Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 4

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. Barring a major snafu, the state budget should make its big debut next week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday. Legislative leaders had hoped they might wrap up talks this past week, with an eye on closing out the Assembly session by mid-June, but negotiations seem to be proceeding more slowly than expected amid bickering over thorny issues. One bone of contention is an old perennial: tax cuts. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello remains a strong advocate of lowering a range of taxes, while Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed wants to be more selective, always eyeing the impact to social services. A cut for military pensions seems like a lock – Paiva Weed represents Newport, after all – but it’s more uncertain whether, say, the corporate minimum tax will be lowered again. Another hot topic: Commerce RI. The House clearly wants to slap Governor Raimondo on the wrist over tourism, which will likely mean a cut in funding for the statewide campaign, yet legislators don’t want to abandon the new effort altogether. Funding for the other Commerce RI programs – pools of money handed out largely at Secretary Stefan Pryor’s discretion – remains a top priority for Raimondo, but there’s no masking the fact impatient legislators think they’ve seen few tangible results so far. On legislative grants, Mattiello and Pavia Weed have called a news conference for Monday to announce changes to the community-service grants program tied to former Rep. Ray Gallison, but it will be a surprise if they touch traditional legislative grants (little leagues and such). There’s intense debate around education, too, not only on Raimondo’s empowerment-schools proposal but also the eternal battle over charters. In the big scheme of things lawmakers usually have two priorities for an election-year budget: hand out some goodies, and don’t get anybody too mad. Watch for the final plan to try and meet those two goals.

2. As mentioned here last week, an issue that’s risen near the top of the Assembly agenda is the proposed Burrillville power plant. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Cale Keable’s bill forcing a town referendum on the facility cleared committee this week, and it’s likely to pass the full House considering Keable is a Speaker Mattiello lieutenant nervous about his re-election. That would put the issue in the lap of Senate President Paiva Weed, facing cross pressures from organized labor and the establishment business community (to block it) and from Burrillville Sen. Paul Fogarty and environmentalists (to pass it). The company behind the plant, Invenergy, didn’t expect to be playing defense against Mattiello considering he supported the plant a few months ago; they clearly misjudged how potent community opposition would be at the State House. Invenergy has now bought a full-page ad in Sunday’s Journal arguing the legislation is “a job killer and sends the wrong message,” and is banking on a veto by Governor Raimondo as its last line of defense. Burrillville is already unfriendly territory for Raimondo – she placed third there in 2014, behind Bob Healey as well as Allan Fung – and vetoing the bill probably won’t help that.

3. Four years ago, just after 38 Studios collapsed, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ralph Mollis dismissed my question about why the company hadn’t registered anyone to lobby Rhode Island government, saying they had “no evidence or allegations of any such activities by 38 Studios.” Two years later, Mollis did an about-face after Tim White and I reported on Mike Corso’s lucrative contracts with the company – only for his successor, Nellie Gorbea, to later declare the underlying statute too toothless to enforce. At the time Gorbea pledged to fix the lobbying laws, and she’s now poised to make good on that promise, with a bill heading to the governor’s desk this week. “I believe very strongly that had this law been in place we would have definitely had a legal path for investigating and determining whether somebody was lobbying without registering,” Gorbea said on this week’s Newsmakers.

4. In one Florida county, lobbyists now have to register – for each of their meetings.

5. The revelations about former Rep. Ray Gallison’s problem-plagued nonprofit – which, among other things, stands accused of providing false board member names to the secretary of state – shined a light on what seems to be a bit of a Wild West when it comes to registration of such groups in Rhode Island. Under state law, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office has the authority to question nonprofits about their filings, but Gorbea suggested on this week’s Newsmakers that she doesn’t see a major role for her office in policing them. “I don’t have investigatory powers granted to me under law,” she said, adding: “We’re really just a filing cabinet.” Gorbea went on to say no one in her office has the ability to look into whether the nonprofit filings are accurate, and suggested it is more the job of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office. (For what it’s worth, though, a spokeswoman for Kilmartin recently told me the AG’s oversight of nonprofits is largely limited to the work of its Charitable Trust Unit – chiefly ensuring deceased donors’ wishes are carried out.)

6. Brown University gets a D+ in Nate Silver’s new pollster rankings.

7. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “With Providence preparing to finalize its $717-million budget in the next two weeks, city officials are still in the dark about how much support they’ll get from the state. Here’s what we know. Mayor Elorza asked the state for the ability to tax colleges and hospitals and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. The tax legislation is unlikely and the licenses are dead for this year. Both the administration and City Council are making a late push for a $20-million bond question for ProvPort; the Senate is on board, but the House isn’t sold yet. City officials are also closely monitoring education funding, in part because they are strongly relying on the governor’s proposal to create a funding stream for English language learners. Two months ago, it appeared as though ELL funding would be a no-brainer, but city leaders are convinced it isn’t a done deal yet. The other concern is over the governor’s proposal to require districts to increase the local appropriation of education dollars by at least the rate of inflation beginning in the 2017-18 school year, but it’s unclear if any changes will be made. (Remember, the mayor’s budget proposal level-funds education from the city side for a seventh consecutive year.) For the first time in three years, the city’s proposed budget is not counting on any funding that wasn’t already in the governor’s proposed budget. What the administration can’t afford is any cuts to the governor’s plan.”

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8. All of a sudden Providence has a lot of hotels in the pipeline: a Marriott Residence Inn, a Best Western, a Homewood Suites, another extended-stay, and the high-profile Le Méridien proposed by developer Dick Galvin as part of the Wexford 195 land project. That would be hundreds of new hotel rooms in Providence – but is there enough demand to make them profitable? Officials with the city and the local tourism bureau couldn’t provide any studies showing projected hotel demand. Rachel Roginsky, of the consulting firm Pinnacle Advisory Group, said she was not aware of any such forecasts, either, and further cautioned that “proposals do not necessarily translate into actual construction.” Indeed – it will be interesting to see how many of these projects really get built.

9. Common Cause chief John Marion, who keeps a closer eye on Rhode Island government than just about anybody, has been tweeting about a bill requested by the Raimondo administration to change the Administrative Procedures Act. Asleep yet? I can’t blame you – if you were trying to come up with a generic name for dry legislation, it’s hard to top “Administrative Procedures Act.” So I asked John what has his attention: “There’s a bill moving through the Assembly (S 3015; H 7395) that hasn’t drawn much attention – OK, any attention – that rewrites the entire rule-making portion of the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. In English that means the law governing how red tape is made is about to improve dramatically. These are the first significant update in decades, and will result in a much more transparent process. Ultimately this will help citizens who want to participate in the process of rule-making, and businesses who must comply with the regulations government adopts.”

10. As the debate over RhodeWorks continues, don’t miss this Boston Globe op-ed about bridge repairs penned by former Harvard President and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers. He looks at the “glacial pace” of a bridge-rehabilitation project that began in 2012 and warns: “Delay … is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines.” Governor Raimondo and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti will want to give Summers’ lessons a close look.

11. A simmering story that remains somewhat under the radar for Rhode Island political insiders: the glacial pace of tax refund payments. My colleague Susan Campbell, our consumer investigator, has been tracking the issue for months (and fielding umpteen calls about it). Now the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, West Warwick Rep. Patricia Serpa, has decided to make the refund delays the first topic the panel tackles under her leadership, with a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

12. Tom Angell tells the story of how the Rhode Island Senate almost passed a resolution celebrating the wrong person as the state’s first medical marijuana patient – overlooking Angell’s mom, who suffers from MS.

13. Then-Speaker Gordon Fox’s package of post-38-Studios economic-development reforms included the creation of a Council of Economic Advisers to advise the governor, along the lines of the same-named group that advises the president. RIPEC, which proposed the idea, had broad ambitions for the group, seeing it as a central point for the collection and analysis of nonpartisan economic data. The council held its first meeting in October 2014 – then only two more in the year and a half since. Now Commerce RI has decided it doesn’t want a Council of Economic Advisers at all: the agency has filed a bill, still pending, to eliminate it. In an email, Commerce spokeswoman Kayla Rosen noted that some members of the Council of Economic Advisers are also on the Economic Development Planning Council. “We are focused on making government more efficient and there are currently multiple existing and overlapping groups performing these functions,” she said.

14. Speaking of Commerce RI, the agency recently won a second grant from the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment to build up defense manufacturing in Rhode Island. The new grant – at $2.9 million, nearly twice as large as the initial one – will fund establishment of an Innovation Center for Design and Manufacturing (ICDM) dubbed STEAM ENGINE USA. “The ICDM will bring together many of Rhode Island’s strengths – science, technology, and industrial design – to propel innovation and business growth,” Commerce spokeswoman Kayla Rosen said in an email.

15. With Treasurer Magaziner promising a full review of Rhode Island’s pension investments, scrutiny of the state’s big bet on hedge funds is only likely to increase. Magaziner has already signaled his concern about how the hedge funds performed in the market downturn earlier this year, and the FT recently labeled them “overpriced” and “underperforming.”

16. Monday is the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings in France during World War II. Check out this old story of mine about how D-Day unfolded in Attleboro.

17. So much for President Obama’s promises of transparency.

18. Will the Boston Herald survive?

19. Brilliant: the blog 3eanuts removes the last panel from Peanuts comic strips, and their existential angst is fully revealed.

20. Mazel tov to Mike Raia, Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokesman and Friar fanatic, on the birth this week of his baby boy, Reid.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea; Providence City Council Majority Leader Bryan Principe. This week on Executive SuiteChristian Cowan, director, Polaris MEP; Kevin Cunningham, founder, Spirare Surfboards. 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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