Nesi’s Notes: March 11

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. Unhappy days are here again for some of Rhode Island’s largest health care organizations. Blue Cross is losing money. Care New England is losing money. Lifespan is, too. The squeeze isn’t likely to end anytime soon, either: Rhode Island hasn’t increased hospitals’ Medicaid rates since the 2012-13 budget, and Governor Raimondo wants to cut rates next year; businesses and consumers aren’t exactly looking for higher private insurance premiums, either. Care New England appears to be the most challenged of the three at the moment, thanks in part to its ill-fated 2013 acquisition of Memorial Hospital, which execs are now looking to jettison. With Care New England again shopping for a merger partner, could Rhode Island’s No. 2 hospital group soon be controlled by an out-of-state entity? Or a for-profit? Or both? All this is the local backdrop for the week’s top health headline: the unveiling of Washington Republicans’ proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. With so many moving parts and no CBO score it’s hard to say exactly what the impact will be on Rhode Island. Roughly 30,000 residents buy a private plan through HealthSource RI, and 88% received subsidies in 2016; the new bill would switch to flat subsidies by age. The bigger question is the impact on Rhode Island’s nearly $3-billion-a-year Medicaid program. One early analysis, by The Empire Center’s Bill Hammond, suggests the bill won’t actually mean as big a drop in Medicaid funding for states like Rhode Island as some expect. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues it would still be a meaningful cut, particularly when it comes to covering the roughly 70,000 Rhode Islanders who became newly eligible for Medicaid under Obamacare. State leaders will be watching nervously as the debate unfolds in Congress.

2. The American Hospital Association has already come out against the GOP Obamacare bill, but locally the Hospital Association of Rhode Island isn’t unhappy with everything President Trump is up to so far. HARI says it’s “encouraged” by Trump’s Jan. 30 executive order to reduce regulations, which calls for two regulations to be removed for every new one issued. The group offered this stat as ammunition: “In the past year, the federal government has added 23,532 pages of federal regulations to the already lengthy list of regulations with which hospitals and health care systems must comply.” (Speaking of HARI, its president – Michael Souza – is leaving to become CEO of Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket this month.)

3. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Governor Baker is tussling with employers over a proposed fee to offset rising Medicaid costs.

4. New state Rep. Moira Walsh certainly knows how to make a splash, as her comments to WPRO’s Matt Allen about “insane amounts” of State House drinking made national headlines this week. Top House Republican Patricia Morgan is among those who insist Walsh has it wrong. “This unfortunately plays into people’s skepticism about the General Assembly, but I think most of us – all of us – really take it seriously that we affect people’s lives. So no, I don’t see drunk legislating going on,” Morgan said on this week’s Newsmakers. She said that while legislators may have a drink at an after-session fundraiser, she’s never seen anyone inebriated during or before session at the State House.

5. And speaking of the General Assembly, Leader Morgan is very much on board with Speaker Mattiello’s goal of eliminating the car tax – but not with his plan for accomplishing the goal. On Newsmakers, Morgan said she does not think the state has the money to send municipalities the entire $220 million that would be required to reimburse them for all their lost car-tax revenue. “Ultimately we have to give towns and cities tools – I call them ‘tools’ – to control their spending,” she said. “Because if we don’t do that it’ll all come back at some point. The state cannot continue to put a quarter of a billion dollars into the cities and towns.” She added, “Let’s face it. Who are taxpayers? They pay the municipalities, they pay to the state. So are we just doing a shell game? ‘Are you going to take it from my right pocket or my left pocket?'” (Republicans have suggested a similar middle way on car taxes before: in 2014, Ken Block proposed covering the tax’s elimination with two-thirds state revenue and one-third local savings.) Morgan did say she thinks the state can afford “a big down payment” to help municipalities phase out the tax; her caucus has also brought back a bill that passed the House in former Speaker John Harwood’s days, which would let municipalities reduce the cost of disability pensions.

6. Governor Raimondo was understandably pleased when the latest job numbers came out this week. “For the first time in almost 12 years, our state’s unemployment rate is below the U.S. rate,” she said in a statement. “Private sector employment in Rhode Island is at an all-time high. The economy has added more than 10,000 jobs since I took office.” All those statistics are correct, and worth noting. But they’re not the only ones. As URI’s Len Lardaro points out, Rhode Island’s labor force has been shrinking since 2013; at 61%, the employment rate for adults 16 and older is still well below the pre-recession level of 65%. The number of working-age Rhode Islanders with a job actually dipped in 2016. The month Raimondo won office, back in November 2014, the state’s consensus economic forecast said there would be 497,500 jobs on local payrolls in 2016; the actual total last year fell a bit short of the forecast, at only 491,300. And many of the jobs being created are lower-wage than those that were lost in the recession. Job growth is better than the alternative, so it’s no surprise Raimondo is highlighting the numbers she did. But don’t pop the champagne corks yet.

7. “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.” So writes Nicholas Eberstadt in this sobering essay.

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8. Governor Raimondo spent Tuesday evening and part of Wednesday in Arizona, where she attended an annual tech conference put on by investment bank Allen & Co. Raimondo and Ohio Gov. John Kasich took part in a panel moderated by former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, per her office. Raimondo discussed her push to hold down the cost of pensions and Medicaid in order to spend more on efforts to grow the economy; the two governors also discussed the overdose crisis.

9. Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell is set to win a new two-year term by acclamation at next Thursday night’s GOP meeting at the Shriners hall; he is running without opposition. Bell reports there is one contested race on the party faithful’s ballot, with Gina Catalano challenging incumbent Russ Hyrzan to be 1st vice-chair. Not on the ballot will be the state’s Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias and Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick – they already won new four-year terms just last year.

10. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Monday is going to be a pretty awkward day in Providence politics. With City Council leadership unwilling to call a special council meeting to schedule the recall election of Councilman Kevin Jackson, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea intervened and asked the R.I. Board of Elections to hold its own meeting to set the May 2 vote for residents of Ward 3. Meanwhile five of Jackson’s opponents on the council – Sam Zurier, Seth Yurdin, Wilbur Jennings, Nick Narducci and David Salvatore – are still attempting to hold a special council meeting, forcing their colleagues to either show up and schedule the vote or bail in hopes the dissident councilors can’t make a quorum. If eight members attend the meeting, they’re essentially signing off on the election that will likely end Jackson’s political career. Anyone marked absent will face questions about why they’re still standing with a man accused of serious crimes. From the sidelines, Mayor Elorza has made it clear he wants the council to show up and schedule the vote, but he can’t force anyone’s hand. All of this matters for one reason: in order for officials to comply with both state law and the city charter, the May 2 election cannot be scheduled any later than Monday. At the same time, council leadership is technically under no obligation to set the special election until its next scheduled meeting, which is Thursday. That’s why Gorbea, whose legal advice comes from none other than former Mayor Angel Taveras, stepped in. No matter what happens Monday, you can bet the tension created will last the rest of the year.”

11. The 38 Studios saga never ends. Worth noting after this week’s dramaGovernor Raimondo sounds like she’s revisiting whether to order an independent investigation into the deal, a campaign pledge she abandoned during her first year in office.

12. Ray Gallison is now a convicted felon. Tim White details what’s next.

13. As of this morning, Peter Neronha is no longer Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney. Question 1: Who will President Trump choose to replace him? (Senators Reed and Whitehouse said Friday night they plan to recommend a replacement for Neronha to Trump; this is the first time since 1954 Rhode Island has had two Democratic senators negotiating nominations with a Republican White House in a Republican-led U.S. Senate.) Question 2: Will Neronha run for attorney general in 2018? (One tea leaf to read: Dan McGowan noticed someone registered the web address “PeterNeronha.com” last month.)

14. “What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders?” RISD Professor Andrew Freiband is collaborating on this provocative project that may challenge your assumptions about what happened last fall.

15. Pawtucket plays a starring role in “American Carnage,” journalist Chris Caldwell’s new examination of the opioid crisis in the journal First Things.

16. Rhode Island Housing’s annual survey shows rents just keep rising.

17. A longtime NN reader passed along this article: bad news for United Natural Foods Inc.? The company, recently in the news for plans to add jobs in Rhode Island, announced a restructuring this week.

18. Know someone who needs a college scholarship? The Rhode Island Foundation has $1.8 million worth it needs to give out.

19. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts was one of 10 honored this month with the American Medical Association’s Dr. Nathan Davis Award for Outstanding Government Service. Roberts received the award for Career Public Servant at the State Level.

20. Rest in peace, former Sen. David Bates, always a gentleman.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan. This week on Executive SuiteThomas Tanury, chairman, Tanury Industries; Karl Guggenmos, founder/CEO, Culinary Solutions International. 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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