Nesi’s Notes: April 15

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. A year ago, Governor Raimondo was at a low point. The Cooler & Warmer debacle had made national news and dealt a sharp blow to her administration’s perceived competence. Her senior staff was frustrated, setting the stage for a shakeup a few months later. The first of her headline-grabbing job announcements – GE – was still two months away. The period since then has hardly been without problems – chief among them the UHIP fiasco – but it appears Raimondo has steadied the ship and convinced more voters she’s charting the right course. The evidence came in two polls out this week that both put her numbers a tad under 50%, right in line with private polling in recent months. A decent approval rating added to millions in campaign dollars should make Raimondo a formidable re-election candidate next year if she can maintain her momentum. But it’s no guarantee – Lincoln Chafee lost the 2006 U.S. Senate race with a 63% approval rating, while David Cicilline won his 2012 campaign with abysmal numbers. “People sometimes, they’ve got to see who you’re running against before they decide who they’re going to vote for, so the job rating doesn’t mean everything,” our political analyst Joe Fleming said on this week’s Newsmakers. Raimondo is also well below the 58% approval ratings posted by Don Carcieri and Linc Almond in the final Brown polls before they won re-election. Still, Fleming said, “it is a good sign for the governor that based on the polls, they’re starting to move in the right direction, towards 50%.”

2. Governor Raimondo’s team was also elated by separate polling this week showing 60% of Rhode Island voters support her free tuition plan, which they hope will give it additional momentum in the legislative session’s crucial final stretch. Yet Speaker Mattiello has said the feedback he gets about the tuition plan is heavily negative, which is part of why he’s so skeptical about it. Perhaps that’s because the two of them represent very different constituents. Raimondo represents a statewide electorate that voted 54% for Hillary Clinton; Mattiello represents a Western Cranston electorate that voted 56% for Donald Trump. It would be interesting to see a poll asking how voters in Mattiello’s House District 15 feel about free tuition.

3. Lifespan’s CEO discussing his bid to merge with Care New England is a strong sign Lifespan will not be merging with Care New England. Think about it: if Lifespan chief Tim Babineau was locked in merger talks with his CNE counterpart Dennis Keefe, why would he be talking about it to reporters? Or telling me, “We honestly do not know where CNE is in their process nor if they are narrowing their search”? A CNE spokesman says an announcement about the No. 2 hospital group’s merger partner is coming “soon” – hard to believe Lifespan would be so out of the loop if it were the chosen one. So who will it be? Prospect, the private-equity-controlled for-profit owner of Roger Williams Medical Center? Partners, the nonprofit Boston behemoth that owns Brigham and Women’s and Mass. General? A dark horse?

4. Keep an eye on Governor Baker, who wants to force Massachusetts employers to pay a fee if they don’t offer adequate health insurance. Businesses aren’t happy with the proposal, which is supposed to generate $300 million a year to deal with ever-rising Medicaid costs. (Also interesting: CommonWealth Magazine reports, “House leaders don’t just lean right, they move right past Baker and have the governor looking like a wild-eyed tax-and-spender.” Do lower chambers always tend to be more conservative?)

5. Dave Butler always said he only planned to spend a couple years as The Providence Journal’s top editor, and true to his word he’s announced plans to retire in June and hand the baton to Alan Rosenberg, a 39-year veteran of the paper. Rosenberg, the well-liked current managing editor, described himself as “excited to lead our talented team during a time when accurate, verified reporting has never been more important.” Ian Donnis soon reported The Journal would seek another round of employee buyouts, with a severance offer designed to entice veteran staffers who’ve passed the 40-year mark. (“I’ve had more people call me [about this buyout] than have called me on past ones,” John Hill, who leads the Journal union, told me.) It’s no secret why more buyouts are being sought: Projo print circulation fell another 10% over the past year, shrinking to 69,000 on Sundays and 56,000 on weekdays. But Journal editors are also aware there is only so much you can cut, with the staff down to about two dozen news reporters, excluding sports and features.

6. In happier media news, congratulations to Rhode Island PBS. Looking forward to seeing how Dave Piccerelli invests the station’s $94.5 million windfall.

7. The Cook Political Report’s new Partisan Voter Index for Congress is out and updated to take into account the results of the 2016 election. The index “measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole. … A Partisan Voting Index score of D+2, for example, means that in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, that district performed an average of two points more Democratic than the nation did as a whole.” Both of Rhode Island’s congressional districts got slightly more competitive last year. David Cicilline’s 1st District weighs in at D+14, ranking it No. 100 (out of 435) among the most Democratic districts; Jim Langevin’s 2nd District weighs in at D+6, ranking it No. 157. Cook defines competitive districts as those with a score of +5 or lower, so the 2nd District is close to being competitive. Still, and despite all the buzz about Donald Trump’s outsized appeal in parts of Rhode Island, neither district ranks among the 25 that shifted most towards the Republicans in 2016. (In Massachusetts, Joe Kennedy’s 4th District comes in at D+9, ranking 128th-most Democratic.)

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8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “We’re starting to get a glimpse of how the Elorza administration plans to begin drawing revenue from Providence’s water supply. The mayor has Rep. Scott Slater and Sen. Maryellen Goodwin – both city employees – sponsoring legislation that would create an 11-member regional water authority with the power to acquire local water systems. It’s likely Providence Water would be among the new board’s first targets, but administration officials acknowledge they aren’t expecting any immediate windfall of cash for the city. The bill Elorza is backing is similar to one put forth by the Taveras administration in 2013, but rather than allow the House speaker and Senate president to have some control over board appointees, the governor gets to name four members and the rest are chosen by the mayors of Providence, North Providence, Cranston and Johnston. (Good luck getting that approved.) There are other red flags, too. The bill is coming to lawmakers relatively late in the session and Providence won’t have a full valuation of its water system completed until the end of the month. Couple that with Council President Luis Aponte questioning whether the administration did its due diligence with the plan – remember, Jeff Britt, the City Council’s lobbyist, has the speaker’s ear – and it would appear the mayor is in an uphill battle this year. Then again, there is always a chance. City officials view the creation of a board as a nonthreatening first step because nothing would require the board to actually acquire any water systems. And there was at least some appetite for creating this board four years ago, although the plan faded rather quickly. We should learn where things stand after legislators’ spring break.”

9. Is WaterFire worth $150,000 a year to Providence taxpayers?

10. Senator Whitehouse will now release his tax returns, leaving only four top Rhode Island elected officials who won’t: Congressman Langevin, Attorney General Kilmartin, Speaker Mattiello and President Ruggerio.

11. The ACLU has another legal brief worth reading in the 38 Studios grand-jury fight, this time pushing back at Attorney General Kilmartin’s arguments for keeping the material secret. “It is not enough that our grandchildren may someday understand what happened,” write Jared Goldstein and Andrew Horwitz of the Roger Williams law school.

12. Mike Stenhouse’s Center for Freedom and Prosperity is trying to raise $5,000 to air this new “Hey, Dude” ad on radio and social media. The commercial’s targets: hiking the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, mandating paid sick days, and giving out free tuition. Stenhouse’s group instead suggests lawmakers should reduce the state sales tax from 7% to 3%. (Surprisingly perhaps, the new Bryant poll released this week showed higher support for cutting the income tax than reducing the sales tax, car tax or business tax.) “We have enough in hand to have started social media advertising earlier this week, and enough to start pricing radio and cable TV packages,” Stenhouse reports. He expects radio ads to start running within the next two weeks.

13. Interesting Reuters piece on Providence-based United Natural Foods.

14. Rhode Island Kids Count’s latest annual Factbook is full of interesting data – Dan McGowan has a good rundown here. One statistic that stood out: Rhode Island now has the fifth-lowest birth rate in the country, following a 15% slide in the number of babies born here over the last decade. What does that mean for the state’s future? It’s already having an effect on the economy, with Care New England saying the decline in births is hurting revenue at Women & Infants.

15. Interesting policy proposal of the week #1 comes from Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Teresa Tanzi, both Dems, who want to require more information from state agencies about the caseloads of various social services programs, and have it reported monthly. “We need an accurate accounting of how many individuals we are serving in these vital programs, so that our budget reflects the associated costs, or makes program adjustments, or both,” DiPalma said. Topical, too, as state leaders nervously await the budget-shaping May numbers in the wake of the UHIP mess.

16. Interesting policy proposal of the week #2 comes from Rep. Ken Mendonça, a freshman Republican, and GOP Leader Patricia Morgan, who want to create a two-tiered state minimum wage. Under their proposal, the hourly minimum wage would be capped at $9.65 for workers ages 19 and younger. Morgan argues the bill will “help teenagers gain suitable employment, where they can gain experience and get a good start in life.” It’s far from unheard of – Minnesota, for example, has multiple minimum wages. However, the idea got strong pushback from Democratic Sen. Jeanine Calkin, among others. “Young people don’t have protections like other groups. They are an easy target,” she tweeted. “Equal work must mean equal pay.”

17. Many folks have undoubtedly tuned out the long-running battle in Newport over whether a new visitors center should be put on the grounds of The Breakers (as the Newport Preservation Society wants) or on a nearby parking lot (as Gloria Vanderbilt, whose family built the mansion, and her allies prefer). One-time Jack Reed opponent Trudy Coxe, who leads the Preservation Society, suggested this week construction is about to begin – but critics note her group still doesn’t have a building permit, and needs to file more planning documents. Opposition appears to be intensifying, with Vanderbilt herself writing to the Projo and The New York Times publishing a critical piece. Still, Coxe seems determined to press ahead.

18. The not-so-glamorous life of a newbie U.S. Supreme Court justice.

19. Why people are getting lonelier, and what to do about it.

20. Charles Darwin was a slacker – and we should be, too.

21. We should also try to find meaning outside of work.

22. Happy Easter, if you’re celebrating!

23. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable tackles the week in the news. This week on Executive Suite – Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner. 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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