Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 18

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. In a sense, Governor Raimondo has now reached a halfway point of her term: two of the four budgets she’ll craft before the 2018 election are complete. Nothing impacts the direction of the ship of state as much as the yearly tax-and-spending plan, and Raimondo has been notably successful in convincing lawmakers to follow her lead. She’s forged productive partnerships with a like-minded speaker in Nick Mattiello – despite tensions between them – and particularly Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. It’s true that governors almost always get much of what they want in the budget; further, Raimondo has benefited from putting forth political winners like tax cuts on energy and unemployment insurance. But other proposals have been heavier lifts – Medicaid cuts, K-12 changes, business subsidies, truck tolls. And it’s also noteworthy what didn’t happen: lawmakers could have piled on after the tourism debacle, but Mattiello in particular held his fire. The governor’s success at the General Assembly has come at a price, though: the woman once lauded for telling hard truths on pensions has largely held her tongue on just about anything that would anger Assembly leaders, from Ray Gallison (“a distraction”) to ethics reform to the line-item veto. That’s no accident. Raimondo and her team have made a calculated decision to prioritize her working relationship with the legislature over scoring political points by speaking out against its excesses, and they cite the recent GE news as an example of how policy wins from that strategy will lead to long-term benefits. (They also point out she refused to make Tim Williamson a judge.) Those who disagree argue Gallison and other scandals aren’t a distraction but rather central to why Rhode Island struggles economically, and they’re frustrated that she doesn’t spend more political capital there. Yet after another generally successful legislative session, Raimondo has little reason to drastically change her approach.

2. For more on what’s in the 2016-17 budget, check out my WPRI.com recap here. The big surprise of course was the $20-million bond referendum for ProvPort, which didn’t get the green light under late last week, after Speaker Mattiello asked Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor to vet the idea. “We took a close look at it and it does seem like it’s a very worthy investment,” Pryor said on this week’s Newsmakers, saying ProvPort is “literally running out of room” and needs to expand to reap the benefits of the Panama Canal expansion project. He also suggested the state’s increased role in managing ProvPort will allow officials to keep a close eye on how the $20 million get spent.

3. Rhode Island will start its 2017-18 budget year in the hole once again. House Fiscal estimates the next budget – the one that will be approved a year from now, for the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2017 – is $184 million in the red under current law.

4. In Massachusetts, state revenue is running up to $750 million behind forecast.

5. The General Assembly was still going strong – well, maybe not strong, but it was still going – when I put this column to bed a bit past 1 a.m. … Friday night’s biggest end-of-session drama appeared to be the House’s 66-6 vote to make it easier for gun owners to get concealed-carry permits; that triggered a late-night lobbying effort by R.I. State Police Col. Steve O’Donnell and Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements to stop the bill in the Senate. … The Senate’s 1 a.m. debate on the budget included multiple defenses of legislative grants, with Harold Metts blaming a “media frenzy over the abuse of a few” for their bad reputation and Elizabeth Crowley declaring: “I will not ever apologize for taking a legislative grant. And I will be after you for more!” (The budget passed 32-3.) … Update: the House cast its final vote for the year at 5:33 a.m., and the Senate followed suit at 6:09 a.m. Steph Machado’s recap is here.

6. The biennial list of General Assembly retirements grew Friday with the announcements that Reps. Dan Reilly and Helio Melo are both stepping down. Reilly, a Republican, is one of the smartest voices in the House and an articulate spokesman for the loyal opposition; his absence will be felt. Melo, a Democrat, may be disappointed that his upward momentum ended when Nick Mattiello replaced Gordon Fox, but he made an impact with his involvement in major legislation such as the 2010 income tax and 2011 pension laws. (Not to mention installing public Wi-Fi at the State House.) As for replacements, Linda Finn is already seeking to win back Reilly’s seat, though it wouldn’t be surprising if Mattiello looked for a different horse to back. Ian Donnis reports Republican Ken Mendonca will also seek Reilly’s seat, while Democrat Helder Cunha will seek Melo’s; Ian also broke the news Joe Trillo will retire rather than take on Evan Shanley.

7. Rep. John Carnevale had a rather rough Monday, waking up to a Projo investigation that killed a budget article of his and hours later fielding questions about whether he even lives in his district once our undercover report aired. The latter controversy has now landed in Mayor Elorza’s lap, with the Providence Board of Canvassers set to take up the question Tuesday. The General Assembly’s public image took another hit Wednesday, when Providence revealed a host of accounting issues at a nonprofit chaired by Rep. Anastasia Williams, triggering the quick cancellation of $437,000 in taxpayer grants. The Journal editorial board thundered that it all shows “a culture of rot in Rhode Island.” No surprise, then, that the proposal to restore Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers passed unanimously Thursday, putting it on the November ballot. Few things seem like more of a lock for voter approval, though the original 1986 vote to create the commission was relatively close, passing 53% to 47%. (And who knows what else will come out between now and then?)

8. “The cost of running for office in America is about to go up — a lot.”

9. Rhode Island hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1984, and it doesn’t look like this will be the year when that changes. The latest evidence: a new Morning Consult survey conducted over recent months that shows Donald Trump with a 67% unfavorable rating among Rhode Island voters. Only two states dislike Trump more than Rhode Island does: Vermont (69%) and Washington (68%). Granted, Hillary Clinton is hardly walking on water either in Rhode Island, with a 58% unfavorable rating locally. But her relatively stronger standing than Trump and the state’s heavy Democratic lean continue to suggest the outcome in November is a fait accompli (barring something shocking).

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10. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse both took part in this week’s high-profile Senate filibuster demanding a vote on new gun restrictions. But not everyone is on board with the specific proposals offered, including a ban on gun sales to individuals investigated by the FBI over terrorism. “Senate Democrats have finally put me in the position of agreeing with the NRA,” liberal blogger Kevin Drum wrote this week. “Nice work, folks.”

11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “For all the hype about the education funding formula being one of the most controversial parts of the state budget, there were few fireworks when the House debated Article 11 this week. In the week leading up to the House vote, you’d have thought the changes lawmakers made to Governor Raimondo’s proposal was going to immediately close every charter school in the state. But a group of 14 independent urban charter school leaders ending up signing a letter of support for the House’s plan to allow districts to reduce charter school tuition by either 7% or by the total cost of a slew of specific expenses charters don’t typically incur rather than the governor’s plan to allow school districts to keep $355 for every student they send to a charter school. And then everything went quiet. In the aftermath, we heard very little from the winners and even less from some of the losers in the budget changes, including Providence, which expects to see a decrease in per-pupil funding thanks to a spike in enrollment. Even with a less predictable funding formula, what is clear is that Raimondo got virtually everything she proposed this year on education, including her plan to provide free SAT exams to high school students, a pre-k expansion, her computer-science course plan and of course, empowerment schools.”

12. Congrats to Dan “Coach” McGowan on his Little League team’s championship!

13. Are Rhode Islanders going to have sticker shock at the Wexford project’s cost to taxpayers? The life-sciences complex on the 195 land is expected to benefit from a budget provision that allows developers to get multiple tranches of Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits worth up to $15 million each. Other Commerce RI incentive programs, including the $25 million fund for the 195 land, could also be tapped for it. The Garrahy parking garage is now tied to it, too. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor wouldn’t put a dollar figure on the likely public investment Wexford during this week’s Newsmakers, saying that would be premature, but seemed to acknowledged it won’t be cheap. “Look, as the governor has said, rightly, on a number of occasions – the earliest deals may be a bit more expensive,” he said. “We do need to do a down payment to ensure long-term returns from the 195 corridor.” Pryor also insisted the project is on track, describing himself as “pleasantly stunned by how quickly it’s moving.”

14. Brookings’ Mark Muro took a look at the GE Digital announcement this week, saying it “hints at potential ways forward for other older industrial cities.” GE executives certainly piled on the praise at their State House press conference, with CFO Jeff Bornstein saying “no state that I’ve interacted with over the last year has done a better job of putting their best foot forward than Rhode Island.” The company, widely expected to set up shop in the Projo building, has clearly given Rhode Island a confidence boost. But will the state be able to capitalize on GE’s presence to build something larger and long-lasting?

15. One local executive who’s not sweating the new truck tolls too much is Cheryl Snead, CEO of supply-chain company Banneker Industries. “I see the pros and cons,” she said on this week’s Executive Suite. “I understand the need to generate revenue, and commerce is a growing industry, so trucks are needed and they’re going to be on the roads and they’re going to utilize our infrastructure and we’re going to have to keep it up. So there is a cost to doing business. But I also understand that it can impact, at the end of the day, the cost of transportation and the cost of goods. … It will impact us, because our trucks move all over the state and all over New England. But at the end of the day, we as a state are moving forward in the right direction in so many ways. I think just the tax reductions we’ve put in place, really recognizing that we’ve got to reinforce what we’re doing in our educational system, and making sure that businesses are competitive and we have the tools and resources – all these things have to happen, and sometimes there is a bitter pill we have to swallow to see improvement. But I do feel good about where we are and where we’re going.”

16. The U.K. votes on Brexit this Thursday, and you should care.

17. WPRI has added a new “substation” – the extra channels that were added after the digital TV transition (like myRITV). Our new addition is getTV, and it’s a fun one for fans of vintage stuff – everything from movies to old variety shows starring Judy Garland and Dick Van Dyke. It’s channel 12.3 over the air, 931 on Comcast, 476 on FiOS and 94 on Full Channel.

18. Don’t forget dear old Dad – Father’s Day is Sunday!

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. This week on Executive Suite – Banneker Industries President and CEO Cheryl Snead. 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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