Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 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. Are you a podcast fan? Good news! You can now subscribe to your favorite WPRI shows as weekly podcasts on iTunes – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers.

2. This past Tuesday will go down as a banner day in the career of Gina Raimondo. First she secured judicial approval for the pension settlement, all but locking in the $4 billion in savings from her crowning achievement as treasurer (and, in the process, receiving confirmation that the original law was probably constitutional anyway). Hours later, Rhode Island lawmakers revealed what they’d do to her first budget proposal as governor – give her most of what she wants, including the suite of new economic-development policies that she’s argued are vital to her plans. (Here’s my cheat sheet breaking down those tools.) Now comes the hard part for Raimondo: delivering on her promises. As her aides are quick to note, the new initiatives represent a drop in the bucket in a $55 billion state economy; still, they think the discretion they’ve been given on how to allocate the funds could lead to maximum bang for the buck. That discretion carries risks – Governor Carcieri used such discretion to do the 38 Studios deal, after all – but if used smartly it could reap rewards. Either way, that’s in the future. For now, Raimondo has shown impressive political skills by once again convincing lawmakers to largely see things her way – and by putting together a program they could get behind.

3. Meanwhile, Rhode Island officials could hardly contain their glee as they contrasted their avowedly “pro-business” budget with the tax-and-spending plan just approved across the border in Connecticut, which has caused an open rebellion among companies there. “While other states around us are increasing taxes and fees, Rhode Island is reducing taxes and fees,” crowed Speaker Mattiello. Indeed, no less a Fortune 500 staple than General Electric, which has more than 5,000 employees in Connecticut, is already threatening to leave. There’s little doubt Governor Raimondo will place a call to GE CEO Jeff Immelt to see if she can lure him across the border.

4. It’s easy to get the General Assembly to hand out goodies to businesses; it’s a lot harder to convince lawmakers to inflict pain on hospitals and nursing homes. Thus Governor Raimondo’s most impressive win in the budget wasn’t the economic-development tools – it was the Medicaid changes. While the savings were whittled down from the governor’s original target of $90 million to about $67 million (partly at her request), Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokesman Mike Raia contends lawmakers “made only minor changes to the proposed Reinventing Medicaid Act and preserved the key principles of reform.” He singled out the creation of new incentive programs that will pay hospitals and nursing homes based on quality of care, as well as various initiatives to keep more seniors out of nursing homes in the first place. More broadly, Raimondo and her aides cemented a consensus that Rhode Island’s perennial budget woes can’t be resolved without major changes to Medicaid – a consensus they’ll likely need to revisit in future budget debates.

5. The unveiling of the budget this week provided new evidence of Speaker Mattiello’s dominance in the House – and how he’s managed to consolidate authority. For the most part, lawmakers say they appreciate how he runs the chamber. And in a small but telling sign of the effort he’s made to win over skeptics, Reps. Joy Hearn and Teresa Tanzi were both on hand with Chairman Ray Gallison for the media briefing about the budget, with Hearn singled out as the recipient of a $350,000 appropriation for the Polaris manufacturing service. Hearn, as you may recall, was one of just six lawmakers who voted for Mike Marcello over Mattiello last year, while Tanzi was among the handful who abstained. Mattiello has also brought Chris Blazejewski, a Marcello backer, back into the House leadership. Nor is the speaker’s outreach limited to Democrats – the budget managed to win unanimous support from the House Finance Committee’s Republican contingent, too. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry chalked that up in part to its inclusion of four long-sought GOP priorities: a Social Security tax break, Medicaid cuts, the elimination of the sales tax on energy for businesses, and the reduction of the corporate minimum tax from $500 to $450. “While we would have gone further on all of those, they are a good start and a recognition of things we have been pushing for years,” Newberry told me.

6. Lawmakers agreed to 27 of Governor Raimondo’s proposals to axe occupational licenses in the budget, but there were five they refused to eliminate: those for lifeguards, physical therapy assistants, occupational therapy assistants, athletic trainers, and music therapists. The fees attached to those five will generate almost $93,000 in revenue for the state over the next year.

7. Rhode Island has the region’s lowest percentage of children living with both their parents: 44%.

8. The question many people were left asking after Gordon Fox’s plea deal is whether the former speaker accepted other bribes during his long political career. We asked U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha about that on this week’s Newsmakers, and while he loathes speculating, he acknowledged he can’t rule out the possibility. But after subpoenaing and scrutinizing Fox’s bank records, he said, his prosecutors were unable to bring charges on any other matter. “I’ve got to tell you, the lawyers and the agents did a phenomenal job of literally sketching out and tracking down every one of those transactions, and the one that they found that caused the most concern – frankly, the one that we felt we could prove criminal misconduct – was the one involving the Shark Bar, and that’s why we went with that one,” Neronha said. “Now, can I tell you Gordon Fox over the course of his life has not taken another bribe? I can’t tell you that. Is it unfair to speculate about that based on what he’s already done? Perhaps. But what I focus on is what I know and what I can prove, and what we can prove. And that was sufficient here.”

9. Here’s the city of Pawtucket’s new logo – what do you think of it?

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10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “No one breathed a bigger sigh of relief over the firefighter overtime bill going down in flames this week than Mayor Elorza, who was at risk of losing a battle with his own fire union and being blamed by the rest of Rhode Island’s municipal leaders for costing them some negotiating strength down the line. So how did it happen? There are lots of rumors flying around, but let’s focus on what we know. First, don’t underestimate persistence. Elorza, his staff and Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee worked the phones hard over the last week to try to convince lawmakers to back away from the bill. And while the firefighters showed up in force at the State House during Labor Committee hearings on Tuesday, so did the mayor. Nearly all of his senior staff was in attendance to show support and lobby lawmakers. Second, there was a lot of opposition to the bill. Governor Raimondo made it clear she had concerns and McKee used his influence among mayors and town managers to rally the troops. In pulling the bill, Senate sponsor Frank Lombardi even acknowledged that he changed his mind after hearing from constituents. Finally, there’s at least some question as to whether the firefighters overplayed their hand. The most compelling argument in support of the bill was that Providence firefighters were being asked to work 33% more hours for no additional pay. Once Elorza made it clear he does intend to pay them more, the legislation became a little bit more difficult to swallow, especially in the House. Still, it didn’t come up all roses for Elorza. Yes, he dodged a bullet, but he’s still forced to work with an unhappy Senate – the 195 tax break bill isn’t dead yet – and he’s made a lifelong enemy out of thousands of firefighters across the state. Meanwhile, his self-imposed June 30 deadline to reach a deal with the union to restructure the city fire department is less than three weeks away.”

11. Take that, haters: a new study shows Deflategate and the Wells Report are nonsense.

12. Hillary Clinton was in Rhode Island this week, raising more than $300,000 at an event hosted by Mark Weiner and Joe Paolino. “The alternative to American leadership is not somebody else’s leadership,” she told the crowd at Weiner’s East Greenwich home. “It’s a vacuum. It is a big hole in the middle of the world that will be filled by bad actors, both in states and in organizations, who will try to assert themselves – for power, for prestige, for financial gain, all of the human vices that are at work – and therefore the United States cannot retreat. So we have to be smart about how we assert our leadership, and I’m convinced that the world wants us – even when they don’t act like it and even when they criticize us – because they know without us there is no alternative.” And then there was this funny line: “I’m also aware of how hard the job is. I’ve seen it up close and personal. I said the other day, I’ve seen our presidents – up until now all men – who have gone into the White House looking so bright and eager and vigorous, and then over time they slowly but steadily get grayer and grayer hair, then they turn white on their head. Well, I’ve said, look, I have colored my hair for years – you will not see me go gray or turn white in the White House.”

13. Local Democrats aren’t the only ones getting geared up for Campaign 2016. Rhode Island’s recently elected Republican National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick is recruiting party members to join the RI GOP Presidential Election Committee. “The committee will coordinate collecting signatures to get all candidates on the ballot, lay out the process for delegates to the convention, plan Rhode Island’s events for the convention and be conduits for convention attendees,” Sennick tells me. She also predicts “at least one big name will come to Rhode Island.” (As I noted back on April 25, blue-state Republicans matter more than you may realize.)

14. Via Ian Donnis, Bloomberg Business explains how Narragansett Beer “became cool again.”

15. There’s long been speculation that Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence might wind up closing after years of operating in the red. But with a new owner – private-equity-backed Prospect Medical Holdings, which took a majority stake in Fatima parent CharterCARE last year – the future apparently looks brighter for the facility. “Fatima has had a financial turnaround,” CharterCARE CEO Les Schindel declared on this week’s Executive Suite, chalking it up to a new level of coordination and engagement among the medical personnel there. “Now, Fatima’s not making a lot of money,” he acknowledged, “but it’s not losing money any longer.” Unsurprisingly, Schindel is bullish about the prospects (pun intended) for both Fatima and its sister facility, Roger Williams Medical Center, under new ownership. He said CharterCARE is preparing to announce $20 million in capital projects to upgrade both facilities, and has requested state approval to reestablish a maternity ward at Fatima and to add cardiac catheterization and angioplasty services in both locations.

16. A must-read by Clay Shirky“Professors do far less teaching than the public imagines.”

17. Congratulations to Elisabeth Harrison on her appointment this week as Rhode Island Public Radio’s news director. Media is a historically male-dominated industry, but you wouldn’t guess that these days in Rhode Island, where women now run a large number of the state’s newsrooms: The Providence Journal (Karen Bordeleau), WPRI 12 (Karen Rezendes), RIPR (Harrison), ABC 6 (Nicole Moye), The Associated Press (Michelle Smith), The Newport Daily News (Sheila Mullowney), The Valley Breeze (Marcia Green), The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call (Bianca Pavoncello), the Independent Newspapers group (Liz Boardman), Rhode Island Monthly (Sarah Francis), Providence Media (Jeanette St. Pierre) – and I’m sure there are more.

18. Congratulations as well to Duffy & Shanley, the only Rhode Island PR agency to win a Bell Ringer Award from the Publicity Club of New England this week. The firm won nine, including a “Gold Bell” for Yes on 5.

19. “Don’t be a work hero: use all your vacation days.” Amen, Jim Braude!

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – CharterCARE Health Partners President and CEO Les Schindel. 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. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. 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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