Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 10

The Saturday Morning Post | Quick hits on politics and more in RI

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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. Governor Raimondo once again starts off in the hole as she puts together her 2017-18 budget, due next month: legislative analysts estimate the shortfall she has to address is now about $112 million, down from the summertime estimate of $185 million but still in the red. As always, spending is rising faster than revenue – reasons include recent rounds of tax cuts, the scheduled K-12 spending increases from the school funding formula, and perennial structural issues. But that’s just the beginning of the conversation. Speaker Mattiello has already signaled he wants to put roughly $40 million into eliminating the car tax over each of the next five years, and that’s a nonnegotiable priority for him, as he tells my colleague Danielle North in an upcoming story. (He also made campaign promises to cut taxes further on estates and retirement income.) Then from the left, there are calls to make sure state money is available to offset any cuts in federal funding that D.C. Republicans enact for programs such as Medicaid. Plus, Raimondo surely has budget priorities of her own (including a higher minimum wage). They’ll be burning the midnight oil in the executive branch over the next few weeks, if they’re not already.

2. Two of Rhode Island’s 16 newly elected lawmakers – Democratic Sen.-elect Jeanine Calkin and GOP Rep.-elect Ken Mendonca – joined us on this week’s Newsmakers to share their plans, and they found some bipartisan common ground. Both said they support further reducing taxes on retirement income – military pensions are a particularly big deal in Mendonca’s East Bay district – and both said they oppose truck tolls. Calkin, a staunch progressive who was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders, said she would have broken with most of her Democratic colleagues and voted against the toll law if she’d been in the General Assembly at the time. “I think when it comes to ways to finance things like RhodeWorks, we need to be smart about it and look at some better alternatives,” she said. “We have a lot of corporations that, in my opinion, we give these tax breaks – at the end of the day someone’s got to pay for those tax breaks, and putting tolls on trucks – I think there’s a lot of people who are concerned about those being pushed to be taxed on cars, as well.” Mendonca suggested money for infrastructure should be found elsewhere in the $9-billion state budget. The pair disagreed sharply on other issues, though, like whether Rhode Island should legalize marijuana or how the state should approach the incoming Trump administration.

3. Governor Raimondo will be in New York City on Monday for what her staff describes as “a series of economic development meetings,” followed by a campaign fundraiser. No further details right now. (As an aside, Goldman Sachs exec Gary Cohn – who was in Rhode Island in March for the 10,000 Small Businesses announcement, and whose wife is vice-chair of the board at RISD – is slated to get a top economic job in the Trump administration.)

4. The Wexford project will go before the I-195 Commission on Monday.

5. Speaker Mattiello may have just run the most expensive state legislative race in Rhode Island history. He spent $265,000 out of his campaign account from July 1 through Dec. 5, and though not all the money went to his own race, a sizable portion of it did. Some perspective: Speaker Fox spent about $90,000 against Mark Binder in 2012; Speaker Murphy spent about $79,000 against Patricia Morgan in 2004; Speaker Harwood spent about $90,000 against Bruce Bayuk in 2002; and Patrick Kennedy spent about $88,000 against John Skeffington back in 1988. Bump all those numbers up a bit for inflation, and Mattiello’s spending still looks much higher. (Mattiello spent another $73,000 out of his PAC from July 1 through Sept. 30, too.) Mattiello opponent Steve Frias spent about $34,000, so in the end Frias was outspent nearly 8-to-1. Mattiello is already moving to replenish his coffers: he raised $80,000 in recent weeks, much of it at his well-attended Dec. 1 fundraiser. (Among the speaker’s donors: former R.I. State Police Col. Brendan Doherty, the one-time GOP congressional candidate who’s now a Democrat.)

6. Alaska just adopted automatic voter registration. Will Rhode Island follow suit?

7. Rep. Joe McNamara, longtime chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, has converted to the pro-choice side in the abortion debate. This fall McNamara sought and received the endorsement of Planned Parenthood for the first time; as recently as 2008 he’d secured the endorsement of Rhode Island Right to Life. But his relationship with Right to Life soured after that election when his committee blocked a bill requiring women who seek an abortion to be given information about other options. McNamara, who is also state Democratic Party chairman, says the legislation in question “was not well thought-out” but Right to Life nevertheless “worked actively against me” by buying an ad calling attention to the issue in 2010. McNamara argued he’s had no major change of heart on abortion, though. “I just think that, looking at some specific issues, that, you know – it’s basically where I’ve been, supporting the law of the land, and over the years that’s what it’s become,” he said.

8. Speaking of Joe McNamara, he tells me he’s planning to stay on as chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, a post he won in 2014 thanks to Speaker Mattiello’s support. “We’ve already started to gear up for 2018,” McNamara said. “We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support from individuals that want to become involved, be more involved and proactive. So we are in the process of reorganizing and energizing some of our caucuses – the women’s caucus, LGBT, the Latino caucus – because people have issues that they want to be prepared to respond to, and we want to give people an opportunity to get involved in the party and harness the energy in a positive way that has been presented to us.” As noted previously, state Democrats recently updated their platform for the first time since 2008.

9. Steph Machado has an update from the commission on solitary confinement.

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10. This week saw a major moment in David Cicilline’s congressional career: his colleagues elected him co-chair of their Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, elevating him to the House Democratic leadership team. It marks the first time a Rhode Islander has been in leadership since Patrick Kennedy finished his stint as chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm following the 2000 election. All the more notably, Cicilline won by defeating Nancy Pelosi’s endorsed candidate for the job – Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright – in a runoff vote; her choices for the other two co-chair positions won in the first round of balloting. (Not everyone is happy about the outcome.) The committee Cicilline will co-chair was created by Pelosi last year and entrusted to her ally Steve Israel, who’s now retiring. It’s supposed to play a key part in Democratic messaging, which in practice could give Cicilline a prominent role as a critic of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan in the coming months.

11. Speaking of Nancy Pelosi, here’s another reason Jim Langevin may not have been enthusiastic about backing her latest bid for minority leader last month: she declined to let him stay on the House Intelligence Committee when his term expired in 2014. Under House Democratic caucus rules, members of the intelligence panel must step down after eight years; Langevin confirmed to me he approached Pelosi to remain on it, unsuccessfully. “I expressed my interest in staying on the Intelligence Committee, but there’s no process for doing that,” he said. “The rules would have to change in the caucus, and the rules have not changed.” He also noted there is “no process for giving waivers, and there’s no precedent for it.” But Langevin denied that the matter affected his support for Pelosi. “I looked at the election,” he explained. “I wanted to reflect on what’s the best way forward for our caucus.” He added that when he called Pelosi last month to say he’d decided to support her as leader, the pair had a “great conversation.”

12. Our weekly Nesi’s Notes dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “It appears to be a foregone conclusion that the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education will approve Achievement First’s proposal to grow the 720 student to 3,112 students by the 2026-27 school year, but Mayor Elorza reminded me this week that he still holds all the cards when it comes to a large chunk of the expansion. All four of the mayors whose communities send students to Achievement First’s two elementary schools in Providence – Elorza, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisiansupport the organization growing to a middle school and a high school, but there are still questions about a third K-8 program that would bring the total number students served to 3,112. Achievement First’s board of directors has granted Elorza veto power over that third group, a power Avedisian supports him having. Fung doesn’t like that part of the expansion at all and has urged the council to reject the proposal altogether unless changes are made. Lombardi is the strongest supporter of Achievement First in the group. So when will Elorza make his decision? ‘It could be this week, it could be this month or it could be two or three years from now,’ Elorza told me. That comment came just minutes after Governor Raimondo threw her full support behind the expansion.”

13. The new 6/10 Connector should be under construction a year from now.

14. Former R.I. Health Insurance Commissioner Chris Koller offers a warning about repealing Obamacare. “As our experience in Rhode Island shows, attempts to build an individual insurance market with stable, affordable and high-quality coverage choices based on voluntary participation will not succeed,” he argues.

15. Between the new ACLU lawsuit over UHIP and the DMV’s litigation against HPE, it’s hard not to get cynical about big government IT projects – and it certainly appears the procurement process is badly broken. Yet there are also clear arguments in favor of upgrading public-sector technology – see, for instance, this study estimating Rhode Island taxpayers could save $76 million over five years from IT-enabled productivity gains.

16. Rhode Island could have more senior citizens than children as soon as 2020.

17. Economist Tim Duy has a thoughtful take on Trump and trade policy. (Don’t forget: the David Autor research he cites is the same work that revealed Rhode Island was hit second-hardest by the rise of China.)

18. An incredible Glenn Thrush postmortem on the presidential election.

19. Kim Kalunian has the best list of local holiday light displays around.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – newly elected lawmakers Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, and Kenneth Mendonca, R-Portsmouth. This week on Executive Suite – A.T. Cross Co. CEO Chad Mellen. 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 Sundays at 6 p.m. 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 writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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