Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Nov. 21

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. GE might actually move its headquarters to Rhode Island. Can you believe that? Many Rhode Islanders probably can’t, between the state’s low self-esteem and its long economic woes. Believe it or not, though, it’s become clear GE CEO Jeff Immelt is giving serious consideration to the pitch Governor Raimondo has been making since his company first expressed a desire to depart tax-happy Connecticut. Those close to the talks have stayed extremely tight-lipped, but Connecticut lawmaker John Frey’s comments to the Hartford Courant this week were telling: “Rhode Island wouldn’t surprise me. It’s been expressed to me by a couple of people at GE that they’ve been impressed by what the governor has done with state employee liabilities. … Their feeling is that if she tackled these things … her likelihood of coming back to the corporations for a tax increase are less.” (GE spokesman Seth Martin declined to comment on Rhode Island’s chances.) Luring Thomas Edison’s $300-billion industrial icon over the border would be a massive coup for Raimondo, generating international press coverage about why the nation’s smallest state was the right choice for the eighth-biggest company on the Fortune 500. Don’t forget: Rhode Island now has the lowest corporate tax rate in New England and has lately lowered its income and estate tax rates, as well. For GE’s corporate staff, moving to Rhode Island would be a lot less of a lifestyle change than moving to, say, Texas. And it’s only a short helicopter ride from here to Manhattan. Don’t count your chickens – it’s far from a done deal – but don’t be shocked if GE chooses Rhode Island, either.

2. The most interesting mini-story in Rhode Island’s Syrian refugees debate this week may have been Jim Langevin breaking with President Obama (and David Cicilline) on Thursday to back the House GOP bill on the matter. Langevin has always been a relatively moderate Democrat – he’s still avowedly pro-life, after all – and he serves on two committees, Armed Services and Homeland Security, that lend themselves to hawkishness on national security. Nevertheless, it was a striking break with liberal orthodoxy during a week when many on the left were comparing the present treatment of Syrians with that of German Jews in the 1930s. And the backlash was swift. “Objectively speaking, I know we’ve seen bigger betrayals from most elected Democratic politicians in Rhode Island,” Sam Bell of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats wrote on Facebook. “But I still find Congressman Langevin’s vote for the GOP’s disgustingly racist anti-refugee bill nothing short of revolting.” Added Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg (whose grandfather escaped the Nazis by seeking refuge in the Philippines): “SMH Congressman Jim Langevin – your vote was a disgrace to the state Roger Williams founded, and you know it.” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, by contrast, publicly thanked Langevin for his vote. Progressives have failed to defeat Langevin in the past despite their frustrations with him, and he appears to have public opinion on his side. He argued the GOP bill “will provide a reasonable new layer of assurance,” and defended his support for it: “I do not believe that protecting our national security precludes us from showing compassion to the refugees fleeing unspeakable violence and oppression in Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones.”

3. Hopkinton Sen. Elaine Morgan released this statement Friday in a bid to defuse the national controversy over her email on refugees. One question now: does this do any political damage to Morgan, who could face a 2016 rematch against Democrat Catherine Cool Rumsey in a presidential year, which means higher Democratic turnout?

4. Senator Morgan’s week in the headlines shines a spotlight on Rhode Island’s very tiny Senate Republican caucus, which is down to four members after the sudden retirement of Chris Ottiano (unless you count independent Ed O’Neill). Westerly Republican Dennis Algiere has been Senate minority leader for nearly 19 years now, but his style and views are quite different from his three remaining GOP colleagues, none of whom were in office before 2010: Morgan, Nick Kettle and Mark Gee. To take one example, Algiere was the only one of the four who voted for Governor Raimondo’s truck-toll proposal last June; he even served on Raimondo’s transition team last fall. He also has a strong working relationship with Teresa Paiva Weed and other Senate Democratic leaders, something they would argue benefits the minority caucus but that can frustrate conservatives who want to see stronger opposition in the chamber. It will be interesting to see how much longer Kettle, Gee and Morgan want to be led by Algiere; all eyes will be on Kettle if there’s real appetite for a change.

5. Governor Raimondo’s first-ever approval rating: 46%. While the polling methodology used was unorthodox – the survey of 411 voters was conducted over the course of six months – the results don’t look unreasonable. It will be interesting to see what her numbers look like in the first traditional poll that eventually tabulates them.

6. Rhode Island’s health care landscape is undergoing some big changes as 2015 winds down. The week’s biggest announcement was the proposed hospital merger between Care New England and New Bedford’s Southcoast Health System, which would create a regional giant with more revenue and employees than Lifespan – and, depending on where their new headquarters ends up, could see an independent Rhode Island-based company subsumed into a Massachusetts-based one. That’s a worry for Rhode Island policymakers like Governor Raimondo and Senator Whitehouse, who don’t want the state’s top health providers to become arms of bigger Boston groups; the merged group could be a juicy takeover target for, say, Partners. It’s also a worry for Lifespan, which Care New England spurned despite political pressure (and which Care New England CEO Dennis Keefe hinted to me did not exactly present itself as an appealing partner). Separately, there was the news that Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island is outsourcing its IT functions, a move that will impact one-third of its work force – and an admission that the local insurer doesn’t have the resources it needs to keep up with necessary technology investments. On a smaller scale, this week’s Executive Suite featured Home Care & Hospice of New England CEO Diana Franchitto talking about her group’s coming merger with Cape Cod’s HopeHealth – which, as with Care New England-Southcoast, is an effort to create a sizable organization that cuts across the state borders of southeastern New England. “This kind of consolidation is happening all over the country – it’s actually been a little slower to happen in the Northeast, and New England in particular,” Keefe told me Monday. “The incentives in the Affordable Care Act, in Obamacare, have really created this really strong need to develop scale.”

7. Treasurer Magaziner showed this week he’s not afraid to make some big changes at Treasury. The first was a bit of a foregone conclusion: the post-38 Studios replacement of First Southwest (and with it, the highly influential Maureen Gurghigian) as the state’s financial adviser. The other was more of a surprise: the replacement of AllianceBernstein as the company in charge of Rhode Island’s huge 529 plan, the CollegeBoundfund. While AllianceBernstein has come under criticism for the plan’s fees and performance, the company had bureaucratic inertia in its favor after 15 years running the plan. But Magaziner’s team decided the offer from Invesco and Ascensus, including a new 35-person Rhode Island office, was too good to pass up.

8. Keep an eye on the drama at Brown University, part of a larger national wave of student unrest at campuses across the country. The latest salvos came this week, when a group of graduate students put out a list of demands that included cracking down on academic departments with an “anti-Black pedagogy.” That led to a sharp rebuke from prominent Brown economist Glenn Loury, who is black himself; he declared that the students’ demands are “a step onto a slippery slope that slides down into intellectual mediocrity, and I will have nothing to do with them.” The Daily Beast’s Emily Shire also published a harsh critique of Brown’s student protesters. Suffice to say this probably wasn’t the sort of atmosphere Christina Paxson was hoping for when she kicked off the university’s $3-billion capital campaign last month.

9. Alon Levy says 95% cost savings are possible on the $290-billion Northeast Corridor rail upgrade plan if advocates push back at policymakers, which could open the door to high-speed rail service in many places. “It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control,” he writes.

10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “How serious is Governor Raimondo treating this week’s PARCC results? ‘It’s like ‘Truth in Numbers,’’ Raimondo said Friday, referring to the 2011 report she released on the state’s pension system that paved the way for a dramatic overhaul. Raimondo made it clear she believes the poor scores – 36% of Rhode Island students are on grade level in English and 25% are on track in math – ‘just confirms what the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] or the remediation rates at CCRI tell us.’ She acknowledged that there’s a good chance Rhode Island students will see natural improvement on the exam as they get more comfortable taking it on computers, but said that doesn’t explain results ‘that make you want to cry.’ Despite the concern, Raimondo isn’t fully committing to using PARCC results as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2020. (Even with no cut score in place yet, various groups are already calling for the state to avoid tying a high-school diploma to PARCC.) Raimondo said she believes the PARCC results are accurate and said it would be a ‘big mistake’ if the General Assembly attempts to take some kind of action against the test this year, but also said she agrees with Education Commissioner Ken Wagner that students should have the option of using multiple assessments to prove they are college- or career-ready by the 12th grade.”

11. Don’t miss Dan McGowan’s 12 things you should know about the PARCC scores.

12. Congratulations and best wishes to Seth Larson, who is leaving as Senator Whitehouse’s communications director to take a job with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. Seth – a Rhode Island native who’s been with Whitehouse since the senator’s 2006 campaign – is consistently hardworking, conscientious, good-humored and gracious. He understood what all good communications staffers do: the politician may pay your salary, but you really work for the reporters. (Just kidding! Sort of.) Good luck to Caleb Gibson, Whitehouse’s longtime deputy communications director, who is now stepping into Larson’s shoes.

13. Check out this cool project – with some great vintage photographs – on the late Rhode Island Congressman John Fogarty, once described by historian Patrick Conley as having “had more impact on the world than any other Rhode Island political figure.” (Side note: the Providence College archivist mentioned in that article, Matthew J. Smith, also served as Rhode Island’s House speaker from 1980 to 1988.)

14. No surprise that Rhode Island’s own Ian Prior, now working for conservative advocacy group American Crossroads, went out of his way to knock Hillary Clinton for holding a fundraiser at the NFL’s Deflategate law firm.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a heated debate between Reps. Mike Chippendale and Aaron Regunberg over Syrian refugees in Rhode Island; South Kingstown Superintendent Dr. Kristen Stringfellow on her town’s PARCC scores. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Home Care & Hospice of New England President and CEO Diana Franchitto. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio 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. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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