Nesi’s Notes: May 27

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. To start this Memorial Day weekend, a pause to remember the names of the 29 Rhode Island service members who’ve lost their lives in the wars since 9/11. The honor roll: Gregory BelangerJoseph CamaraCharles T. CaldwellMichael AndradeSharon T. SwartworthMatthew J. AugustCurtis ManciniRichard L. FergusonMatthew K. SerioChristopher CashJohn J. Van Gyzen IVChristopher S. PottsHolly A. CharetteMatthew S. CoutuDennis J. FlanaganBrian R. St. GermainDale James Kelly Jr.Moises JazminMichael R. WeidemannRonald A. Gill Jr.Francis L. Toner IVKyle J. CoutuMichael F. ParanzinoDennis C. PoulinNickolas D. SchiavoniDennis P. Weichel Jr., Abraham Tarwoe, Timothy R. McGill and Andrew McKenna.

2. When you’re haggling over a car, there comes that moment when you have to decide whether to take the offer or walk away – then see whether the dealer chases after you with a better offer, or moves on and sells the car to a different customer. Rhode Island and the PawSox appear to be quickly approaching that point. After Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s decisive statement Tuesday ruling out consideration of the stadium plan this session, there’s next to no chance an agreement will be reached in the coming weeks – particularly with Governor Raimondo and Mayor Grebien descending into bickering and finger-pointing. (As for PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino, he’s been totally silent – publicly – since Ruggerio’s announcement.) According to Grebien, the PawSox owners have said they’ll begin looking for a new location on July 1 if the ballpark deal isn’t consummated. But will they find public officials elsewhere who’ll take this deal if Rhode Island’s won’t? And where? Worcester? Montreal? Ruggerio and Speaker Mattiello have left the door open to a fall session on the stadium, but the speaker says his price is a formal endorsement by Raimondo, who’s been studiously distancing herself from “the mayor’s initiative” in recent days. And even if Raimondo signs on by then, the team would still need to accept the delay, and rank-and-file lawmakers would need to be convinced a pro-park vote isn’t politically toxic. No wonder Grebien is scrambling.

3. How would this week have played out if Teresa Paiva Weed were still Senate president? It’s hard to imagine her shutting down the stadium debate (for now) with a surprise solo statement the way Dominick Ruggerio did.

4. Providence Journal sports columnist Jim Donaldson has given a brutal review to the State House debate over the PawSox. “Politics is Rhode Island’s favorite sport,” he writes. “So what say we play a little political baseball? What we have is a lineup of local pols who speak loudly but swing very small sticks. They all say they want to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox … but no one is willing to step up to the plate and do the deal.” Donaldson wrote those words in 1995, the last time Smith Hill was roiled by a request to use state money on a ballpark. On that occasion, Rhode Island leaders eventually agreed to borrow $12 million to upgrade McCoy Stadium, and the PawSox signed the lease that’s keeping the team there through 2020. That deal seems to have encountered much less skepticism than this one; in March 1996 Journal reporter John Hill wrote, “There appears to be no political resistance.” One factor in Pawtucket’s favor in the 1990s was its political clout, with a House led by two city reps, Speaker John Harwood and Finance Chairman Tony Pires, and a governor who was born in the city, Linc Almond. Another: the team was still owned by the beloved Ben Mondor, not the current ownership group that made such a dreadful first impression on Rhode Islanders two years ago. The request was also for upgrades to McCoy rather than a new stadium, and those upgrades were required by the International League and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still, it’s quite a contrast.

5. The Journal archive does show at least one note of dissent on the last McCoy Stadium deal. William Clay, then a board member at Operation Clean Government, published an op-ed in March 1998 criticizing state leaders for only requiring the team to pay one-fifth of the project’s projected $15-million cost. “Where are the editorials and letters to the editor on this? Where are the citizens’ objections?” he asked. “Wake up, taxpayers. It is your money and your constitutional right to approve state bonding that are being taken from you.” Some debates are perennials.

6. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, sports columnist Thom Loverro argues: “It’s time to put Larry Lucchino in the Orioles Hall of Fame.”

7. The announcement that Speaker Mattiello will roll out his much-anticipated plan to eliminate the car tax on Tuesday suggests a final state budget compromise shouldn’t be too far behind. (House Finance has unveiled the budget between June 5 and June 21 almost every year for the last two decades.) We already know Mattiello expects to release a six-year phaseout, with 2017-18 set to be a “transition year” to harmonize how municipalities handle the car tax statewide. One of the biggest questions will be how the plan affects future budget deficits, especially in the context of other policy debates happening in Washington. Back in January, the governor’s office projected that Rhode Island would run a deficit of $194 million in 2021-22 under her budget proposal. That proposal included $30 million for free tuition, so take that out for now and it’s a $164 million deficit. Mattiello would be in the fourth year of the six-year car tax phaseout at that point, so let’s conservatively add $100 million in additional car tax relief that year – now you’re at a $264 million deficit. On top of that, the state has projected it would need $121 million that year to cover federal Medicaid cuts under the GOP Obamacare replacement plan. Add that, and you’re up to a deficit of nearly $400 million in 2021-22. Obviously this is back-of-the-envelope math based on only one potential scenario – the GOP health bill might not pass (or the state might not replace the reduced federal funding), the car tax cut at that point could be smaller (or bigger), the economy could be doing better than expected (or worse). But it shows how precarious Rhode Island’s long-term financial position remains.

8. And speaking of car taxes, Tim White has a great piece on the much-criticized R.I. Vehicle Value Commission, including why its members refuse to account for wear-and-tear when they value cars for tax purposes.

9. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Is Mayor Elorza beginning to hit his stride in Providence? His image is certainly boosted by a City Council in disarray, but the first-term Democrat has also scored himself a few victories as he gears up to enter re-election mode. It seems clear now that Providence won’t be at risk of losing federal funds for being a ‘sanctuary city,’ meaning Elorza’s vocal opposition to President Trump has earned him love from his base without the threat of actually hurting the capital’s finances. He also appears likely to score a political victory over one of his most vocal critics – former Mayor Joe Paolino – by vetoing the proposed downtown smoking ban without the risk of an override from the council. Then there’s the controversial Community Safety Act. Elorza jumped the gun by backing the police reform ordinance before it was fully supported by his popular chief of police, but it will return next week with a new name – the Providence Community-Police Relations Act – and the support of the chief and police union leadership. Finally, it appears that sometime next month his budget will sail smoothly through the council with few changes. To be sure, there is more work to do. The big-ticket items on his legislative agenda this year appear to be going nowhere, and he hasn’t released a realistic plan to address the city’s long-term liabilities. But his office is looking safer now than it appeared 12 months ago.”

10. Ridership at the Wickford Junction MBTA station is on pace to come in 90% below the projections used to sell the $45-million facility. That’s not a typo: 3,386 was the projection for daily ridership by 2020, but it’s currently only 292. Tim White reports RIDOT is going to start offering free rides from Providence to Wickford in a bid to promote the service.

11. Republican Bobby Nardolillo took his maiden voyage on Newsmakers as a GOP U.S. Senate candidate Friday, weighing in on a number of hot-button issues. Among his more interesting answers: he opposes the current Republican Obamacare replacement bill, he thinks James Comey should have recommended charges against Hillary Clinton, he’s against a border wall (and right-to-work), and he suggests President Trump should call “a halt” on immigration until it has done a full review of current policy. You can watch the full interview here.

12. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse will be raising money for his re-election campaign at a June 27 fundraiser headlined by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, according to the Center on Responsive Politics. The location: Acqua al 2, a restaurant in Washington. Suggested contributions: $5,000 to $1,000.

13. Clay Pell is definitely not running for governor in 2018, according to Lincoln Chafee, who apparently sounded Pell out about challenging Gina Raimondo and shared what he learned with National Journal. A spokesman for Pell declined to comment.

14. Will Rhode Island’s coming truck tolls actually gross $45 million a year? Whether you believe Patricia Morgan or Peter Alviti on the net proceeds, that basic fact won’t be verifiable until 2019 or 2020, after the gantries’ first full year in operation, although the early revenue numbers could provide a clue. (Also worth recalling is the 2016 RIPEC analysis that suggested the tolls will yield $700 million in extra revenue for RIDOT from 2022 to 2032.)

15. Just because a problem drops out of the headlines doesn’t mean it isn’t still a problem. Such is the case with Rhode Island’s 34 independent municipal pension plans, with their $2.5 billion unfunded liability and alarming paperwork problems. Providence is the biggest concern of the bunch, with a billion-dollar shortfall and an investment portfolio that was 5% lower this month than it was at the end of 2010. (The state’s portfolio is 10% higher.) Under the radar, though, at least some local leaders are still chipping away at the problem, with Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena recently announcing a deal on firefighters’ pensions.

16. Brown’s creation of a new physicians group with more than 500 doctors may not be the sexiest news story, but it’s a significant one. Kevin Hively, a veteran health care consultant who knows the local landscape well, wrote on Twitter: “Finally – an important step for better integrating health care delivery and a very important step for strengthening academic medicine in RI.” As Hively’s tweet suggests, discussions about bringing more Rhode Island doctors together have been happening for years; Dr. Brian Zink, who heads up emergency medicine at Rhode Island and Miriam hospitals, said colleagues in other states joke, “You’re still back in the 1980s – when are you even going to come into the 1990s?” For comparison’s sake, the physicians groups run by Harvard and Yale each have about 1,200 doctors, so Brown is just starting to build a scale to match its Ivy League peers – it will be interesting to see if the school continues to take a more active role in shaping Rhode Island health care’s future. Along with the ongoing wave of hospital mergers, it’s also more evidence of how quickly the local medical landscape is changing and consolidating.

17. And speaking of Brown Med, Dr. Rena Wing is featured in this new Time magazine cover story on “the weight loss trap.”

18. Some legislation to keep your eye on: the Young Adult Voluntary Extension of Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Deb Ruggiero. The bill would allow young people to receive DCYF foster care from ages 18 to 21, as was the case until a 2007 law rolled back the age limit, and has a group of energetic and influential supporters. Lisa Guillette of the group Foster Forward says the issue affects a relatively small group of young people each year, but can have an outsized impact on their futures. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the bill this week, though it’s unclear whether it will get the green light.

19. Women’s Wear Daily looks at the Rhode Island jewelry industry’s revival.

20. The late Congressman John Fogarty, who represented Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District from 1941 to 1967, was once described by local historian Patrick Conley as having “had more impact on the world than any other Rhode Island political figure.” With the disease-fighting NIH Fogarty International Center now being targeted for elimination, Fogarty’s daughter Mary has convinced Republican Congressman Tom Cole to try and get Fogarty’s picture hung in the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room. Cole chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NIH, and told Bloomberg that Fogarty is “in some ways the patron saint of this committee.”

21. Great profile of Providence’s Eugene Lee, longtime “SNL” set designer.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo. This week on Executive SuiteBuck Harris, vice president, Community Investment Corp.; Mike Murphy, president and CEO, Dryvit Systems. 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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