Nesi’s Notes: March 18

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. For Speaker Mattiello, it’s full speed ahead on car tax repeal. With House Finance set to review Governor Raimondo’s more modest plan next week, Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman filled in some details about the speaker’s vision on Friday. The overarching idea: freeze the car tax at its current level (about $220 million), and over the next five years incrementally replace the revenue with state funds, until drivers are no longer paying a car tax at all. So how would the first year’s installment, roughly $40 million, be parceled out? Berman says it will follow the formula used to distribute the $10 million communities currently share to defray the tax on the first $500 in car value. (That’s good news for Providence and Cranston, which got nearly 30% of that money in 2015-16.) The money would go out after the state budget passes, and local leaders would then be expected to pass the savings on to taxpayers. “We are working with stakeholders on the mechanics and do not have a formal timeline for the rollout,” Berman said. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien reports the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, which he leads, expects to meet with the speaker’s team next month. “I think what’s going to happen is I think you’re going to see the legislature and the governor battle that out,” Grebien said on this week’s Newsmakers. The mayor also pushed back at House GOP Leader Patricia Morgan’s argument that cities and towns should have to find savings to cover part of the $220 million tab to eliminate the tax. “That’s old-school thinking, that we haven’t done a lot of those things,” Grebien argued. His office points out that 94% of the growth in Pawtucket’s city-side budget over the last decade, about $12.4 million total, has gone to cover retiree benefits – leaving just $825,000 more to spend on everything else.

2. Tim White reports Apex is the frontrunner for a new PawSox ballpark.

3. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The most striking thing about the first hearing on Governor Raimondo’s proposed college tuition program this week was how little the House Finance Committee questioned the cost of covering two years of college for new high school graduates at Rhode Island’s three public schools. The governor has repeatedly called the projected $30-million price tag a ‘drop in the bucket,’ but it’s still unclear how much the program will cost a decade from now if tuition continues to rise. There are two ways to look at this. If you’re in the governor’s camp, you might say committee members recognize the cost isn’t a barrier and the policy details – like the GPA requirement or various exemptions – can be negotiated in the coming months. From a different perspective, the fact that Finance members spent most of their time poking holes in the program itself suggests they might not actually believe it’s a game-changing idea. (Those members are also protected by the clear opposition from Speaker Mattiello.) That could be a tough pill to swallow for Raimondo’s staff, which is touting endorsements from Providence Business News, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the state’s two teachers’ unions, a whole bunch of mayors and of course, hundreds of high school students. Predictably, the talk from supporters has already turned political, with whispers of primary challenges next year for Democrats who oppose the plan. But Raimondo’s staff would be wise to go back to lawmakers and try to win this one on the merits.”

4. Well, this $50 ad buy sure did garner Commerce RI some publicity.

5. The CBO report on the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare is out, and it reinforces that the bill would have a big impact on Rhode Island. While the report contains no state-by-state breakdowns, it estimates a 17% drop in Medicaid enrollment nationwide; a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that could mean 46,000 fewer enrollees in Rhode Island, based on average 2014-15 enrollment. (Alas, more up-to-date data isn’t available because EOHHS once again failed to make the March 15 deadline – set in state law – for publication of its annual Medicaid report; officials say the underlying data is never ready in time.) CBO estimates the GOP bill would reduce federal spending on Medicaid by $880 billion over the next 10 years, and the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities estimates the bulk of that would be tied to enrollees who became newly eligible for Medicaid under Obamacare. In Rhode Island that group totaled 77,000 people in 2014-15, and they cost $392 million to cover. Under current law the feds are supposed to pick up at least 90% of the bill for them in perpetuity; starting in 2020, the GOP proposal would scale that back to about 50% for new enrollees in that group.

6. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, widely seen as the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, isn’t taking a position on the GOP health bill for now. “The mayor has not had enough time to study the proposed legislation to offer a detailed critique and does not want to manufacture a response without being fully informed of the facts,” Fung spokesman Mark Schieldrop told me this week. Governor Raimondo, like most Democrats, has said she strongly opposes the legislation – if it passes, the ramifications could be an issue in next year’s race.

7. There’s plenty to dissect in President Trump’s budget proposal, which drew unsurprising condemnation from Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation. One idea getting plenty of attention is Trump’s proposal to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS and NPR affiliates nationwide. David Piccerelli, Rhode Island PBS’s chief, told me zeroing out CPB would be a huge hit to Channel 36. “Rhode Island PBS would stand to lose $700,000 in annual operating support,” he said. “This represents 17.5% of the total operating budget and 32% of the television station operating budget. It would be a significant cut and would be very difficult to overcome absent any replacement funds.” Rhode Island Public Radio President Torey Malatia is far less alarmed, partly, he said, because CBP gives TV much more funding than radio. RIPR gets roughly $200,000 a year from the agency, accounting for about 7% of its annual budget. “So television is more dependent than we,” Malatia told me. “We get no other federal dollars. We get zero state dollars. We’d replace the $200,000, with local donations – probably by asking for small increases from current donors or appealing for new small donors.”

8. The situation in North Korea is ever more alarming.

9. When Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse voted in favor of confirming Dan Coats as director of national intelligence this week, it marked their first “yea” votes on a Trump nominee in more than a month. In fact, the two Democrats have voted “nay” on 14 of the 21 Trump nominees who have come before the Senate so far. (And yes, they’ve voted the same way every single time.) There’s a clear thread connecting their votes: six of the seven nominees they’ve supported were tapped for appointments related to national security or foreign affairs; the only nominee in that category they opposed was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. On the other hand, the only domestic-focused nominee they supported was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (who is also the wife of a colleague, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell).

10. Speaking of Senator Whitehouse, he got to bask in some televised praise during an appearance with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Wednesday night following the Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting on Russia he and Lindsey Graham had led earlier that day. “I was impressed,” Matthews told him. “I thought I was watching a classic real Senate hearing today. You and Lindsey Graham gave credit to the institution of the Senate. I thought there was grownup behavior there.” Whitehouse and Graham are still frustrated, they say, that FBI Director James Comey hasn’t spoken publicly about the status of any investigation into the president and Russia. Meantime, you can expect Whitehouse’s perch on the Judiciary Committee to put him in the national spotlight again next week, as confirmation hearings begin for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

11. Jack Reed’s former chief of staff, J.B. Poersch, has a new gig: president of the super PAC that supports Senate Democrats.

12. Anyone who follows Providence politics knows Dan McGowan dominates the City Hall beat. One reason is his talent – another is his hard work. Last weekend was a good example: I can testify that Dan spent Saturday and Sunday hounding members of the City Council to make them explain on the record whether they’d show up for Monday’s meeting to schedule the Kevin Jackson recall election, which it appeared might be derailed by a boycott. Now if councilors felt they had a good argument for going MIA, that’s fine – they should just make their case to voters in the full light of day, not by hoping nobody asks or ducking the question. Who knows? The outcome might have been different if McGowan hadn’t put the council on the spot.

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13. A follow-up to last week’s item on Rhode Island’s mixed jobs picture: Doug Hall, an economist at the liberal Economic Progress Institute, has an article in the latest Boston Fed magazine digging into the employment data, and he calculates Rhode Island had a deficit of 11,400 jobs as of June 2016. Hall defines the jobs deficit as “the number of additional jobs needed to keep up with population growth since the beginning of the Great Recession.” The point: Rhode Island doesn’t just need to regain all the jobs lost in the recession (which it hasn’t), it also needs to add enough to provide work for the additional residents who’ve joined the labor force since 2007. After touching base with Hall, the good news is he estimates Rhode Island’s jobs deficit continues to shrink; the bad news is he thinks it still totaled 7,400 jobs as of January. Will Rhode Island close that gap before, inevitably, the economy goes south once again?

14. Interesting policy proposal of the week #1 comes from Rep. Aaron Regunberg and Sen. Adam Satchell, Democrats both. You may have heard of the so-called “carried-interest loophole” that lets investment types reduce their taxes; it was criticized by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in last year’s campaign. Regunberg and Satchell have put in a bill they say would let Rhode Island collect the foregone revenue on its own (but which would only be triggered if New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey all pass the same bill). They suggest it could boost state revenue by $40 million a year, a decent chunk of change. “I’m tired of hearing again and again, inside this building and outside it, that we don’t have the money,” Regunberg said at a news conference this week, adding: “We just keep getting suckered into not collecting it.”

15. Interesting policy proposal of the week #2 comes from House GOP Leader Patricia Morgan, and she previewed it on last week’s Newsmakers. Morgan’s idea is actually a package of seven bills she calls “municipal spending reduction tools.” As mentioned above, Morgan thinks cities and towns should have to find savings to cover part of the tab to eliminate the car tax, and suggests state law should be changed to help them do it. Her ideas: don’t require prevailing wage to be paid for lower-cost projects; give classes on how to negotiate contracts; reduce liability exposure from lawsuits; change the rules on disability pensions; study consolidation of local debt; and send revenue from the 911 phone fee back to communities. “If we want to eliminate the car tax forever, we must find the wisdom to reform these bad, tax-gobbling policies,” Morgan said.

16. A $225,000 no-bid contract, and a questionable timeline.

17. Every now and then Commerce RI leads an economic-development trip overseas. But do they yield any tangible dividends for companies, like new contracts? Peter Kaczmarek, president of Cranston manufacturer Mearthane Products, says yes. “That’s actually a best-case scenario, and in fact it’s exactly what happened in Israel,” Kaczmarek said on this week’s Executive Suite. “We now have a customer that’s almost $500,000 in revenue a year for us that we found from that Israel trade mission, the first one that we went on back in 2011.” Mearthane joined last year’s Commerce trip to England, too, and Kaczmarek said he met with six companies while he was there. (During the show Kaczmarek also offered Governor Raimondo’s new manufacturing council the same advice you hear perennially from small businesses: cut red tape, please.)

18. A study finds voters are tougher on elected mothers than elected fathers.

19. Ryan Avent on video games and the future of work.

20. What happens when Queen Elizabeth dies? A riveting long read.

21. And, lastly, a treat – a dispatch from retired Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst:

Warwick lawyer John D. Lynch, for decades a headline figure in Rhode Island legal and political circles, died last Tuesday.

Lynch was a reporter’s dream: knowledgeable, entertaining, and accessible.

He continually bobbed up representing some of RI’s most prominent, controversial figures, including former state court administrator Matt Smith, former Lottery director John Hawkins, former House Speaker John Harwood, and Bob Bianchini, the former state rep tarred by the credit union crisis. Did I mention former First Lady Pat DiPrete, a pleasant but tragic figure? She unsuccessfully fought to win the state pension stripped from her corrupt husband Ed, who disgraced his governorship and went to jail.

Lynch and I first crossed paths when he raised money for Phil Noel’s 1972 election as governor.

Lynch was a skilled attorney – he insisted he was just “a country lawyer” – but he was an astonishingly gifted talker. You may remember a Journal report about a secret Supreme Court account whose expenditures, authorized by Smith and Chief Justice Tom Fay, paid for flowers, fruit baskets, and spiritual bouquets. Said Lynch, “Not one petal of one of those flowers went to the benefit of Matt Smith …. Not one prune from one of those fruit baskets went to his benefit. And not one Hail Mary from the spiritual bouquets.”

He was a natural wit, but also a relentless worker and warrior, and there may have been a simple explanation.

I remember seeing him and some of his family at an apple orchard early one beautiful Rhode Island autumn Sunday decades ago. Lynch was breezy as ever, but itchy. He paced like a tiger, looking forward to the Patriots game coming up on TV.

He had played football for La Salle Academy and Boston College, and he told me later:

“I enjoy very much being an advocate – being an advocate for or against, and, really, to me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference which side I’m on, as long as I’m playing. Really, an advocate is what it’s all about. It’s a competition that I enjoy more than anything I can possibly describe. I enjoyed athletics and I enjoyed playing rough – believe me, I did enjoy playing rough, and the rougher the better, and the better the competition, the more I liked it – and this is no different.”

Lynch told me that during a 1993 interview in his Toll Gate Road office. A barking Golden Retriever named Blarney hovered near his desk. Over the years, when I was in the neighborhood, I occasionally wandered in to say hello.

But this is more about goodbye. The last time I encountered Lynch was March 14, 2016, when La Salle alumni had an outing at Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers. I stopped in to see who was around. Alzheimer’s already was starting to claim him, but he was pleased to see me and his old buddies and, with the help of family, managed to get by and have a good time.

During the game, I ushered him over to greet the great Journal reporter Bill Malinowski, who had dropped in with his wife, Mary Murphy. Bill was suffering from ALS, and it made a for a poignant scene.

Bill died last August 11, and now, on March 14, 2017, one year from that day in Fort Myers, Lynch was gone too.

I shiver just thinking about it.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien; Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn. This week on Executive SuiteChristian Cowan, center director, Polaris Manufacturing Extension Program, and Peter Kaczmarek, president, Mearthane Products Corp. 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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