Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Jan. 9

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 disclosure of gantry locations this week seemed to signal that Rhode Island’s seven-month debate over tolling might finally be heading into the homestretch. Democratic legislative leaders certainly sound ready to end the discussion and roll out a compromise bill; Speaker Mattiello suggested a vote could happen this month, and Senate President Paiva Weed told me she’s “confident” it will happen within weeks. If the issue hasn’t been resolved by next month’s President’s Day recess, it will likely mean something has gone off the rails again – which can’t be ruled out after what happened last year. Speaker Mattiello remains the one to watch, since if it were up to Raimondo and Pavia Weed the toll bill would have passed long ago. While the public debate has focused heavily on tolls, the borrowing proposed by Raimondo remains a bigger sticking point among the negotiators, with Mattiello now floating a GARVEE bond as an alternative to a revenue bond. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Josh Barro had an interesting take on the truckers’ survey showing 77% of them will alter routes if tolls are put up: “Isn’t that a fine outcome? The state gets revenue, or it gets less traffic and lower maintenance costs.” Justin Katz among others countered by noting that Raimondo’s plan – which ties bond payments to toll revenue – complicates the equation. All the more reason for state leaders to bring out new legislation soon so the public can vet the details.

2. Local Republicans had a real spring in their step after John Pagliarini’s surprise win over Jim Seveney in Tuesday’s Senate District 11 special election. Smartly, conservatives immediately moved to characterize the vote as a referendum on truck tolls that should strike fear into the hearts of Assembly Democrats weighing RhodeWorks. There’s no doubt Pagliarini made his opposition to tolling a key part of his campaign pitch (“two words: no tolls,” he said on Newsmakers last week) but word out of the East Bay is that it would be a mistake to attribute his victory entirely to one issue, since he also did well energizing pro-life and gun-rights voters. (Rhode Island Right to Life and Mike Stenhouse’s Gaspee Project both spent money to help him.) Once Pagliarini is sworn in Wednesday, it will be interesting to see how he changes the dynamic in the Senate GOP and what it means for Dennis Algiere’s future.

3. Mark your calendars for the release of two economic studies that are likely to provide a window into the Raimondo administration’s future plans. On Monday, real-estate consultancy HR&A Advisors will provide the I-195 Commission with its analysis of how the old highway land should be used. Then a week from Tuesday, on Jan. 19, the Brookings Institution will drop its much-anticipated study on how the state should approach economic development. The report, dubbed “Restart Rhode Island: A Competitiveness Strategy for the Ocean State,” will be unveiled at a Rhode Island Foundation event that will feature remarks by Governor Raimondo and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. Brookings’ Mark Muro teased the findings on Twitter this week by highlighting Rhode Island’s #14 ranking on Bloomberg’s new State Innovation Index list: “RI looks OK at #14 but can do better; we’ll say how soon.” (Biggest surprise on that index to me: Rhode Island ranks #3 in high-tech density, behind only Massachusetts and California.)

4. With tonight’s Powerball jackpot soaring past $800 million, an interesting stat from consumer-research group Value Penguin: Rhode Islanders buy the highest number of lottery tickets per capita in the country.

5. If it weren’t for tolls, it seems clear what the biggest topic of debate at the General Assembly would be as 2016 kicks off: charter schools. The abrupt collapse of last year’s session saved charters from a legislative reckoning, but they may not be so lucky this year. The House has already scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on Rep. Patricia Serpa’s bill to require charters to win approval from municipal councils. Another newly filed bill, Rep. Jay O’Grady’s H7066, would require “an affirmative finding that the proposed school or the proposed expansion would not have a detrimental effect on the finances and/or the academic performance of the sending districts.” Charters’ biggest defender on Smith Hill, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, had harsh words for such proposals on this week’s Newsmakers. “The whole approach here is disturbing,” he said. “It’s a hoax. And it’s built on untruths, half-truths and some misinformation.” Charters have a friend in Governor Raimondo, but how much will she be willing – and able – to fight for them this session?

6. Havas PR, one of the three firms sharing the $4.5-million contract to run Rhode Island’s new statewide tourism campaign, has announced a “Team Rhody” group to do the work at its office in Providence: Linda Descano, Angela Carrasco, Rebecca Keister, Hadley Duncan, Nicole Tutalo, Taylor Jeffrey and Alicia Jannitto. Small world: Havas confirmed Jeffrey is related to Bob Jeffrey, the Rhode Island native and former JWT CEO who’s served as an unpaid adviser to Governor Raimondo.

7. Steven Costantino’s testimony about 38 Studios on Thursday is likely to make for good theater, though it remains to be seen whether the former Providence lawmaker will offer any really revelatory information about the failed deal. The oversight hearings could still bear fruit in other ways, though. There’s a growing appetite on Smith Hill to take some sort of action around how the state manages its debt, partly in light of the issues raised by Treasurer Magaziner. And it’s not impossible that this session lawmakers will heed Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s suggestions for lobbying reform in the wake of the Mike Corso controversy.

8. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “It took all of one year in office for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to lose both his superintendent of schools and school board president – and neither left on good terms. Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi resigned in May, only four months after the mayor extended her contract and saying she ‘shares my vision’ for the city’s schools. On her way out the door, Lusi expressed frustration with the burdensome role city government has long played in the school district. But those close to her say she simply didn’t see eye to eye with administration officials who had little experience in urban education. School Board President Keith Oliveira, whom Elorza reappointed to a three-year term earlier this year, was more direct when he announced his resignation this week. He said the administration’s ‘persistent interference’ with both the board and the school department is what drove his decision. Oliveira has been vocal about his frustration with the mayor over school budget issues – and is frequently mentioned as a possible Elorza opponent in 2018 – and had little chance of remaining board president. So where does the mayor go from here? It will start with putting his own people in place. Board Vice President Nick Hemond is expected to be voted president next week (with Oliveira’s backing), a choice the administration strongly supports. While Hemond backed Buddy Cianci in the mayor’s race last year, officials in Elorza’s office have repeatedly told me they’re impressed with how supportive he’s been and how committed he is to working with the mayor to improve the city’s schools. Then comes the superintendent. Interim Supt. Chris Maher is widely considered the favorite to take over the permanent leadership role, but the city has tapped Illinois-based ECRA Group to assist with the search process. A final decision is expected to be made in the spring.”

9. December was a big month for gun sales in Rhode Island.

10. The fight over how Rhode Island invests its state pension money isn’t going away. The progressive writer David Sirota dropped a lengthy International Business Times piece this week raising concerns about how the state could be harmed by fine print in its deals with hedge funds and other types of alternative investments. That came just a few days after Treasurer Magaziner’s office confirmed the state is going to have to wait to get back all its money from the troubled hedge fund Claren Road – a reminder that while Gina Raimondo will always be a key figure in the investments debate, the issue is now Magaziner’s on a day-to-day basis. Magaziner spokesman David Ortiz argued the strategy hasn’t been given enough time to show whether it works. He said that between July and November the global stock market fell 3.2% but Rhode Island’s hedge funds fell about 1.8%, “saving millions of dollars at a time of great market uncertainty.”

11. Want to run for president? Your moment is almost at hand, at least in Rhode Island. Would-be White House occupants can file to be a candidate in the state’s presidential primary from Jan. 21 to Jan. 23; the primary itself is April 26.

12. Another sign, perhaps, of Rhode Island’s growing food economy: sales at the state’s restaurants and bars jumped by more than $300 million from 2011 to 2014, hitting $2.3 billion, the Division of Taxation reports.

13. The number of miles driven in Rhode Island hit a new low in 2014.

14. Rhode Island leads the nation with an 80% drop in its uninsured rate.

15. Economist Bob Gordon suggests how policymakers can improve the economy.

16. Juliette Kayyem: The U.S. approach to disaster management is, well, a disaster.

17. A must-read Globe Magazine piece: “10 years later, did the Big Dig deliver?”

18. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell on his vision for the region’s second-largest city.

19. Is the conventional wisdom about how to lose weight all wrong?

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee; freelance journalist Philip Eil on his FOIA fight. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Frank Galleshaw III, owner and president, Wright’s Farm Restaurant; Dr. John Luo, founder and president, Doctor’s Choice. 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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