Nesi’s Notes: June 3

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. Speaker Mattiello’s $221-million proposal to eliminate the car tax won’t have its first hearing until Tuesday, but it’s all but a foregone conclusion the plan’s first installment will be included in the new state budget, now expected out the week after. “I and we are there to serve the public, and the public wants this,” Mattiello said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I’m getting countless emails. I’m getting people calling me thanking me. I haven’t had anyone yet call me and say, ‘Please don’t do it.'” Critics have quickly pointed out that the Mattiello plan is silent on where the money should come from to reimburse municipalities for their lost car tax revenue, which carries an annual price tag of $26 million in 2017-18 and eventually $221 million in perpetuity. “Everybody asks where it’s coming from,” Mattiello acknowledged. So far, he doesn’t have any specifics to offer. “That’s the question that everybody asks, ‘Where are you going to find it?’ It’s impossible to define where you’re going to find money for anything that’s already in the budget or that’s suggested,” the speaker said. “We are looking at doing things more efficiently and better than before,” he added. Without concrete ideas on how to pay for the plan, though, you can’t blame many drivers if they wonder whether Car Tax Phaseout 2.0 will meet the same fate as its predecessor – especially with the state already facing long-run deficits of nearly $200 million. Mattiello insists that this time, though, the car tax has met its match. “This is an important priority to me, and I’m going to stick around long enough that it gets accomplished,” he said.

2. Speaker Mattiello’s plan would cut car taxes by more than $4 million in Providence starting July 1, but Mayor Elorza isn’t ready to endorse it in full. “The car tax is one of the most regressive taxes in our state,” Elorza, a Democrat, told me in a statement. “Last year, we lowered the car tax in Providence and I am encouraged that both the governor and the speaker have said it is a priority to address it statewide.” No such hedging from the mayors of the state’s next three biggest cities, all of whom said they support Mattiello’s plan. “The state is reducing a tax burden that most people hate having to pay anyway,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a Republican. “With the state making cities and towns whole, and reducing what is a burden on all taxpayers, this can be a win all the way around.” (Avedisian also said, “Should the exemption change after tax bills are prepared, we will work collaboratively to issue credits for future tax payments.”) Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s spokesman said it “looks like a solid plan,” but made clear his support is contingent on the assurance it “reimburses cities and towns for losses in revenue from the phaseout.” Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, a Democrat and current president of the Rhode Island League of Cities & Towns, also said he supports the plan. “Speaker Mattiello continues to focus in on eliminating these types of regressive taxes to ensure the residents get relief while protecting municipalities,” he said.

3. Speaker Mattiello and his aides get frustrated when his 2016 opponent Steve Frias is credited for spurring his prioritization of the car tax (as well as his resistance to the revised PawSox stadium). Yet the speaker himself acknowledges that his thinking in this year’s legislative session was shaped in a big way by the earful he got from voters on the campaign trail last year. “It keeps a promise that I made, but I want to be clear – I made the promise not because it’s my initiative; it’s what I’m hearing from people,” Mattiello said. Frias, for his part, has no doubt about the role his challenge played. “In the year leading up to the 2016 campaign season, Speaker Mattiello had pushed for building a new taxpayer-funded PawSox stadium and blocked efforts to reduce the car tax,” he said. “My campaign pushed the speaker to the brink of defeat and forced him to finally listen to his constituents. As a result, this year, taxpayers are likely to see millions in car tax relief rather than see millions go to build a new PawSox stadium. The fear of losing power can cause Rhode Island’s most powerful politicians to be less arrogant and more accountable. Pressure leads to progress.”

4. Adding the $26 million needed for Speaker Mattiello’s car tax plan immediately increases the shortfall in the 2017-18 budget from $134 million to $160 million, making a hard job even harder. “We’re waiting upon some proposals from the governor as to how we can maximize efficiencies within the departments,” he said. “We have separation of powers, and some of this we have to get from the governor – or we may be forced to make across-the-board cuts, which I would prefer we not do; it’s not the best way to do it.” Mattiello said one option state leaders are reviewing is how they can increase the state’s reimbursements from the federal government. And one thing he did rule out: tax or fee increases. “No revenue enhancements,” he said. As for Governor Raimondo’s free tuition plan? “Any new spending proposal this year is very difficult to consider or accomplish,” he said. (Patricia Morgan’s House Republicans will make their own bid to influence the budget talks Tuesday, when they’ll announce four policies that must be included in order for them to support it.)

5. State lawmakers are seeking $44 million to fund themselves in 2017-18, which would be an increase of $6.6 million over just last year, for a 17% spike. The majority of that money is for the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, controlled by Speaker Mattiello and led by former Rep. Frank Montanaro; JCLS is seeking a nearly $3 million bump. On Newsmakers, Mattiello said he wasn’t aware of the double-digit growth in the legislature’s budget. “I don’t micromanage the General Assembly,” he said. “I’ll have to look at where those proposed increases are coming from. That’s news to me. But in the budget process we would go through it and I would ask for an explanation, and if there’s a reasonable explanation we’ll consider it. If not, the General Assembly’s budget is not going to grow while everybody else does not, unless there’s a particularized need that I’m unaware of right now. So that might be a wish list, but it may not be what comes out in the budget.”

6. It dominated Rhode Island’s political news agenda earlier in the month, but in recent days there was almost no PawSox stadium chatter. The team’s owners themselves have remained silent for more than a week since Senate President Ruggerio put the kibosh on the proposal for this session, and Mayor Grebien made no major splashes. Another ominous sign for the team: Speaker Mattiello is notably more skeptical about a state outlay for a Pawtucket stadium than he was for a Providence stadium. “I thought Providence would have been great – on the water, I saw it being successful, I saw it being a tool to revitalize Providence, help bring businesses in, give collateral business,” he said. Tim White asked, “So this doesn’t charge you up as much?” “It does not,” Mattiello replied. “Providence, I knew it would have been successful – I had a gut feeling about it, I thought it would be good. Pawtucket, you need an analysis that I don’t intuitively have.” Mattiello also reiterated that he won’t even consider bringing a stadium bill before the House without a full-throated, formal endorsement by Governor Raimondo – and so far that hasn’t been forthcoming.

7. Lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters – rejoice. We’re all going to get more sleep at the end of this year’s legislative session. Speaker Mattiello is sticking by his pledge that there will be no all-nighters to finish things up in the final days this time around. “Midnight’s too late. 11 o’clock’s probably too late,” he said. “We should do our business when the public is comfortable viewing it, and certainly anything beyond 11 o’clock they’re not comfortable viewing it.”

8. Rep. Charlene Lima’s bill to make public the 38 Studios grand-jury documents now looks likely to pass the Senate, too, with all three of the chamber’s Democratic leaders plus the Judiciary Committee chairwoman co-sponsoring it. And a spokesman for Governor Raimondo confirms that if does, she “would be inclined to sign it.” So if all that happens, when would the documents actually be released? Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, wouldn’t bite on that question Friday. “We aren’t going to comment on hypotheticals,” she said. “We will comment on the Senate bill at the appropriate time and manner.”

9. The latest on the fundraising front. … Gina Raimondo will rub elbows with local supporters at Ogie’s Trailer Park on Monday evening. Suggested contributions: $75 to $250. … Sheldon Whitehouse will hold his annual Burning of the Gaspee Celebration and Fundraiser next Friday at Rhode Island Yacht Club in Cranston. Suggested contributions: $25 to $100. … David Cicilline has two big events planned later in the month. First he’ll raise money at The University Club on the evening of June 19. Suggested contributions: $250 to $1,000. Then the next day he has a lunch fundraiser on State Street in Boston hosted by former Citizens Bank CEO Larry Fish and headlined by Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the late Ted Kennedy’s widow. Also on hand will be Chet Atkins and Bill Delahunt. Suggested contributions: $500 to $2,700. … Former GOP congressional candidate Russ Taub reports he hosted a fundraiser in Cranston for Florida Congressman Brian Mast this past Thursday.

10. Many Rhode Islanders keep a close eye on post-bankruptcy Detroit, with an eye on what would happen to Providence if it followed the same course. A tipster flagged this Detroit Free Press story suggesting the move hasn’t been a cure-all for the Motor City’s retirement shortfall: “Almost one year out from bankruptcy, and despite $816 million raised from the grand bargain, some financial experts worry the city could be approaching another deep pension hole. Early returns on pension fund investments have come in below 5%, short of what was initially expected to build a healthy foundation for when the city resumes making contributions to its two funds in 2024.”

11. Believe it or not, it’s possible Rhode Island manufacturing has never fully recovered from the demise of Brown & Sharpe, which dominated the industry locally for decades until the decline that led to its 2001 sale. That’s according to Dave Chenevert, new executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, who said the company played a vital role in the manufacturing workforce pipeline. “Years ago Brown & Sharpe was our training ground,” Chenevert said on this week’s Executive Suite. “They went away, and manufacturers just said, something else will pick it up – well, nothing ever did.” (For more on Brown & Sharpe, check out this new book.) Manufacturers are now making a stepped-up effort to train their next generation of workers, according to Chenevert. “One of the fallacies that I think needs to be clear to everybody is, manufacturers are not looking for someone who can walk into that job, hit the buttons and program and do all that,” he said. “What we’re looking for is people who can come in, has a decent math capability, good verbal skills, they don’t want a job, they want a career – big difference – and it’s people who will listen to be taught how to do their particular job.” A top priority at the moment: winning legislative support for the $3.65 million Governor Raimondo has proposed investing in Davies Career & Technical High School. “It takes a lot of expensive equipment for a place like that,” explained Chris Lanen, the manufacturers group’s chairman. “We’d really like to see Davies be expanded into really the crown jewel of manufacturing in Rhode Island.” More broadly, Chenevert argued there are lots of signs local manufacturers are on an upswing. “It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “The difference in Rhode Island, we’re only willing to talk sometimes about the bad things, and we don’t seem to want to focus on some of the good things that are really happening.”

12. Mention of Brown & Sharpe offers a reminder that the debate over corporate subsidies is a Rhode Island perennial. A decade ago, Brown & Sharpe successor Hexagon Metrology was considering relocating to Connecticut before Governor Carcieri managed to keep them using a package of tax incentives offered through Commerce RI. It followed an initial proposal by Carcieri that would have seen the state borrow up to $15 million for Hexagon’s new facility, an idea that was rejected as too risky by the House Finance Committee’s then-chairman, Steve Costantino. He of course went on to shepherd through the much larger, much more risky 38 Studios deal.

13. Former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld is reportedly Rhode Island’s newest billionaire. He celebrated by making international headlines at a conference in Portugal when he complained about the uncertainty the Trump administration is creating for companies. “Right now in America we don’t know what the rules of the game are. … Right now we don’t know whether we are friendly with Mexico, whether we are friendly with Canada, whether we are friendly with China, whether we are friendly with Russia,” he said, according to Reuters.

14. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse are highly critical of President Trump – but not so much that they fall on Politico’s list of six senators who form a “hell-no caucus.”

15. David Cicilline is trying again with his bipartisan House ethics training bill.

16. BuzzFeed has an interesting deep-dive on the place of anti-abortion Democrats in the party circa 2017, a debate that’s caused Nancy Pelosi to clash with Tom Perez. The Rhode Island Democratic Party continues to have far more pro-life leaders in elected office than the national party platform might suggest, including five of six General Assembly leaders. (House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, was the only one not endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life last year.) Depending on who you ask, that list would also include Congressman Langevin, who describes himself as pro-life but has clashed with Right to Life.

17. The NYT finds a lot of cheating on computer coding at Brown.

18. New Bedford’s economy is back, baby, partly thanks to scallops.

19. Being unpopular is apparently bad for your health.

20. Grab your tissues for this lovely story about Mr. Rogers.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSpeaker Mattiello. This week on Executive SuiteDave Chenevert, executive director, and Chris Lanen, chairman, Rhode Island Manufacturers Association; Paul Capuzziello, founder, Fresh Aire 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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