Nesi’s Notes: April 29

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. Lincoln Chafee, comeback kid? “Never say never,” Chafee told me this week, while describing himself as “a realist” about the chances he could become governor again. Many scoffed, and it’s hard to blame them. Chafee’s first three years in office left his standing so low he couldn’t seek a second term; the final time WPRI 12 polled his job approval, in late 2013, it was only 30%. His aborted 2015 presidential run was widely mocked. And Robert Walsh, whose union was vital to Chafee’s 2010 victory, doubts there’s much appetite for him inside NEARI today. “As a candidate, Governor Chafee made commitments on a range of issues including pensions and contract-dispute resolution, and understood the hostility of our members to the then-leadership at the Department of Education. As governor, he broke those commitments,” Walsh said. “I would not expect that his candidacy would receive a warm welcome from our members.” Still, even if Chafee ran and lost he could cause headaches for Gina Raimondo in 2018 (and might enjoy that). Money is no object for him, for one thing. Furthermore, that same 2013 poll put his approval rating among Democrats at 41%, suggesting if he ran as an independent he might steal some votes Raimondo will need if she wants to win. Chafee is already attacking the governor on an issue where she’s vulnerable: her 2011 move to invest pension money in hedge funds, which still enrages many retirees. So while conventional wisdom suggests Chafee won’t run, conventional wisdom hasn’t had the best track record lately – and Linc Chafee is anything but conventional.

2. One thing Governor Raimondo’s re-election campaign won’t lack is money. She’s already sitting on $1.8 million, and will likely hit the $2 million mark when she reports her first-quarter haul on Monday. Governor Carcieri, by comparison, had stockpiled just $275,000 at the same point in his first term. But fundraising never ends: Barett Bready and his wife, Alma, are hosting a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Raimondo on May 11 at their Providence home. Co-hosts include Joe Paolino, Jim DeRentis, Paul Choquette, Brad Dimeo, Mark Ryan, Joe Walsh and Gayle Wolf.

3. Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, is such a true believer in the cause of tuition-free education that he agreed to cross party lines and talk up Governor Raimondo’s proposal on a conference call this week. “I think we both understand that the changing world means that folks in our position have to be prepared to lead in different ways,” Haslam said. (His program is limited to community and technical colleges, excluding the four-year schools Raimondo wants to include.) The Nashville-on-the-Narragansett gambit continued the governor’s incessant drumbeat in favor of the college plan. Yet there’s no sign any of those efforts are swaying Speaker Mattiello; if anything, the pressure may make him dig in his heels. Plus, with tax revenue missing forecasts, Mattiello may need to put the $10 million Raimondo wants for free college toward the $40 million he wants for the car tax. Caught in the middle to some extent is House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney, who has a cordial relationship with Raimondo (and everyone else at the State House) but serves at the pleasure of the speaker. “I don’t know that he’s hostile,” Abney said Thursday on RIPR’s Political Roundtable. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have leaders who look at the same situation and may not look at it at exactly the same way. … I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but I do think over a period of time you have to be able to compromise on some things. I don’t think he’s just dead set on not looking at it as something that may be helpful, but I do think that we have to look at it in terms of the budget that we have.”

4. Rhode Island isn’t alone in facing a revenue shortfall as the spring budgeting season arrives. In Massachusetts, Governor Baker warned employees tax revenue is on track to grow only 2% rather than the 3.1% his administration expected. (That 3.1% estimate had already been lowered twice, too.) And Connecticut remains the basket case of Southern New England, with Governor Malloy and lawmakers now staring down a deficit of more than $4 billion over the next two years.

5. The Wexford 195 land project took another step forward Friday. A Commerce Corporation panel approved net tax credits of $13.5 million for Wexford’s proposed innovation complex, as well as $7.5 million for the 174-unit River House student housing complex to be built next door to South Street Landing. The two projects’ construction costs will also be exempt from sales tax. The full board will take up the measures Monday. With the taxpayer price tag for Wexford closing in on $40 million, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pyror insists it’s all worth it. “The innovation complex in the 195 district has the potential to transform this area of our capital city,” he told me Friday. “It also has the potential to catalyze economic activity and produce jobs well beyond. This project is on track and we’re very enthusiastic about the opportunity that it represents.” (Pryor said the agency may also approve a tax-increment financing agreement for a hotel developer Dick Galvin wants to attach to the Wexford campus, remitting a portion of hotel tax receipts back to the project, which he said may reduce the amount of tax credits that will be provided.)

6. On at least two occasions, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has used the power of her office to make life difficult for a scandal-tarred elected official – first in the John Carnevale affair, when she refused to certify his nomination papers, and then in the Kevin Jackson recall, when she pressured city officials into scheduling the election. “I have a commitment to the voters of Rhode Island,” Gorbea explained on this week’s Newsmakers. “I told them elections would be fair, fast and accurate. And if I see an opportunity to make sure that that happens, I’m actually going to take it. Now, having said that, I totally respect the role that the Board of Elections plays, as well as our local Boards of Canvassers. … But as you said, for federal purposes I’m the chief state election official, and people have a right to see their voices heard.”

7. Ken Block and his allies will bring their campaign for a line-item veto to the Senate on Wednesday for the first hearing before the newly formed Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight. “Good government reforms don’t happen in Rhode Island without a fight,” Block declared in an email Friday rallying his troops.

8. “It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up.

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9. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The most common question I’m getting from sources and readers these days is simple: ‘What’s going in City Hall right now?’ They’re not talking about Mayor Elorza’s plan to hold the line on taxes or the city’s goal of boosting its pension fund by profiting off the water supply. It starts with the City Council, where Councilman Kevin Jackson is facing a recall election on Tuesday and Council President Luis Aponte is facing a grand jury investigation that appears to be connected to alleged campaign finance violations. While the current council can be credited with streamlining the city’s tax stabilization process, raising important questions about the management of the licensing department and advocating for a $20-million bond for ProvPort, all the focus has been on the legal troubles of Jackson and Aponte, who rose to power together in 2015. At the same time, there isn’t a lot of activity coming from Elorza’s office, either. Few would question Elorza’s integrity, and his commitment to improving schools deserves credit, but no one is quite sure of the mayor’s long-term strategy for improving the city’s finances. His legislative agenda doesn’t appear to be gaining any steam at the State House, and he couldn’t even get the majority of Providence representatives and senators in the room for his budget address last week. Which brings me to the most common answer I give when asked about what’s happening in City Hall. ‘I really don’t know.’”

10. In McGowan’s defense, the mayor himself just said the same thing.

11. President Trump’s one-pager on taxes won a positive review from GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Bobby Nardolillo, who noted it would save money for his own family’s business, which “would definitely give us the assets needed to upgrade infrastructure and staff.” Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, unsurprisingly, panned the outline as offering “enormous tax cuts to the people who need them least.” (The rest of the congressional delegation echoed Whitehouse’s sentiments.) Where Nardolillo and Whitehouse share some common ground is their openness to eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes, which was worth $322 million to Rhode Islanders last year. Nardolillo said he is “open to a discussion of any revision or simplification in the code that will leave us all with more of our own cash,” while a Whitehouse spokesman said he “will look at changes to specific provisions in the context of broader reform proposals.” Congressman Langevin also left the door open to eliminating the exemption, while Senator Reed and Congressman Cicilline both said they strongly oppose doing so.

12. Sheldon Whitehouse scored a win against the Trump administration this week when EPA chief Scott Pruitt backed out of a fundraising appearance after Whitehouse filed an ethics complaint. (America Rising argued Whitehouse was being hypocritical, in light of Obama aides’ own 2012 campaign activities.) Drawing less attention was Whitehouse’s decision to vote in committee for Trump’s FDA nominee, Scott Gottlieb – making him one of only two Democrats who crossed party lines to back the pick. Whitehouse’s statement for the Senate record didn’t explain his reasoning, instead highlighting a possible negative about Gottlieb related to the company Cephalon. “These concerns were brought to my attention shortly before today’s vote, and they deserve to be taken seriously,” Whitehouse said. (Also getting the senator some national attention during the week: this video he put out on climate change and campaign money.)

13. Steve Nielsen finds DEM was warned about the Salty Brine turbine.

14. The latest round of buyouts at The Providence Journal has put a spotlight on how much the paper’s work force has shrunk during the last decade’s plunge in print revenue. While the paper does not publish an employee count, its parent companies’ regulatory filings give a sense of the change: at the end of 2007, then-owner A.H. Belo said the Projo had about 530 union employees; at the end of last year, that number was down to about 289 – a decline of nearly half in nine years. And the new year is off to a challenging start at Projo parent New Media Investment Group, which reported a net loss of $3.7 million this week. The company also recently disclosed that Kirk Davis, CEO of its Projo-owning subsidiary GateHouse, saw his total compensation drop 37% in 2016 to $1.5 million thanks to a lower bonus and stock awards, though his base salary jumped 10% to $550,000.

15. CVS Pharmacy President Helena Foulkes, sometimes tipped as a future CVS CEO, has reportedly been interviewed to become the No. 2 at Uber.

16. The layoffs at Care New England this week led DLT Director Scott Jensen to insist, “Protecting jobs in Rhode Island’s health care sector is among Governor Raimondo’s top priorities.” Yet on some level the layoffs appear to be the inevitable result of policies embraced by Raimondo and her predecessors – putting tight caps on insurer payments, cutting and freezing Medicaid rates, refusing to let low-margin hospitals close, and so on. As Harvard economist Katherine Baicker told Kaiser Health News this week, “The goal of increasing jobs in health care is incompatible with the goal of keeping health care affordable. There’s a lot of evidence we can get more bang for our buck in health care. We should be aiming for a health care system that operates more efficiently and effectively. That might mean better outcomes for patients and fewer jobs.” Case in point: one of the things weighing on Women & Infants’ revenue is that fewer babies are going into the NICU – a positive development health-wise, but a net negative on the hospital’s balance sheet.

17. Hasbro is on a hot streak, thanks in part to … Toilet Trouble.

18. Democratic operative Dave Hoffman, a local native who ran Guillaume De Ramel’s campaign for secretary of state in 2014, has signed on as campaign manager for James Mackler, a Democrat challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (who may not even run). Mackler, a Nashville lawyer and Iraq war veteran, has his work cut out for him – President Trump won Tennessee by 26 points last fall, and Corker took 65% of the vote in his last re-election campaign.

19. Pre-president Donald Trump reviews “Citizen Kane.”

20. Four secrets to a happy life, from a 78-year study.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea; a roundtable on Providence politics. This week on Executive Suite – Taco CEO John Hazen White Jr. 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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