago, but Providence is still facing fiscal uncertainty and a perception problem when it comes to public safety. Elorza, who has never held public office, will immediately get to work crafting his first budget – he’s already facing a potential $24-million shortfall – while trying to carve out enough money to pay for some of the ambitious goals he laid out on the campaign trail, namely a plan to keep schools open longer and provide more social services to students. At the same time, he’s taking over a city where 90% of residents are concerned about crime, even though violent crime and property crime were down in 2014. On public safety, Elorza has decided to keep Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Police Chief Hugh Clements in their current roles, while also promising to improve the police department’s relationship with the community.
4. What’s next for Gordon Fox? The biggest cliffhanger of 2014 surrounded former House Speaker Gordon Fox, who resigned his leadership post in March following state and federal law enforcement raids on his home and State House office. Fox – who will begin 2015 out of public office for the first time in 22 years after he decided against running for re-election – still hasn’t been identified as the target of an investigation, and has routinely declined to comment on the raids. What we do know is that investigators were searching for Fox’s campaign finance records on the morning of the raids; Fox later donated the bulk of the funds in two of his political action committees to several charities, but he still holds more than $244,000 in his campaign war chest. So what should we expect in 2015? While law enforcement officials have been tight-lipped, more details about the Fox investigation are expected to emerge before long. Meanwhile, Democrat Aaron Regunberg will replace Fox in House District 4.
5. How to develop the vacant I-195 land. If the last several years have focused on laying the groundwork for the development of roughly 40 acres of land in downtown Providence created by the relocation of I-195, the new year should put cranes in the sky throughout the area. The commission charged with overseeing the land has already approved a $50-million privatized student housing project, with more deals expected to be unveiled early in 2015. As the deals come together, officials will rely heavily on the Providence City Council, which has the final say over the tax stabilization agreements that are viewed as essential to developing the land. The current council leadership has signaled support for creating a uniform process for establishing these tax breaks, but it remains unclear whether looming leadership changes will lead to a different strategy.
6. The state pension trial. More than three years after Rhode Island lawmakers passed the most sweeping overhaul of a state retirement system the country has ever seen, a union-backed legal challenge to the measure is set to go to trial on April 20. The financial stakes could hardly be higher: for taxpayers, roughly $4 billion in savings are on the line; retirees face nearly two decades without annual cost-of-living increases. Lawyers for the state argued successfully that the outcome should be decided by a jury, rather than just a judge, so the first step in the process will be the selection of a group of average Rhode Islanders to handle the complicated case. No matter what they decide, though, it’s expected the verdict will be appealed to the R.I. Supreme Court – which could make this one of our top stories in 2016, too. Of course, none of that will happen if state and union leaders reach a new settlement to end the suit out of court, which is a renewed possibility in the wake of last month’s election.
7. Education: The future of Deborah Gist and school construction. In 2014, Rhode Island delayed its plan to tie a high school diploma to a standardized test until 2020 and scaled back the frequency of teacher evaluations, two changes that were considered significant victories for the state’s teachers’ unions and drew widely criticism from the school reform community. Incoming Gov. Gina Raimondo didn’t make education a centerpiece of her campaign earlier this year – she did call for new teachers to earn more – but she’ll have major policy decisions to make right off the bat. 1) Will she keep Education Commissioner Deborah Gist? Although her contract doesn’t expire until June, Gist has a stipulation in her deal that states “any renewal of said contract shall be completed at least six months prior to the established contract renewal date.” Gist has said she wants to keep her job. 2) School construction. Rhode Island is facing a sizable budget deficit, but state lawmakers’ decision to put a multiyear hold on school construction and repairs has left some buildings across the state in poor condition. That moratorium expires early in 2015, and Raimondo has pledged to craft a long-term plan that will help pay for building costs.
8. The trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Aaron Hernandez. They’ll both play out in Massachusetts, but Rhode Islanders will surely have their eyes on the high-profile trials of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. Tsarnaev is facing 30 counts in the April 2013 bombing, 17 of which carry the potential for the death penalty. He and his brother Tamerlan – who died in a shootout with police – are accused of building and planting two pressure-cooker bombs that killed three people and injured at least 260 others. Hernandez is facing a first-degree murder charge for his role in the death of Odin Lloyd, who was shot and killed in June 2013 near Hernandez’s North Attleboro home. Two others, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, have also been charged with murder; all three have pleaded not guilty, as has Tsarnaev. Both trials begin in January.
9. The 38 Studios lawsuit. Two and a half years after Curt Schilling’s taxpayer-backed video-game company collapsed, there is still no trial date for the Chafee administration’s lawsuit against the architects of the $75-million deal. Voluminous documents have been exchanged, though, and dozens of depositions have been taken since the suit was filed in November 2012; it’s possible a trial could finally begin in the new year. As with the pension suit, though, there won’t be a 38 Studios trial if the parties reach an out-of-court settlement, as two of the 14 defendants already have. Meantime, the General Assembly will have to vote next spring on whether to use taxpayer money to pay the 38 Studios bondholders the next roughly $12 million installment they’re owed; while lawmakers are likely to raise a fuss, House and Senate leaders have signaled the bonds will be paid.
10. The future of HealthSource RI. Rhode Island’s Obamacare marketplace has generally won good reviews for its smooth rollout, especially compared with other states – looking at you, Massachusetts – whose efforts failed spectacularly on launch. But state leaders have blanched at HealthSource RI chief Christine Ferguson’s request for a roughly $20-million annual budget in a time of rising deficits, especially with a funding source still not identified three years after Governor Chafee created the program by executive order. Now Ferguson is on the way out and Governor-elect Raimondo has tapped Anya Rader Wallack, a consultant with experience in Vermont and Massachusetts, to take over. Some have suggested shutting down HealthSource RI and moving Rhode Islanders to the federal marketplace, but the U.S. Supreme Court could change the calculus there if it rules that only state marketplaces can subsidize insurance when it rules in a closely watched case.
11. Dan Doyle and the Institute for International Sport in the hot seat. It has been 18 months since the head of the Institute for International Sport was indicted on 18 counts for allegedly misusing more than $1 million that was meant for the youth sports organization he started in 1986. While 2014 was a quiet year for Dan Doyle, 2015 could be the year where we learn more about the alleged crimes – including embezzlement and forgery – he’s been charged with. The Institute gained national acclaim thanks in part to millions of dollars in contributions from grants paid for by Rhode Island taxpayers as well as philanthropic groups, and continued to accept donations even after it lost its tax-exempt status in 2013.
12. As always, expect surprises. The stories above are just some of the ones we already know are likely to make headlines in 2015. Inevitably, though, some of the year’s most interesting headlines will be those that appear to arrive out of the blue, which is part of what will make them so interesting. A year ago today, after all, how many people expected Gordon Fox to be out of office within months? Or Buddy Cianci to mount a losing comeback campaign for mayor? Or the Patriots to be playoff-bound once again? (Just kidding – none of us ever lost faith in the Pats, right?) Hopefully at least some of those surprise stories will be good news. Until then, Happy New Year!
Walt Buteau, Steve Nielsen and Kelly Sullivan contributed to this report. This post has been updated to reflect the debate over what number governor Gina Raimondo will be.