Nesi’s Notes: April 1

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. No question, Speaker Mattiello is skeptical about Governor Raimondo’s free tuition proposal. There’s a difference between skepticism and total opposition, though – and that means supporters still have an opportunity to get him to yes. To understand the dynamic, think back to the nine-month debate over RhodeWorks. Mattiello gave Raimondo’s staff fits for much of that time, as he took to the airwaves with criticism of the toll plan and blocked the initial version. Eventually the bill was reworked to address Mattiello’s big concerns – and it became law. Something similar could play out on free college, which, like RhodeWorks, is a top gubernatorial priority supported by some key constituencies. For one thing, as URI President David Dooley has (gratefully) noted, Mattiello is generally a supporter of the university. College costs are also a kitchen-table issue for many middle-class families. Yet the speaker clearly thinks Raimondo’s team is being too rosy in estimating the plan will cost only $30 million a year. A number of lawmakers have also indicated they’d like to see some strings attached so that graduates have to remain in Rhode Island for a period of time; tougher academic requirements have been floated, as well. Thus it won’t be a surprise if Mattiello agrees to take some sort of action on college costs in the final budget – it’s just not clear how much it will look like Raimondo’s original proposal.

2. The college push should get another boost Thursday, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is expected to visit Rhode Island to drum up support for the idea. Governor Raimondo was an early supporter of Perez’s run for DNC chairman last year. No word on if Vice-Chair Keith Ellison will join him.

3. One interesting thing about the free tuition debate: Governor Raimondo is basically proposing a new entitlement program, meaning everyone who meets the criteria will get the benefit (in this case, two years of free tuition). That would strengthen the tuition program’s position during future budget debates, since lawmakers would feel heavy pressure to appropriate the money for everyone entitled to free tuition. (Hence Speaker Mattiello’s concerns about the cost projections.) In that sense the idea is another example of how Raimondo keeps trying to shift the state budget toward what she views as investment-oriented spending, versus consumption-oriented spending – in this case, investment in human capital. Politically, it would be a lot harder for future lawmakers to defund the tuition entitlement with families counting on it than it has been to cut or level-fund URI’s general appropriation, which would force them to prioritize higher education when they’re budgeting.

4. Final negotiations over the budget may be a bigger headache than initially expected, thanks to the ongoing weakness in state revenue. (Rhode Island isn’t alone in that: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports an unusually large number of states are facing revenue shortfalls right now.) For Speaker Mattiello, the numbers indicate he can no longer bank on an extra $40 million lying around come June to put toward his promised cut in the car tax. Asked about their Plan B on Newsmakers back in January, House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi said: “I’m confident that the speaker’s assertion that we’ll be able to grow our way into doing that will be a good thing. And if not, we’ll look at everything. There is enough room to put together a responsible budget without hurting any constituency but also addressing the car tax issue.” The money will have to be found somewhere.

5. One debate flying somewhat under the radar at the Assembly is the push to require paid sick time, which Governor Raimondo backed in her State of the State address. Proponents recently commissioned two separate polls – one by the Working Families Party, one by AARP – that both showed more than 80% support for the policy among Rhode Island voters. Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who is sponsoring the legislation, was even more bullish on its chances after Thursday’s well-attended Labor Committee hearing. “There’s still a lot of work to do and stakeholder input to take into account,” he said. “But with legislative leadership making clear they are open to taking action on this issue, I think it’s fair to say that the Sick Days Coalition, Senator Goodwin, and all our Senate and House cosponsors have a good chance of accomplishing the goal we set out to accomplish: passing an earned sick leave policy this year that will end the gut-wrenching choices so many Rhode Islanders have to make between their family’s health and their paycheck.” The influential Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is not swayed, however, calling the proposal “another costly mandate on business that would make Rhode Island an outlier.”

6. Susan Campbell reports the UHIP backlog is down by half (on paper).

7. Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggerio appear to be hitting hit off as they adjust to once again being counterparts, as they were in their majority leader days. Ruggerio paid a brief visit to Mattiello’s office after his election last week, and on Tuesday Mattiello returned the favor and stopped by Ruggerio’s new office. “Speaker Mattiello said there were no substantive issues discussed yet, but it was an excellent meeting and he anticipates a strong working relationship with the new president,” Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman reports. “They have a very productive working relationship,” agreed Ruggerio spokesman Greg Pare.

8. President Ruggerio’s second week leading the Senate was a bit bumpy, at least compared with the somnolent Teresa Paiva Weed era, as ousted Senate Finance Chairman Dan DaPonte and Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush both publicly criticized his early moves. Nesselbush took to the Senate floor to attack “the un-democratic process we lived through last week” and “the un-democratic demotion of dedicated and qualified chairs that occurred this week” – then blasted out the statement to reporters, ensuring it wouldn’t be missed. Ruggerio described himself as “a little taken aback” by the unusual public criticism from inside his Democratic caucus, and noted pointedly that Nesselbush “did not offer an amendment and had never expressed concern during the committee process.” As mentioned last week, the rapid-fire Senate transition has left some bruises despite the new team’s near-unanimous support inside the chamber. In the case of DaPonte, it was not only his own demotion that rankled some but the fact that Finance veterans Lou DiPalma and Ryan Pearson were passed over for chairman in favor of Bill Conley, who wasn’t even on the panel before he got the gavel. Also of note: Ruggerio added a seat on Finance for his ally Frank Ciccone, who lost the Labor Committee chairmanship five years ago due to remarks he made to police when Ruggerio was arrested.

9. Sen. Elaine Morgan wants to require cursive be taught in Rhode Island.

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10. As Helen of Troy once launched a thousand ships, this week Robert Flanders launched a thousand texts. His announcement that he’s exploring a 2018 U.S. Senate run against Sheldon Whitehouse, first reported by the indefatigable Kathy Gregg, had the Rhode Island political class chattering all week. Flanders told me he isn’t doing interviews yet, but suggested in a statement he’d be “a senator that works with Republicans, Democrats, and independents to promote practical solutions.” The former judge is no fool, so he knows the tough odds he’d face – the last time a Republican not named Chafee won a Rhode Island U.S. Senate race was 1930. Flanders would have a number of advantages, including his intellect and a robust Rolodex to tap for donations, which is why some local Republicans are enthusiastic about his chances. He also has some disadvantages: the deep pension cuts he approved as Central Falls’ receiver are ripe for negative TV ads, and President Trump’s unpopularity could allow Whitehouse to effectively rerun his 2006 campaign, which was technically against Linc Chafee but really against George W. Bush. Flanders says he’ll make a final decision “over the next several months.”

11. There’s another obstacle standing in the way of Bob Flanders and the GOP U.S. Senate nomination: Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, who’s already announced plans to run and is scheduled to kick off his campaign in May. How would a primary play out between the moderate Flanders and more conservative Nardolillo? Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias, a student as well as a practitioner of politics, tells me he is emphatically not taking sides between the two Bobs. With that said, Frias offered this general note of caution as the GOP looks ahead: “Primaries are inherently problematic, especially when you are going to emerge from the primary as the underdog in the general election. Primaries usually require the diversion of limited resources from the general election. Also, during a primary, differences big and small between the primary candidates are usually highlighted in a way that is not helpful to winning the general election. At best primaries are a nuisance; at worst they are destructive.”

12. Next week could be a historic one in the U.S. Senate, as Republicans consider invoking the so-called “nuclear option” and eliminating the filibuster for U.S. Supreme Court nominees so Neil Gorsuch can be confirmed. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have both committed to blocking Gorsuch, and if 39 of their colleagues do the same, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell will either need to go nuclear or abandon Gorsuch. It’s a role reversal from 2013, when Reed and Whitehouse both backed Harry Reid’s decision to invoke the nuclear option, eliminating filibusters on all non-Supreme-Court nominations.

13. The four Democrats in Rhode Island’s congressional have been vocally talking up the need for a single-payer health care system of late. “I think the reality is, that’s the long-term solution,” Congressman Cicilline said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I think we’re the only country of the 25 richest countries in [the world] that doesn’t have single-payer. And this idea of having Medicare for all – which is a very efficient system, which works well – that’s the kind of approach long-term I think we should take.” It’s hard to imagine such a drastic shift happening anytime soon, and it might be more challenging than proponents think, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has argued. But it’s noteworthy they’re not shying away from it.

14. Something Congressman Cicilline is shying away from – the designation of Providence as a “sanctuary city” by the current occupant of his old office, Mayor Elorza. On Newsmakers, Cicilline said he agrees with Providence’s current policies on immigration enforcement, but insisted those policies do not make Providence a sanctuary city – yet simultaneously refused to criticize Elorza for saying they do. “I think the problem is, ‘sanctuary’ has sometimes been used to suggest they’re not honoring federal law or they’re breaking federal law,” he said. “That is not true. They have policies that recognize the trust and confidence of the community is the single most effective way to keep communities safe.”

15. Another week, another Rhode Islander visiting President Trump at the White House. Last week it was Coventry Sen. Leo Raptakis, who was there to celebrate Greek Independence Day. This week it was Republican National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick, who attended a panel on women’s empowerment this past Wednesday. Two Rhode Islanders who did not visit Trump, however, are Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse – both men skipped a White House dinner for senators the president held on Tuesday night. More than half their fellow Senate Democrats did the same.

16. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner says his office is putting the finishing touches on Rhode Island’s first debt affordability study since 1999, “which is way too long.” The report will look at how much debt is currently being carried by state government, quasi-public agencies and municipalities – and, for the first time, will include unfunded pension liabilities in the calculations. “There’s tremendous variance across public-debt issuers in Rhode Island,” Magaziner said. “There are some where liabilities are very low, there are some where they are unsustainably high. So we hope that getting this information out there will assist policymakers at all levels as they engage in capital budgeting, and we hope that it will lead to better decisions at all levels going forward.”

17. Treasurer Magaziner also wants local pension plans join the state system.

18. A chilling look at worker safety in Alabama’s booming car industry.

19. David Bernstein makes the case for a unicameral state legislature.

20. This weekend’s Boston Globe Magazine is all about Rhode Island.

21. A nice tribute to famed tech columnist – and Warwick native – Walt Mossberg.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Congressman David Cicilline. This week on Executive SuiteJohn Picerne, founder/CEO, Corvias Group; Chris Fragomeni and Joe Manzi of Oxford Motorcars. 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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