Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 6

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. Governor Raimondo’s toll plan isn’t dead – it’s not even on life support yet. The proposal certainly had a rough week, with the outcry from local truckers triggering a partial rollback on Tuesday and then a vote of no confidence from Speaker Mattiello on Thursday. “This total confusion is something we expected from Lincoln Chafee; now we need to expect this from Governor Raimondo,” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell gleefully declared Wednesday. Yet Raimondo’s aides dismiss suggestions that they have a problem on their hands because they didn’t do their homework; they were even holding out hope Friday that the proposal could still get into the budget (due out Tuesday). For that to happen they’ll need to satisfy the speaker, whose spokesman told Tim White on Friday he still has a number of unanswered questions: Where will the tolls be placed? How will the toll prices be set? How will the $900-million bond get paid off if toll revenue falls short? Will Rhode Island companies get tax credits or registration fee discounts? Nevertheless, Mattiello wants to enact a revised version of the plan, and the Senate remains supportive, as well. “I’m confident that we can get the kind of information that he needs in the next few days to be able to provide him with a level of comfort with this,” RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said on Newsmakers Friday. Alviti and other administration officials think the political fundamentals are still in their favor: Rhode Island’s bridges are in woeful shape, and their plan would make major strides in addressing that – while creating thousands of construction jobs in the process.

2. Don’t make any big autumn vacation plans just yet. One option both Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Paiva Weed are floating is a special legislative session this fall to tackle transportation funding, including the toll proposal. Maybe they could squeeze in the PawSox stadium, too?

3. A striking stat from Governor Carcieri’s 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel on transportation funding: Rhode Island relies on the federal government to pay 62% of its highway spending; the national average is only 27%. The report said at the time RIDOT needed about $639 million a year for the next decade to “restore Rhode Island’s transportation system to a condition of good operation and repair.” But only about $354 million was actually going to be available – barely half. And here we are.

4. What is left to say about Lincoln Chafee’s quixotic presidential bid? The former governor has almost no staff, no fundraising, no blue-chip advisers, really no traditional campaign apparatus at all. His announcement Wednesday was fitting – a meandering chat in a half-full college auditorium hours from home, with no balloons, no signs, and few supporters. The Guardian put it bluntly: “Lincoln Chafee’s presidential announcement was weird.” His call for a switch to the metric system felt like Peak Chafee: perfectly sensible to him, yet totally out of left field to everyone else. It certainly got him a lot of instant media attention, but will it make national reporters take him less seriously in the coming months? Then again, Chafee will benefit from the weird dynamics of this year’s Democratic primary – with Hillary Clinton miles ahead of her rivals, there’s a vacuum where a real contest would usually be, and a news media hungry for controversy. Linc could be the beneficiary.

5. My colleague Steve Nielsen, who was in Virginia to cover the Chafee kickoff, asked me a good question when he got back. With Chafee becoming Rhode Island’s first-ever major-party presidential candidate, has any other state taken so long to produce one? I put the question to Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota who tracks political trivia, and he said before Chafee’s announcement Rhode Island was either the last or second-to-last state without a presidential candidate. The outstanding question Ostermeier is still trying to answer is whether the other possible remaining state – North Dakota – has ever produced one. “I have yet to confirm such a candidate from North Dakota, although my study is not yet complete so I am not making a characterization yet for that state,” he told me in an email.

6. Lincoln Chafee will be on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning at 9 a.m.

7. In 1989, the chairman of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority, Richard Oster, promised that the proposed facility “won’t cost taxpayers one dime.” A quarter-century later, the complex is on pace to cost them an estimated $780 million. That’s the foundation for House Republicans’ ongoing criticism of the authority, its operations and its management, which been getting traction in recent weeks. The authority’s executive director, Jim McCarvill, came on Newsmakers this week to push back at the critics. His argument: looking at the Convention Center Authority’s balance sheet in isolation doesn’t capture the full picture of its economic impact, which should also include all the surrounding development and activity that it’s spurred. “When he said it’s not going to cost taxpayers one dime, what he’s saying is, get this project built, get this operation running, and what you will see is you will see the development of additional properties and of additional facilities,” McCarvill said, adding: “I can’t tell you what it was worth to get the Courtyard [Marriott] built, to get the Renaissance renovated, to change the Masonic Temple from a derelict building to a beautiful hotel.” McCarvill’s argument is actually much the same as the one Larry Lucchino makes for the PawSox stadium – yes, the direct subsidies will cost taxpayers money, but the indirect impacts will make it worth the price. (Which doesn’t mean everyone agrees.)

8. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Governor Raimondo is against it. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is against it. And the vast majority of municipal leaders are against it. So why do firefighters have reason to be confident they still have a chance to pass legislation that would make platoon structures part of collective bargaining? Aside from their union’s strong relationships with House and Senate leadership, it’s possible that municipal leaders have inadvertently backed themselves into a corner where they could be faced with a choice between the platoon bill or the so-called ‘compromise’ legislation that would require firefighters to be paid overtime for working more than 42 hours in a week. Mayors and town managers argue that both bills make it significantly more difficult for them to restructure their fire departments, but there’s a reason Mayor Elorza told me this week he considers the overtime legislation ‘far worse’ than the platoon bill. One could argue that a significant element of any platoon changes already has to be part of collective bargaining: while mayors currently have the power to order fire department changes, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled implementation of the law – meaning how much firefighters will be paid – still needs to be negotiated. The game Elorza appears to be playing in Providence is to force the issue of three platoons and then go to arbitration, allowing a third party to decide how much the firefighters will be paid under the new structure. Meanwhile, the overtime legislation might not change anything for communities already locked into collective bargaining agreements, but once those deals expire, Elorza said the unions ‘will have the bargaining chips at the negotiation table.’ The overtime bill is scheduled to be heard before both the House and Senate Labor Committees on Tuesday. Cities and towns will be watching closely.”

9. The whole Rhode Island congressional delegation is scheduled to attend a June 23 fundraiser in Washington to raise money for David Cicilline. Dubbed “The Taste of Rhode Island” on the invitation, the event will be held at the Capitol Hill condo of John Weinfurter, a lobbyist at Witt | O’Brien and former chief of staff to Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley. Suggested contributions for PACs are $5,000 for a host, $2,500 for a sponsor and $1,000 for a guest; the ask for individual attendees is $500. (Cicilline had $252,865 on hand as of March 31.)

10. Gordon Fox will appear in federal court Thursday morning to be sentenced for his crimes. Tim White has been reporting on the Fox case from the start and will be there Thursday, so I asked him what to expect: “The first thing on the plate is whether U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi accepts the plea deal or not. Fox – through his attorney (and predecessor as House speaker), William Murphy – has entered into a binding plea deal with prosecutors, which would mean three years in prison for him. There’s no easy way to predict whether Lisi will accept the plea deal, especially in such a high-profile case, but it’s fairly rare for agreements like this to be rejected. If she were to reject the deal, it would be up to lawyers on both sides to figure out what to do next – they could try and hammer out another agreement, or move toward trial. (Unfortunately, cameras aren’t allowed into federal court and Judge Lisi does not allow reporters to tweet from her courtroom, so much of this will have to be distilled in newscasts later.) If Lisi accepts the deal, Fox will have an opportunity to address the court prior to sentencing. After the sentencing, the former speaker will be met by a throng of reporters on the courthouse steps, and I expect him to answer questions just like he did on the day he was charged. For all his faults, Gordon Fox has rarely – if ever – dodged an interview.”

11. Millennials hate politics, former Brown U. academic Jennifer Lawless tells Ezra Klein.

12. Have you noticed all the Cumberland Farms stores getting a makeover? It’s part of a strategy by CEO Ari Haseotes to reposition the convenience store chain as a purveyor of fresh food more than gasoline and cigarettes; six of the renovated stores are opening in Rhode Island alone this year. The company – formally, the Cumberland Gulf Group – booked roughly $16 billion in sales last year, and Haseotes is the third generation of his family to run it. He argues being privately held has been a strategic advantage for Cumberland Farms over the years. “We like to take a very long-term focus when we think about our business, whether it comes to decisions we make internally around how we compensate our team members and reward them, or whether it comes to the investments we make and being patient about letting them get up to the level that we’re satisfied they’re performing appropriately,” Haseotes told me on this week’s Executive Suite. “Frankly, we don’t think the right way to think about a business is to think about the next three months. It’s to think about it in terms of years or decades, and we think companies that can think that way – again, internally and externally – will absolutely be positioned most especially for success in the years ahead.” Click here to watch our entire interview.

13. Once upon a time, there really was a Cumberland farm – 110 acres in northern Rhode Island that Ari Haseotes‘ Greek immigrant grandparents purchased in 1938 and used as the springboard for their first store, which opened in 1956. Unfortunately for Rhode Island, they opened that first store across the border in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and today the company’s headquarters is in Framingham. So why didn’t Cumberland Farms grow its business in the state where it got its start? Chalk it up to regulations: “Bellingham was chosen because in Massachusetts, milk prices were not controlled by the state as they were in Rhode Island,” The MetroWest Daily News reports.

14. CVS is now the 10th-biggest company on the Fortune 500 – and FM Global is bigger than Hasbro.

15. Saturday Morning Post reader Marilyn Weston wrote me to comment on last week’s item about a study showing tax cuts for retirees don’t keep them in-state. “I really don’t care if seniors leave the state, the country, or the earth for tax breaks,” she said. “The fact that we are being taxed on our SSS is absolutely insane. SSS is a tax on our income to begin with. How many times should we be taxed on the same income? … I understand that the elderly cannot expect to be tax-free, but the income limit should be changed (just as it should for the ordinary working folks). Tax more on the higher end of the spectrum and eliminate some of the loopholes.”

16. David Eisenhower recalls his grandfather’s leadership on D-Day, which was 71 years ago today.

17. This is fun: “10 things only true Rhode Islanders know.”

18. Huge congratulations to our Target 12 investigative team – reporter Tim White, producer Nick Domings and editor John Villella – on winning a New England Emmy last weekend for their investigation of Coventry’s fire chief. (The story had already won an Edward R. Murrow Award, too.) And congrats to Johnny V. on the other Emmy he won this year, for this “Street Stories” piece on hula hoops.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Department of Transportation director Peter Alviti; R.I. Convention Center Authority executive director James McCarvill. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Cumberland Farms President and CEO Ari Haseotes. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). You can catch both shows back-to-back on your radio, too, Sunday nights at 6 on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. 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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