The Saturday Morning Post: April 4

Happy Saturday! Ted was busy on pension happenings, so I took over for the week. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to dmcgowan@wpri.com or tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @danmcgowan and @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Let’s kick things off with a dispatch from Ted Nesi: “It was four years ago this month that then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo got the State Retirement Board to adopt a far bleaker estimate of its liabilities, turning Rhode Island’s long-simmering pension problem into a near-term crisis. Now — after landmark legislation, a drawn-out court fight, an election that installed her in the governor’s office, and this week’s settlement deal — it looks as if things have come full circle. The pension shortfall was estimated at about $5.4 billion when Raimondo took over as treasurer; once all is said and done with the proposed settlement, it will probably be back around $5 billion. That’s not really an honest accounting, though, since the initial estimate was apparently much too low. And the raw numbers mask an extraordinary decision made this week: unions will voluntarily give up roughly $4 billion in promised benefits once seen as sacrosanct. The settlement won’t satisfy those who want a final ruling on the constitutionality of pension cuts, but it does represent a huge shift away from the old view, and real savings to the state. Perhaps, though, it just reflects reality. Robert Walsh, executive director of the NEARI teachers’ union, acknowledged on this week’s Newsmakers that the pre-Raimondo system simply wasn’t sustainable. ‘It could have been, if they put a heckuva lot more money into the fund, but they didn’t,’ he said. The hardest thing for Walsh’s members to accept, he said, is that the retirement promises made to them were never going to be kept — even if they won a Rhode Island Supreme Court victory. Still, nobody can say they weren’t warned.

2. Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan to void the business licenses of the Thayer Street restaurant whose owners prosecutors say bribed former House Speaker Gordon Fox in 2008 hit a snag this week when a Superior Court judge appointed a temporary receiver for the business and halted the Board of Licenses from taking action. Aside from deft lawyering by attorney Anthony Traini, we learned for the first time a little bit about the defense the owners of Shark Bar & Grille may use as the city continues its push to strip the bar of its licenses. That argument includes making the case that the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR) upheld the board’s decision to approve Shark’s liquor license – and no one from DBR has been accused of having any role in the Fox bribery scandal. Shark’s lawyers also contend there is no law on the books in Providence that allows the licensing board to void business licenses. For his part, Elorza said he is committed to sending a message to anyone who gets a license through “fraud and corruption.” He said the DBR decision holds no water because no one knew at the time that Fox was paid $52,500 to help secure Shark’s liquor license. “It’s a different ballgame,” Elorza said.

3. Between losing his honorary degree at Rhode Island College and being disbarred by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, this wasn’t the best week for Gordon Fox. But if the former speaker ever wants to run for office after he leaves prison – he’s expected to be sentenced in June – he will be eligible. Why? Look no further than former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. As Tim White explained when Cianci entered the race for mayor last year, a change to the Rhode Island constitution in 1986 made it possible for felons to run for state or local office three years after they complete their sentence, including parole or probation. The change became known as the “Buddy amendment.” And as Tim pointed out this week, Fox could also become a lawyer again; individuals stripped of their licenses to practice law can file a petition to get it back five years after the order of disbarment.

4. With the city unveiling a shortened, cheaper proposal for its streetcar line, I asked Greater City Providence editor Jef Nickerson for his take how to make the project work: “With the train station alignment, the streetcar now provides a direct connection between URI’s Kingston campus and the nursing school being built in the Jewelry District, via existing Amtrak service. It also provides for connections for technology firms we hope to attract to the Jewelry District to their peers in Boston via Amtrak and MBTA Commuter Rail. And since the streetcar was first proposed, voters approved a bond that would go toward developing a new RIPTA bus hub at Providence Station, consolidating and integrating a variety of transportation options at that location. The state can support the streetcar project and make it more successful by working to increase the speed and frequency of MBTA Commuter Rail service between Providence and Boston and extending service to Kingston Station near URI. Transit advocates have been asking the city to consider exclusive lanes for the streetcar, to help speed through-service. Room for this potentially exists along Exchange Street near the train station, through Kennedy Plaza, along the Chestnut and Richmond couplet through the Jewelry District (if those streets are made one way) and along Eddy Street at the southern end. The city’s planning should consider those options.”

5. Here’s another dispatch from Ted Nesi: “The Brown Daily Herald published a terrific feature this week that examined the tension between Brown’s cherished identity as an undergraduate-focused ‘university-college’ and its expanding graduate programs. Unsurprisingly, money is a huge part of the discussion. ‘I am convinced that Brown cannot really thrive for any of its students or any of its faculty if it remains primarily dependent on undergraduate tuition revenue,’ Brown President Christina Paxson told the campus paper. But there is disagreement about what a thriving Brown would actually look like. ‘It’s a real question of institutional identity,’ countered Luther Spoehr, who teaches education there. ‘Is our peer institution Harvard or is our peer institution Wesleyan?’ The answer to that matters enormously for Rhode Island, where Governor Raimondo and other policymakers are banking on Brown becoming the sort of large research institution that’s an engine for the metro economy. Wesleyan is lovely, but as far as I know it hasn’t turned Middletown, Connecticut, into Cambridge South.”

6. The hottest political race in the country this year is the election for mayor of Chicago where incumbent Rahm Emanuel is facing a spirited challenge from Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. (Read here about how education is the biggest issue in the race.) The match up has caught the eye of at least a few Rhode Islanders, including former Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who donated $1,000 to Emanuel’s campaign on Feb. 5. Emanuel also received $1,500 from Robert McNamara of Providence on March 24. As for Garcia, Samuel Franklin, a Brown University graduate student, donated $1,000 on March 26.

7. Get ready for round two of La Salle Academy versus Gov. Gina Raimondo. First the governor’s alma mater removed her portrait from its Wall of Notables and now it is taking her to task over a proposal to change the current requirement that cities and towns pay for transportation and textbooks for students from mandatory to optional. “These benefits, especially for our minority and financial strapped parents, are too great to dismiss for small savings in the state budget,” La Salle principal Donald J. Kavanagh wrote in a letter to parents this week. “Let Governor Raimondo know how painful these cuts will be to your school families.” In a statement, Raimondo spokeswoman Ashley Gingerella O’Shea said the savings from the changes would be invested in state-funded pre-K and support special education throughout the state. “Revising this largely unfunded mandate will allow cities and towns to work collaboratively with private schools to share costs and achieve efficiencies while lessening the burden that presently exists upon school districts’ budgets,” she said.

8. Speaking of La Salle, another one of its former students is running for office – but not in Rhode Island. Democrat Marty Mooradian, a Johnston native, is running for the House District 27 seat in Chesterfield, Va. Here’s part of his pitch. “I have seen firsthand that there is a part of our county being left behind. There are schools, neighborhoods and business districts that need a voice in the General Assembly, and need it now – not when it’s politically convenient. You would think our leaders would have noticed, but unfortunately they are focused on divisive social issues that make more headlines than handshakes.”

9. The state’s career and technical education (CTE) system “is not currently aligned to the needs of employers and numerous program gaps and duplications exist,” according to a report released this week by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC). The report comes amid a renewed push from state leaders to expand CTE programs throughout the state (recall that last year the General Assembly created a state Career and Technical Board of Trustees and the group is expected to begin meeting in the coming months). RIPEC recommends the new board analyze all available funding streams to determine whether programs are sufficiently funded and if money is being used in the most efficient way possible. The study also suggests that the CTE system foster collaboration between secondary, adult and postsecondary education and training and ensure that the state’s workforce has the “skills necessary to meet the needs of employers.”

10. Several members of the Providence City Council were relieved to learn Thursday that the city charter does in fact require officers of the city – including members of boards and commissions – to live in Providence. But Jeff Dana, the city’s new solicitor, told the council that while there is a residency rule in place, exemptions are allowed and anyone who is a non-city resident already serving on a board or commission – like the newest member of the Board of Licenses, for example – can continue in his or her role. Even though the real strength of residency – requiring teachers, city workers and public safety employees to live in the city – was stripped years ago, several council members remain sensitive about allowing outsiders to serve on boards. Perhaps Councilman Wilbur Jennings from Ward 8 summed it up best Thursday night when he shouted “You want the apple pie, you should live here.”

11. It’s not every day you see the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers Association testifying in favor of the same labor-backed bill. But that was the case this week when all of those groups testified in favor of Sen. Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio’s legislation to provide a wage reimbursement incentive for employers that participate in non-trade apprenticeship. Ruggerio previously wrote about the need for this legislation in the Providence Journal. The legislation, modeled after a South Carolina law, is expected to have a good chance in the the Senate and House, where Rep. Chris Blazejewski has introduced the same bill.

12. Nearly 26% of Rhode Islanders use drugs or medications that alter their mind or help them relax “almost every day,” according to a new Gallup poll. That’s second behind only West Virginia. Rhode Island was the only state in New England to crack the top 10.

13. Here are some of the best reads of the week: Inside the $14-billion mattress industry … the best story on treasure hunting that you’ll ever read … How the feds took down a drug cartel’s horse racing empire … a fantastic piece about immigration in the United Statesscoring is way down in Major League Baseball … you have to read this 2005 profile on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyer … the other side of climate change … the monster next door.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersRobert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Rhode Island Housing executive director Barbara Fields. 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.

15. One last dispatch from Ted Nesi: “Happy Easter and Happy Passover!”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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