Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: July 4

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. Happy Fourth of July! Check out Fred Astaire’s tap dance with live firecrackers.

2. As Gina Raimondo starts her seventh month as governor, her team is feeling generally positive about their execution so far. Despite the session’s surprising conclusion, the General Assembly went along with many of the governor’s ideas, particularly in the budget. “Now,” Raimondo told me after the signing ceremony Tuesday, “we’ve got to implement it.” At the top of her agenda: acting on the budget’s 34 Medicaid cost-control initiatives. Few people disagree with the general push to pay providers based on quality of care rather than quantity, but New York’s experience shows the shift can be challenging to execute. The financial rewards could be enormous, though: Rhode Island’s Medicaid spending topped $2 billion in 2013-14, and nearly half that money went to the hospitals and nursing facilities now being pushed to improve. Health and Human Services spokesman Mike Raia said roughly two-thirds of the Medicaid initiatives need federal approval, and so far the administration has put together 45 work plans to carry out specific projects related to them. The other post-budget priority Raimondo mentioned to me: rolling out Commerce RI’s new economic development tools. “We’ve actually already started talking with some real estate developers who are interested,” the governor said. It will be interesting to see how soon a major project is announced – and how much state money the administration will award the developer behind it.

3. It didn’t get much attention at the signing ceremony, but the formal enshrining of the pension settlement as part of the budget bill was a momentous event. Pocketing $4 billion in savings with no fear of a court setback is a major financial coup for taxpayers. Governor Raimondo declared Tuesday that the settlement provides “security for all taxpayers in the state of Rhode Island, not for a year or two, but for decades to come.” Its provisions took effect July 1. Key to the revamp is a risk shift – the creation of a 401k-style hybrid plan and the new COLA formula tied to investment returns mean retirees will bear part of the burden for market losses. Yet even with this deal in place the state’s pension shortfall is nearly $5 billion, almost exactly what it was (on paper) when Raimondo took office.

4. With the regular legislative session now over, there’s an interesting tug of war happening between House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. The public spotlight is on their fight over tolls, but it’s about more than that – Paiva Weed and many senators are trying to send a message to Mattiello that their chamber is an equal partner in the legislative process, and that they won’t be pushed around. Hence Paiva Weed’s insistence that the Senate won’t follow the speaker’s lead and return for a fall session to revise the toll proposal (or to approve a new PawSox stadium proposal, if one exists by then). That’s where things get really interesting. If the House does approve its own toll plan, there could be significant pressure on Paiva Weed – from Raimondo, union leaders and others – to back down and bring back the Senate to push it through. Kicking the issue to the new year is certainly an option, but then it would need to pass the House for a second time, too. What will the Senate do?

5. Kim Kalunian investigates why Rhode Island is one of the few states with no governor’s mansion.

6. Should Rhode Island move up its last-in-the-nation September primary election? Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea thinks so, and she’s floating the idea to other elected officials. “I think that’s definitely something we should look at,” Gorbea said on this week’s Newsmakers, suggesting the new primary day “could be anytime between the spring and the summer.” Many other states hold their primaries in May or June, but Rhode Island’s has been on the second Tuesday in September ever since the law creating direct primary elections was enacted in 1947. Gorbea cited military voters as one of the reasons to hold the primary sooner. “That’s a really tight timeframe between the primary and the general election to get ballots out to military folks, and to have them engaged,” she said. Incumbents lawmakers who’ve won under the old system may not have an appetite for change, though.

7. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien and Colin Kane’s Peregrine Group are holding a news conference Tuesday morning to announce Peregrine’s proposal to develop the 11-acre riverfront site on Division Street that was previously supposed to become a Hampton Inn hotel. The Valley Breeze’s Ethan Shorey offered a preview back in March, and Jef Nickerson looked at the property’s troubled history back in 2009.

8. Providence NAACP President Jim Vincent is a strikingly upbeat guy for someone who’s spent a decade in sometimes uphill battles over civil rights as the leader of that organization and the Urban League before it. “I’m an optimist,” Vincent explained on this week’s Newsmakers. “I like to think that we can move forward together and have things change in a much more positive way. I don’t think that we’re at a point where we should just give up on the country because too many white folks, let’s say, don’t understand the history of this country.” Vincent cited last month’s extraordinary repudiation of the Confederate Flag across the south as evidence of progress. “You can’t just throw up your hands and just give up and say, ‘Look, America is racist, it’s never going to change,’ and go home,” he said. “If that was the case, I wouldn’t be part of the NAACP. But by definition, my fighting these battles is because I do believe that there is a chance for change, and that’s why I fight the battle each and every day.” Read Tim White for details on Vincent’s push to increase the diversity of Rhode Island’s judiciary and its law-enforcement agencies.

9. Striking statistic No. 1: there is only one Rhode Island manufacturer left that employs more than 1,000 workers, according to the Department of Labor and Training.

10. Striking statistic No. 2: the tax rate on apartment buildings is $12.11 in Boston but $36.75 in Providence, according to PBN.

11. Striking statistic No. 3: Rhode Island has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio of any state, according to The Wall Street Journal. (Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire rank second, third and fourth.)

12. Harvard’s Ed Glaesar, one of the world’s leading urban economists, offers some advice for Providence and other medium-sized cities: “There are certainly plenty of thriving mid-size cities and the key is to work on the quality of life front and to work on the skills front. Skills are really the thing that differentiates the successful mid-size cities from those that are less successful.” A few of his favorite Sun Belt examples: Charlotte, Austin, Raleigh-Durham. “It’s a very powerful model of being both pro-business and pro-education. Much of old America tends to be either pro-business or pro-education, but not both.”

13. Another leading economist, French “Capital in the 21st Century” author Thomas Piketty, offered a noteworthy word of caution in an FT interview while discussing politicians who want to hike top tax rates: “France is a smaller country than the US. Headquarters can easily move to Amsterdam. You’ve got to be careful.” Good advice for Rhode Island policymakers, too.

14. Christine Hunsinger, former aide to Ken Block and Lincoln Chafee, is serving as a consultant for the Draft Biden campaign, overseeing field and communications. Hunsinger has a long history with the VP: she worked for his 1988 presidential campaign, too. As Ian Donnis reports, another Rhode Islander with ties to the old Moderate Party – William Pierce – is the group’s executive director.

15. In The Journal of the American Medical Association, Providence College’s Bob Hackey scrutinizes the cost of HealthSource RI and other Obamacare marketplaces.

16. A look inside the closed, deteriorating Episcopal Cathedral of St. John on North Main Street in Providence.

17. The Boston Globe’s Eric Wilbur comes to the defense of McCoy Stadium.

18. From The Washington Post, a piece on what American pundits get wrong about China.

19. Why the Puritans who founded New England may deserve a better reputation.

20. Brown’s Ted Widmer asks an intriguing question: “Did the American Civil War Ever End?”

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea; NAACP Providence President Jim Vincent. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Honey Dew Donuts founder and CEO Richard Bowen. 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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