Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 25

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. Speaker Mattiello sounded the tweets of war Friday, lobbing some verbal missiles at Governor Raimondo after her team continued to question his proposal to kill the car tax. Taking a page out of President Trump’s playbook, the speaker tweeted: “The Governor is tone deaf on this issue and should start listening to the people of Rhode Island. What is truly unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible is her plan to make us the only state in the nation to give away ‘free’ taxpayer-funded college tuition.” Raimondo spokesman Mike Raia shot back, “Rhode Islanders are waiting patiently – and growing impatient – as they ask for details about the speaker’s plan.” It’s pretty obvious what’s going on. Mattiello and Raimondo’s relationship is increasingly frosty as they jockey for Smith Hill supremacy, and he surely enjoyed tweaking her on social media. But more is at play. State revenue is looking a bit less robust, which means lawmakers may not have extra cash to play with when they write the budget, a change from recent years. Everything gets harder when there’s less money, and both leaders’ big proposals carry a clear price tag: by 2022, Mattiello’s car tax plan will cost $220 million a year, while Raimondo’s free college plan is projected to cost $30 million. The budget deficit for 2021-22, already projected to be $194 million, balloons to roughly $350 million with both plans in there (and that assumes the governor’s projections on free college aren’t too rosy). Indeed, both sides run the risk that observers realize criticisms of one proposal can be applied to the other – if free college is fiscally irresponsible, maybe car tax elimination is, too; if car tax elimination is poorly targeted, maybe free college is, too. Perhaps that’s why Raimondo senior adviser David Cruise tried to keep it from becoming an either/or debate in his response to Mattiello, writing: “We can do both. We can cut the car tax and make college more affordable for middle class families.” One thing’s for sure: free college will only happen if Mattiello allows it. Will Raimondo veto the budget if he doesn’t?

2. Tim White and I ran some numbers on Speaker Mattiello’s car tax plan to figure out where the $220 million would actually flow. Half the reimbursement money will go to six communities, since they charge the highest taxes: Providence, Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, East Providence and Johnston. The top five are also the five largest by population, but the sixth (Johnston) is only the 12th-largest. Barrington, the 21st-largest community by population, will get the 11th-most car tax reimbursement money, $5.6 million.

3. Throw all these plans out the window if this leaked version of Obamacare repeal passes – it would have a big impact on the state budget.

4. Is Rhode Island going to lose another tech startup to Cambridge? The CEO of Dockwa, the growing OpenTable-for-boats business featured on Executive Suite last fall, just told Crain’s there is a “high probability” the company will shut down its Rhode Island office sometime in the next 18 months – even though he doesn’t want to. “I have to go where the talent is,” he said.

5. Speaker Mattiello made an unannounced trip last weekend to Washington, D.C., where he was spotted by Rhode Island native (and New Republic staff writer) Graham Vyse. Spokesman Larry Berman confirmed Mattiello visited the nation’s capital to attend the New Speakers Orientation, a biennial event organized by the business-backed State Legislative Leaders Foundation. “He was one of three current speakers that made a presentation to 12 new speakers from throughout the country (there are 16 new speakers nationwide, but only 12 were able to attend),” Berman reports. “He said he spoke to them about his experiences as speaker and what could be beneficial to them, as well as how to conduct themselves in their new roles.” Mattiello attended the same meeting in Nashville in 2015, when he was a new speaker, with his $1,554 tab picked up by the group.

6. And speaking of D.C., Governor Raimondo is there this weekend for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, which will include a visit with President Trump Monday at the White House. Raimondo and First Gentleman Andy Moffit will also be making their pitch for the governors to attend the NGA’s upcoming summer meeting, which is being held in Rhode Island. Like many if not all of the governors in attendance, Raimondo is also holding a campaign fundraiser while she’s in Washington. Per policy, the cost of Raimondo’s trip is being split between taxpayers for her official business and her campaign for the politicking.

7. Thrillist gave Providence some love this week, putting it on a list of “Underappreciated American Cities You Should Totally Move To” and also naming Haven Bros. the most iconic restaurant in Rhode Island.

8. Can local supporters of Donald Trump muster as many marchers as his opponents? We’ll find out March 25, when Doreen Costa and John DePetro plan to lead a Rhode Island MAGA March from City Hall to the State House. Anti-Trump activists are discussing a counter-demonstration.

9. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is the guest on this week’s Newsmakers, and most of the discussion revolves around the Trump administration’s first month. One point Reed has been making more often of late – he’s concerned by how many current or recently retired senior military officers are taking top jobs in the new administration, fearing that it will jeopardize the principle of civilian control of the military. Reed also confirm he plans to seek re-election in 2020, though he noted that is still two elections away.

10. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The first opinion of 2017 from the Rhode Island Supreme Court Ethics Advisory Panel is one to watch. The panel ruled that two unnamed local attorneys can advise individuals and businesses that seek assistance in obtaining licenses to cultivate, dispense or supply medical marijuana as long as they also advise their clients about federal law, which outlaws the manufacturing and dispensing of marijuana. The question was raised because a provision in the rules of professional conduct for lawyers prohibits them from counseling or assisting clients in conduct they know is criminal. But the panel suggested the existing state law allows the lawyers to move forward. The panel also noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has relaxed marijuana enforcement in recent years, and President Trump has said he supports medical marijuana. (On the recreational pot side, the president is singing a different tune.)”

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11. Senator Whitehouse spent last weekend with John McCain at the Munich Security Conference, where he found world leaders “very anxious” about American leadership under President Trump. One of the most memorable parts of the trip, Whitehouse told me, was the annual lunch with leaders from German businesses such as Siemens, Deutsche Bank and BMW, which he said had a very different tone than in years past. “This particular lunch – in the shadow of Brexit and in the shadow of Trump’s election, which has made them nervous, and with both French and German elections looming – this lunch had a tone of anxiety to it that we had never heard before,” Whitehouse said. “And in addition to those circumstances, the underlying concern was that these business and industrial leaders saw technological automation coming fast that would replace more and more human workers. They were looking at that as a really significant social and economic disruption, whose earliest stages may be represented by Brexit and Trump, but was likely to get worse – and perhaps even considerably worse – before it got better. That was unusual. I usually go to this lunch and everyone’s kind of pleased – these are big CEOs, life is good – but this was a different group. This was a chastened and anxious group.”

12. If GOP state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo takes the plunge and runs against Senator Whitehouse in 2018, as many expect, he will be following in his father’s footsteps – sort of. Way back in 1986, Robert Nardolillo Jr. ran against Jack Reed – for a state Senate seat in Cranston. It was Reed’s first re-election bid, and he beat Nardolillo 59% to 41%.

13. For what it’s worth, the first set of 2018 U.S. Senate race rankings by Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate Whitehouse’s seat as safe for the Democrats.

14. In the end, Jack Reed was the only member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to make a formal endorsement in the race for Democratic National Committee chairman, which is being decided in Atlanta this weekend; Reed is backing Congressman Keith Ellison. But Sheldon Whitehouse came close to backing Ellison’s chief rival this week, telling CNN: “I’ll let them sort it out. I happen to like Tom Perez a lot, because he’s a Rhode Island graduate of Brown University, he’s been to Rhode Island a lot, he fought as secretary of labor, he was a really good civil rights division leader at Justice, he’s got real accomplishments. But I don’t – we’re going to be a good strong party irrespective of who is chosen. … I haven’t endorsed anybody; he’s just a guy I like.” (One Nesi’s Notes reader expressed surprise that David Cicilline didn’t endorse Perez, since they were classmates in Brown’s Class of 1983.) Governor Raimondo is supporting Perez, while Rhode Island’s four DNC members – Joe McNamara, Grace Diaz, Frank Montanaro and Edna Mattson O’Neill – are backing Ellison.

15. A longtime NN reader wrote in after last week’s column with some further thoughts on UHIP: “It seems to me that there were two fatal flaws in the UHIP rollout. The first was not keeping the old system and the new UHIP system running in parallel until the new UHIP system was fully functional. That’s a pretty basic axiom in the world of computer systems. The second flaw, which is really a corollary to the first, was laying off the staff experienced with the prior system prematurely. Obviously, without that staff, it was not possible to keep the old system running. My guess is that the decision to lay off the staff was a political decision, designed to showcase how UHIP was immediately cost effective. The good news is that these things are usually straightened out.”

16. A bonus dispatch from Dan McGowan: “Mayor Elorza is taking the Providence Talks program on the road. The mayor and Courtney Hawkins, his policy director, are heading to New York City next week to the explain the program to representatives from Flint, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; Oakland, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Virginia Beach and Newport News, Virginia; and New York City. Providence Talks, which was launched under Mayor Taveras and received a $5-million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies‎, seeks to close the so-called ‘word gap’ between poor and more affluent children by providing families with ‘word pedometers’ to track the number of words children hear. Emily Crowell, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the Providence team plans to talk ‘about their lessons learned through the implementation of the program, the status of its evaluation and the successes that have been achieved.’”

17. Keep an eye on the John Hope Settlement House, chaired by Anastasia Williams.

18. Congratulations to Valley Breeze editor Marcia Green, who was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame last night.

19. Can President Trump break the Democrats’ grip on labor unions?

20. Ahead of Ash Wednesday, a poll shows just 24% of Americans observe Lent.

21. Fantastic find by the Museum of Classic Chicago Television – a rare black-and-white 11 p.m. WPRI 12 newscast from 1965. (We were actually still “WPRO 12” back then!)

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. This week on Executive Suite – L.L. Bean CEO Stephen Smith. 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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