Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: May 28

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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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. Let’s start this Memorial Day weekend by remembering the names of the Rhode Island service members who’ve lost their lives in the wars since 9/11 – a list that sadly grew to 28 last August, with the death of First Sgt. Andrew McKenna in Afghanistan. Here is the honor roll: Gregory BelangerJoseph CamaraCharles T. CaldwellMichael AndradeSharon T. SwartworthMatthew J. AugustCurtis ManciniRichard L. FergusonMatthew K. SerioChristopher CashJohn J. Van Gyzen IVChristopher S. PottsHolly A. CharetteMatthew S. CoutuDennis J. FlanaganBrian R. St. GermainDale James Kelly Jr.Moises JazminMichael R. WeidemannRonald A. Gill Jr.Francis L. Toner IVKyle J. CoutuMichael F. ParanzinoDennis C. PoulinNickolas D. SchiavoniDennis P. Weichel Jr., Abraham Tarwoe and Andrew McKenna.

2. Should the Rhode Island Ethics Commission start auditing politicians’ personal financial disclosures? The idea is in the air after three high-profile non-disclosure cases this month. First there was ex-Rep. Ray Gallison, who never updated his form to reveal he’d taken over as executive director of a legislative-grant-funded nonprofit that’s now under heavy scrutiny. Then there was Sen. Jamie Doyle, who disclosed heavy personal debts after we flagged them. Now there’s Rep. Anastasia Williams, who faces an ethics complaint for twice failing to list her day job as a source of income. It’s hardly the first time such omissions have made news: the Ethics Commission dinged Gordon Fox for failure to disclose in January 2014 – two months before the State House was raided. It may seem like minor paperwork, but these forms are completed under penalty of perjury; reporters (and voters) rely on them for crucial information. Commission staffers are proud that nearly all officials submit their forms, but the compliance rate is less impressive if accuracy isn’t enforced. The situation may be somewhat akin to what happened with 38 Studios and Mike Corso: his failure to register as a lobbyist in that high-profile case has now spurred an overhaul of the state’s lobbying laws. Would cracking down on Corso have stopped the deal back in 2010? Maybe not, but it could have shed more light on it; the IRS got Al Capone on tax evasion after all. Back in 2013 Governor Chafee proposed auditing at least 10% of all financial disclosures annually, but the bill died in the House Judiciary Committee. “Requiring audits of financial disclosure statements is simply another step in strengthening our disclosure laws,” Common Cause’s John Marion suggested then. The idea is hardly outlandish: Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics already does what Chafee suggested. For now, though, it seems to be up to the media to connect the dots.

3. Speaker Mattiello’s coordinated assault against The Providence Journal on the House floor Tuesday was pretty extraordinary, even more so when Rep. Anastasia Williams quickly widened the critique to include a – correct – WPRI 12 story. (Williams’ speech seemed to be a spontaneous choice on her part, not a Mattiello-sanctioned move.) Rep. Chris Blazejewski – who is now on Mattiello’s leadership team despite backing the wrong horse in the 2014 race for speaker – used an appearance on this week’s Newsmakers to talk up the value of a free press, while arguing The Journal left out key facts in its front-page editorial critiquing absentee lawmakers. “The frustration you saw is that, making sure that all the relevant facts are available to making an evaluation as to the performance of the House Finance Committee and the General Assembly,” he said. But House Minority Leader Brian Newberry lambasted the speeches as “a debacle,” declaring: “It was an embarrassment to the House.” The speeches received wall-to-wall coverage on talk radio and front-page treatment in The Journal, but to some extent they may have backfired on House leadership by focusing more attention on legislative grants and Ethics Commission disclosures.

4. On Newsmakers, Rep. Blazejewski said House leadership is looking at making changes to traditional legislative grants (the small checks cut to little leagues and other favored local causes with the speaker’s permission) though the main focus right now is on fixing the much larger community-service grants program (which is tied to the Ray Gallison scandal). Leader Newberry suggested that if legislative grants must exist – he wants them gone altogether – they should be evenly distributed among the 75 House and 38 Senate districts, while Blazejewski countered that such a system could lead to abuses like those seen in Cianci-era road bonds. But not everyone is trashing legislative grants. Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, spoke up this week to defend the much-maligned program, saying it fulfills Christ’s mandate in Matthew 25:35-40. “As a senator who represents a working-class and poor district, with some parts that have upwards of 30% unemployment, I wish I could get more legislative grants,” he said. “My community relies on me to get as much as I can to help alleviate the pain and suffering of poverty.” Metts has requested $31,500 in legislative grants this fiscal year, including $5,000 for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and $3,000 for Oasis International.

5. A full Rhode Island? Walt Buteau reports on a ruling by Judge Lanphear that lawmakers can’t be arrested when the General Assembly is in session – in a case that has House Majority Leader John DeSimone representing Rep. Tom Palangio before a judge who was a Senate legal counsel for years.

6. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Rhode Island on Friday was a coup for Governor Raimondo in more ways than one. Getting a famous, popular Democrat to come to this heavily blue state and highlight one of her priorities is itself a win. Far bigger, though, was Biden’s unexpected decision to go all-in defending the specifics of RhodeWorks and Raimondo’s truck toll plan, which could use a friend right now. Initially it seemed the VP would simply talk up the benefits of infrastructure and avoid the thorny controversy around tolling, but instead he gave a full-throated endorsement to Raimondo’s approach, even telling her to ignore the truckers who honked their horns in protest outside her State House office. It’s unusual for a national figure to weigh in so decisively on a purely local matter, and it doesn’t happen spontaneously – Biden and his staff clearly devoted significant time to studying RhodeWorks ahead of the speech. If there’s any downside for Raimondo’s team, it’s timing – the visit came on a sunny Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when media consumption is down, so it’s unclear how many voters will see Biden’s remarks.

7. Buddy Cianci’s fiancée is taking his estate to court and seeking millions of dollars as his common-law wife – Kim Kalunian has the story.

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8. When will behind-the-scenes state budget talks wrap up so a compromise tax-and-spending plan can emerge? House and Senate leaders were still conferring Friday, with a goal of having a bill before the House Finance Committee by late next week, though nobody sounded confident yet about whether they’ll meet their self-imposed deadline. One thing to keep an eye on is the tourism campaign – after the rollout debacle and Thursday’s contentious House hearing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the dollars allotted to the effort scaled back.

9. Now that’s a Friday news dump: the state just approved cuts at Memorial Hospital.

10. Back in February, Warwick Rep. Joe Solomon Jr. introduced a bill to allow local beer manufacturers to sell unlimited amounts of their products at their own breweries. The bill got positive media attention, and last week the House passed an amended version of the measure 65-0. There was just one hitch: Solomon’s name wasn’t on the final product. Instead, the House passed a very similar bill introduced in late April by one of Solomon’s original co-sponsors, Woonsocket Rep. Mike Morin. Solomon has been on the outs with House leadership since he voted against the toll legislation (and promptly lost a committee assignment). But the 32-year-old Democrat took the high road during the brief floor debate on Morin’s measure. “I rise in support of this bill because leadership is about accomplishment and not credit,” Solomon said. “I’m proud to say I worked hard to get this issue passed and I’m happy to see it pass today. I hope everyone here will vote for it, and I want to thank Representative Morin for helping.”

11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from Dan McGowan: “Speaking of lawmakers who voted against tolls, Democratic Rep. Ray Hull, who represents Providence and North Providence, is out with a glossy mailer that includes an explanation on why he broke with House leadership on the bill. In it, he explains that he doesn’t believe tolls will generate enough revenue and that the plan needs a ‘fair solution that doesn’t focus on just one industry to pick up the tab.’ Hull, who has served in the House since 2011, said he has ‘no regrets’ about his vote, even though it cost him his position on the House Finance Committee. Hull represents a district that includes Providence’s fifth ward, home to a handful of ambitious political up-and-comers. But no one has signaled plans to challenge him later this year. A Providence Police sergeant, Hull has repeatedly expressed interest in running for mayor of Providence – he explored the idea in 2014 before dropping out to endorse Brett Smiley and then Buddy Cianci – but he’ll seek another term in the House before making that decision in 2018.”

12. On the fast track: a bill to let voters approve $20 million in borrowing by ProvPort.

13. The battle over the Burrillville power plant continues to heat up, as activists keep steady pressure on Governor Raimondo and lawmakers to block the proposal. The governor hasn’t wavered yet, but they’re getting traction in the House, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, is sponsoring a bill to force a voter referendum on the plant. Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who represents a different part of Burrillville, says he hasn’t made up his mind about the plant yet, noting the state has already set up the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board to make such decisions. “It’s not a simple question,” he said on Newsmakers, saying he’s still studying the issue. “Obviously if you’re a neighbor of a power plant, nobody wants to have a power plant built next to them,” he said. “But a lot of the opposition’s also coming from people who oppose power plants in general. I don’t oppose power plants.” The business community sounds increasingly alarmed by the precedent the Keable bill could set, suggesting it could also subject future expansions of T.F. Green or the state landfill to the control of local voters (which residents of those towns probably wouldn’t mind). It’s unclear if private lobbying is going to carry the day in the House, though, considering Keable is a Mattiello ally in a swing district and this is an election year.

14. In Rhode Island, Democrats recently voted to eliminate straight-ticket voting. But in Michigan, Democrats are going to court to protect it.

15. Congressman Cicilline draws blood from the Obama administration on Iran.

16. CVS Pharmacy President Helena Foulkes has had a busy week and a half: first she showed up on Jimmy Kimmel’s program to announce the company is finally reining in its insanely long receipts, then she was elected to the Harvard University Board of Overseers.

17. Providence native Ethan Epstein, now at The Weekly Standard in Washington, is one of the best young political writers Rhode Island has produced. Check out his new Politico Magazine feature on the future of Rush Limbaugh’s radio empire.

18. Don’t miss this amazing Scott Pelley “60 Minutes” piece on the advances Duke University is making against glioblastoma, which Pelley rightly calls “a death sentence of astonishing speed.”

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Minority Leader Brian Newberry and Rep. Chris Blazejewski; Adjutant Gen. Christopher Callahan. This week on Executive Suite – Amica CEO Robert DiMuccio. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 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, Facebook and Instagram

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