Nesi’s Notes: May 20

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. Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello are tossing the PawSox plan back and forth like a 500-degree hot potato. Raimondo, whose team spent months negotiating the deal, simultaneously suggests it’s compelling but refuses to endorse it, only urging lawmakers to “take a hard look.” Mattiello, left out on a limb with his vocal support for Jim Skeffington’s Providence plan back in 2015, doesn’t want to touch this new one unless Raimondo is already committed. (“If the governor is in favor of the project and she sends us some legislation, we will be very happy to take it up and hold public hearings,” the speaker told Dan Yorke on Friday.) The obvious reason for their skittishness: both are profoundly wary of the public backlash against public subsidies, and both could face tough re-election races next year. PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino, appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, sounded almost incredulous about the skepticism. According to Lucchino, the team’s offer to pay for more than half of the $83-million project is believed to be the most generous split taxpayers have ever been offered on a minor-league ballpark, anywhere. “This is a special arrangement for Rhode Island,” he said. Still, Lucchino ruled out having the PawSox owners provide a backstop guarantee in case tax revenue falls short of what’s needed to cover public borrowing for the project. “There are no guarantees involved in this going in either direction,” he said. “The state is not guaranteeing us a certain level of revenue – we are not guaranteeing them a certain level of revenue.” Is that a risk legislators – and taxpayers – will be willing to accept before the Assembly session ends, just a few weeks from now? And if not, will the PawSox start a more aggressive search for a new location outside Rhode Island? Lucchino wouldn’t bite on that question, but noted the team wants to be in a new stadium before its McCoy lease ends in 2020 and needs more than two years to build a new facility – do the math. At the same time, how easy will it be to find another New England city willing to take this deal if Rhode Island spurns it?

2. The packets lawmakers are getting from the PawSox include a team-commissioned poll of 450 Rhode Island voters conducted last month by Joe Fleming (who’s also our pollster at WPRI 12). Larry Lucchino’s favorite finding: 68% say they would support the new ballpark if it “would pay for itself from tax collections generated by the ballpark and the ball club, as well as PawSox rent payments, revenue from naming rights to the ballpark and other cost contributions made by the PawSox, and would not require any tax increases.” The survey also finds 75% say it’s important the PawSox remain in Rhode Island and 62% support “the concept of a new ballpark.” But public subsidies are a third rail: 63% oppose “using taxpayers’ money to build a new stadium,” including 40% who strongly oppose it. And 54% oppose “taxpayer assistance, like tax relief and/or publicly financed infrastructure upgrades” for the ballpark. It would appear, then, the team’s only politically viable option is to convince voters – and lawmakers – that ballpark-related tax revenue will cover the entire cost of the stadium bonds.

3. Not helping the PawSox is the deteriorating state budget situation, with the hole in Governor Raimondo’s January proposal now pegged at $134 million. Speaker Mattiello’s car tax cut will still be in the final budget – though it’s now a six-year phaseout, starting with a “transition year” – but chances are slim to none that the governor’s tuition plan will make the cut in anything like its original form. Leading House lawmakers speak of the need to be “realistic” about new initiatives due to the shortfall, and though the governor’s aides note that car tax elimination is also a (more expensive) new initiative, the speaker clearly has the votes. (A tax cut is also seen as less complicated than a new program.) Here’s a sign of the governor’s whip count problems: I emailed all 21 reps who backed the progressive “Fair Shot Agenda” on Thursday, and only one, Aaron Regunberg, indicated he thinks the tuition plan should be included in the budget. A handful expressed openness to the plan but said the timing isn’t right because of the budget shortfall. (Most – 15 – didn’t respond by press time.) Still, Raimondo spokesman Mike Raia said she isn’t giving up yet. “From the day she introduced Rhode Island Promise, the governor has felt strongly that a vote for it was a vote for jobs,” he said. “There may be changes to the original proposal in the days ahead, but Governor Raimondo believes strongly that if we want Rhode Islanders to get the jobs Rhode Island companies are creating, we can’t afford not to invest in job training and higher education.”

4. Free tuition may be on the ropes, but the Democratic Governors Association hasn’t given up on its TV ad campaign promoting the plan. The DGA-affiliated nonprofit America Works USA recently booked another $50,000 in commercial time on local TV stations, bringing the total amount spent airing the ads on Rhode Island channels to $233,000 since mid-March. That’s on top of tens of thousands more spent with cable and online outlets.

5. With state revenue now forecast to come in $100 million lower than expected this year and next year, it’s worth recalling that Governor Raimondo, Speaker Mattiello and other state leaders have passed a number of tax cuts recently. State officials estimate, for example, that revenue would be roughly $116 million higher in 2017-18 if not for the new retiree tax exemptions and higher Earned Income Tax Credit (worth a combined $73 million) as well as various business tax cuts (worth a combined $40 million). Mattiello also successfully pushed through cuts in the corporate tax and the estate tax back in 2014 (though the corporate tax cut was sold as revenue-positive due to related accounting changes).

6. Remember the Superman building? Four years after Bank of America moved out, it’s still sitting empty in the heart of downtown. Owner David Sweetser has kept a low profile during this year’s General Assembly session, and at this late hour it’s hard to imagine anyone putting forward a formal proposal for the state to help redevelop the property. Meanwhile, Sweetser and Bank of America recently reached a legal settlement – and while strict confidentiality rules block either side from saying how much money exchanged hands, the buzz is that it was a significant sum. Asked Friday for an update on the building’s future, Superman spokesman Bill Fischer told me to stay tuned. “It is our intent to discuss development plans in greater detail once progress with prospective commercial tenants are further advanced,” he said.

7. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Luis Aponte may have formally resigned as council president Friday afternoon, but the race to replace him began even before his indictment last week. Here’s what’s we know for sure. With Aponte out, Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15) is the acting leader of the council. There’s an argument that she could just remain in the acting position for the rest of the term, as then-Councilwoman Balbina Young did when John Lombardi was bumped up from president to acting mayor following Buddy Cianci’s resignation in 2002. But that’s a far less exciting option than a real race for council president. If a vote were to happen to today, it seems likely Matos would have the support to take over. But if the vote is held following this summer’s special election in Ward 3 to replace recalled Councilman Kevin Jackson, there’s a possibility that other options could emerge. We know Councilors Nick Narducci (Ward 4) and David Salvatore (Ward 14) are already trying to drum up support to become president. The general belief around City Hall is that Narducci, Salvatore, Ward 1 Councilman Seth Yurdin, Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier and Ward 8 Councilman Wilbur Jennings will ultimately vote as a bloc. If they can scoop up a sixth vote in the Ward 3 special election, there would at least be a real contest. Another factor is Aponte. Even though he’s out as president, he is still a voting member of the council. Where will he throw his support and will any potential president actually want him to be the clinching vote? Keep in mind that Aponte and Ward 9 Councilwoman Carmen Castillo are likely to vote together from here on out. Finally, there’s Mayor Elorza. He did himself no favors with the council this week by holding a press conference to say Aponte would be a ‘president in name only’ – the message: ‘stay out of our business and we’ll stay out of yours’ – but he’s still the mayor. There must be at least one or two councilors whose decision he could influence. In short, Matos is the clear favorite to become the permanent president – but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.”

8. Governor Raimondo may have found a landing spot for Tom Papa, who served as the Senate president’s chief of staff until the retirement of Teresa Paiva Weed. (Dominick Ruggerio put his own trusted adviser Steve Iannazzi in the job.) Papa is seeking an advisory opinion from the R.I. Ethics Commission to find out whether he’s allowed to become the governor’s director of boards and commissions, a job Meredith Curren held until she became director of talent development in January. Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz emphasized that Papa has not been offered the job, though he clearly will have a strong shot if he wins ethics clearance. (Paiva Weed herself is also on the Ethics Commission’s May 23 agenda, asking about how the revolving-door provision applies to her new job leading the Hospital Association of Rhode Island.)

9. Operative-turned-lobbyist Jeff Britt hosted another fundraiser for a top House Democrat last Friday evening, this time to benefit Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi’s political action committee, RI Good Government PAC. Co-hosts were Kenneth Goodreau, Jeff Grybowski, Anthony Marcello and Stephen Soscia. Suggested contributions: $250, $500 and $1,000. Britt co-hosted a similar event for Speaker Mattiello back in December, shortly after he helped the speaker win his narrow re-election victory.

10. This week’s 38 Studios grand-jury ruling attracted relatively little attention, which could affect the calculus for state leaders going forward. Governor Raimondo faces a decision about whether to appeal the ruling to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio must decide whether to pass Rep. Charlene Lima’s bill to release the material. The House already approved Lima’s measure back in March.

11. Senator Reed won some praise from Newsmax, of all outlets.

12. Senator Whitehouse has dismissed a Politico report on his stock trades. He also gave an interesting speech recalling the successful 1992 effort to fix Rhode Island’s broken workers’ compensation system.

13. Bobby Nardolillo is officially in for U.S. Senate, and it sounds like Robert Flanders is leaning toward running, too.

14. Congressman Cicilline delivered this week’s Weekly Democratic Address.

15. If you’ve never read “Washington Journal,” Elizabeth Drew’s contemporaneous recounting of how Watergate unfolded, you should.

16. Big week for Rhode Island business leaders in national magazines. Alex + Ani CEO Carolyn Rafaelian made the cover of Forbes, while CVS Pharmacy President Helena Foulkes and Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski are both on Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business list.

17. Tim White has a great story coming Monday night that takes a closer look at Rhode Island’s much-criticized Vehicle Value Commission.

18. Why are so many working-age Rhode Islanders still without a job?

19. On Sunday at 2, family members and Rhode Island leaders will gather for the formal dedication of Station Fire Memorial Park in West Warwick, commemorating the 100 lives lost and more than 200 injured in the 2003 tragedy. The event will include a rare post-governorship public appearance by Don Carcieri, who’ll offer opening remarks. We’ll have full coverage of the dedication on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com, including a live stream of the event for those who can’t be there in person.

20. From the U.K., a thoughtful take on the new divide in western politics.

21. Could it be that Machiavelli was not a Machiavellian?

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Pawtucket Red Sox Chairman Larry Lucchino. This week on Executive SuiteDiana Franchitto, president and CEO, Home Care & Hospice of New England. 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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