Nesi’s Notes: May 13

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. Is it even shocking anymore to see a high-profile Rhode Island politician in handcuffs? Providence City Council President Luis Aponte’s indictment this week for misusing campaign cash makes him the fourth leader prosecuted for alleged financial crimes in the past two years, following House Speaker Gordon Fox, House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison, and City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson. These aren’t obscure back-benchers – in fact, all four were awarded leadership positions by their colleagues despite a history of trouble with the Ethics Commission or the Board of Elections. (Indeed, audits by Board of Elections campaign-finance chief Ric Thornton were central to three of the four cases; the governor wants to formalize that process.) “This is embarrassing. This is disgraceful. And it’s sad,” Mayor Elorza said on this week’s Newsmakers. “It’s sad for the city. Every time we make progress and we feel as though we’re finally hitting our stride and we’ve left that legacy of corruption behind, we’re brought back to this. I think it’s a stain on the entire city, and it certainly limits all of us in our attempt to move forward.” Elorza also had a counter to anyone who might shrug off these cases as part and parcel of Rogue Island’s unique charm. “I’ve had people who speak directly with out-of-state developers that are interested in investing in the city, and they’ve reached back out to me and said, as long as we have sort of that cloud of that representation on the City Council they want nothing to do with the city,” he said. True, some developers are unfazed by the endless corruption headlines. “But we don’t know what we’re missing out on – what other investments, what kind of people we could be bringing to the city, if we could finally leave behind that legacy,” Elorza said.

2. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “This was supposed to be a good week for the Providence City Council. When I talked to Council President Luis Aponte at the end of last week, he told me he was crafting a plan that would raise the city’s car tax exemption, effectively lowering taxes for every Providence resident who owns a vehicle. He was excited. Then he was indicted. Now Aponte has all but one member of the City Council – Ward 9’s Carmen Castillo – and Mayor Elorza publicly calling for him to resign his leadership post. So what happens now? If Aponte refuses to resign, his colleagues can essentially render him powerless. Because so many want him out, they can call their own meetings and pass their own ordinances with little regard for his input. They could even take it a step further and change the rules of the City Council and attempt to impeach him. What seems more likely is Aponte will step down as president in the next  week, leaving Council President Pro Tempore Sabina Matos to become acting president. (True story: those close to Matos believe she accepted the president pro tempore position in 2015 because she had a feeling Aponte wouldn’t survive a four-year term.) What’s unclear is whether Matos will immediately call for a vote to become the permanent president or just keep the acting position until the term expires next year. We also don’t know if she’ll wait to hold a vote until after the special election in Ward 3 to replace recalled Councilman Kevin Jackson is held later this summer. Either way, voters in Providence may have to wait a little longer for that car tax plan.”

3. Mayor Elorza is not proud of how “Crimetown” portrays Providence.

4. Rhode Island’s top fiscal experts were full of optimism last November as they put together their twice-a-year forecasts, predicting state revenue would rise a respectable 1.5% this fiscal year, bringing in $3.72 billion by June 30. No such luck: at a glum meeting this week the same experts erased all that growth and then some, revising the forecast to a 0.1% drop and downgrading next year, too. Unsurprisingly, the new numbers led Speaker Mattiello and Governor Raimondo to trade barbs. (“[A] lot of the budget problems are due to not achieving budget savings or revenue initiatives the administration proposed,” Mattiello argued. “It’s the House’s budget now,” Raimondo’s spokesman replied.) With pistols drawn by the governor and the speaker, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and his new Finance Committee chairman, Bill Conley, could wind up refereeing their fights over the car tax and free tuition. “Very, very challenging,” Conley said when I asked about the outlook after the $100-million revenue miss. He was noncommittal on car tax and free tuition, noting those are “not Senate initiatives” and promising only that his colleagues would “continue to listen to both to see if they can find a way to do something. … It definitely makes it more difficult.” With all that in mind, then, how soon does Conley think we can expect a compromise budget to finally emerge? “Oh,” he said, “we’re looking at June.”

5. Did you know meeting minutes for municipal bodies like city councils don’t have to be posted on the secretary of state’s website, unlike those of most other government bodies in Rhode Island? Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey is looking to change that – he just passed a bill that would close that loophole. It would also exclude weekends and holidays from the 48-hour public notice countdown, so government bodies couldn’t post a Monday meeting late on the prior Friday. “Together, these improvements will make it easier for citizens to access their government and participate in democratic process,” McCaffrey told me in an email. It’s unclear whether McCaffrey’s bill will make it out of the other chamber, though – House spokesman Larry Berman said it is “too soon to know how this bill will fare.” Meanwhile, Common Cause is pushing an even more aggressive Open Meetings Act reform bill, sponsored by McCaffrey in the Senate and Bob Craven in the House.

6. After reading this column’s April 29 edition, an eagle-eyed reader pointed out that one of the co-hosts of a Governor Raimondo fundraiser scheduled for last night – former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino – also recently received up to $1.6 million in tax breaks for a development project from the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which Raimondo chairs. The reader asked, isn’t that conflict? Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz responds: “All projects undergo a thorough vetting process, including assessment of the financing gap and a negotiation that includes fiscally responsible features such as potential repayment to the state and rigorous audit requirements. All projects require the recommendation of the investment committee comprised of three board members. Although she chairs the board, the chair only votes in cases of a tie.”

7. Senate President Ruggerio is making good on his promise to retire from his six-figure post as administrator of the New England Laborers’ Labor-Management Cooperation Trust, an arm of the powerful Laborers’ International Union of North America, now that he’s leader of the Assembly’s upper chamber. Ruggerio “has filled out his retirement paperwork with the Laborers and is transitioning out,” spokesman Greg Pare tells me. “He will be officially retired later this month.”

8. It’s certainly not the only factor, but one reason organized labor retains its influence in Rhode Island politics is union leaders’ commitment to raising and spending money on elections. One sign of that: there are nine political action committees (PACs) in Rhode Island with at least $50,000 in their Board of Elections accounts, and all nine belong to labor unions. The best-funded is the Connecticut Laborers Political League ($171,000), followed by the NEARI teachers’ union ($133,000), two Laborers PACs (about $81,000 each), the Rhode Island carpenters’ union ($78,000), AFSCME Council 94 ($65,000), the New England Regional Council of Carpenters ($64,000), the Coventry teachers’ union ($55,000) and the correctional officers’ union ($53,000).

9. The American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill, has been widely panned by Rhode Island’s Democratic leaders and currently boasts a 21% approval rating. So it’s worth reading this Vox interview with Avik Roy, an influential conservative health wonk, for an explanation of why he sees promise in the bill and how it might be improved.

10. You don’t expect to hear much good about Senator Whitehouse at the White House press briefing podium under President Trump, but Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert used the platform Thursday to praise Whitehouse’s work on cybersecurity. Whitehouse was one of eight members of Congress – and the only Democrat among them – singled out for efforts that have “improved our cybersecurity over the last eight years,” in Bossert’s words. Bossert was at the podium to discuss an executive order on the topic Trump signed this week, and Whitehouse said he is “encouraged” by the order’s “focus on priorities of mine like cracking down on botnets, improving our cyber workforce, and strengthening deterrence against cyber aggression.”

11. Boston Federal Reserve Bank President Eric Rosengren was in town this week to award $400,000 grants to three Rhode Island cities, and while he was here he stopped by WPRI 12 to tape an episode of Executive Suite. Despite a weak start to 2017, Rosengren said he’s optimistic about the durability of the economic recovery. “Recoveries don’t die of old age,” he told me. “They die of policy mistakes. And as long as we don’t make policy mistakes – those could be policy mistakes that the Fed makes, that the federal government makes, it could be policy mistakes made abroad – those are the kinds of things that start a recession. I don’t see that as necessarily happening. So as long as we avoid those kinds of mistakes that we sometimes have made in the past, there’s no reason why the recovery wouldn’t continue on for some time.” Asked what advice he has for Rhode Island leaders shaping economic policy, Rosengren encouraged them to focus on workforce development. “I think Rhode Island, like Massachusetts and Northern New England, is going to be facing labor shortages as time goes on,” he warned. (The full interview is on our website and iTunes, and will air on TV Saturday at 10:30 p.m., then Sunday at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.)

12. The State Retirement Board is set to vote Monday on a proposal to reduce the pension fund’s projected long-term rate of return from 7.5% to 7%, and Treasurer Magaziner supports the change, spokesman Evan England reports. Lowering the rate of return increases how much money taxpayers need to put into the fund, because it’s a formal acknowledgment that investments won’t cover as much of the cost of pension benefits over time. (This would be the first reduction since 2011, when the Raimondo-chaired board reduced the rate from 8.25% to 7.5%, setting in motion the events that eventually led to that year’s pension overhaul.) The change comes with a two-year lag, so it wouldn’t impact the state budget until the 2019-20 fiscal year. Magaziner’s office projects it will increase the state’s contributions by about $42 million through 2021-22, but save $500 million over the long term by avoiding shortfalls from underfunding.

13. Rep. Knight wants House Oversight to look into what Steve Nielsen uncovered about DEM and the Salty Brine turbine.

14. Congrats to Tim White and his co-authors on their Independent Publisher Book Award for “Last Good Heist.”

15. Here’s why you can’t concentrate at work.

16. A great Anne Helen Petersen deep-dive on the National Enquirer.

17. “These 10 habits will change your life for the better.”

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. This week on Executive Suite – Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President & CEO Eric Rosengren. 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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