Nesi’s Notes: June 24

The Saturday Morning Post | Quick hits on politics and more in RI

SIGN UP: Get Nesi’s Notes by Email

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. This week’s House budget debate offered new proof Speaker Mattiello remains in firm control of his unwieldy Democratic caucus. By Gordon Fox’s fourth year as speaker, his grip on power was so shaky that he suffered an extraordinary late-night defeat on a budget article, forcing a one-day delay to cobble together 52 votes for the full bill – barely more than the 50 required. Mattiello is now in his own fourth year, and it’s quite a contrast with his predecessor – all 64 Democrats voted for the budget Thursday, with almost no dissent during the debate; in fact, no Democrat has voted against a Mattiello budget since 2014. That’s no accident, and it’s no small accomplishment considering the ideological spectrum of House Democrats stretches from Aaron Regunberg and Teresa Tanzi to Doc Corvese and Jared Nunes. Even the speaker’s critics acknowledge he invests a lot of time in the care and feeding of his members, and he sees his job as striking the best balance possible among competing factions. (He also seems to actually enjoy working on the budget; he did earn an accounting degree at BC, after all.) Not everyone is happy, of course – the state GOP called it “a bloated, bogus budget,” outside progressives called it “clearly right-wing,” and it’s nobody’s idea of great budgeting to scoop money from designated accounts or rely on mysterious future savings. But seeing his caucus once again united Thursday night, Mattiello took a verbal victory lap: “I think we’ve struck a really good balance.”

2. As for the policy contained in that $9.2 billion tax-and-spending plan – anyone who’s been paying attention knows many of the headlines. The governor’s slimmed-down tuition plan is two years free at CCRI starting this fall, but only until 2020 (for now). The speaker’s car tax plan is in there – all six years, with $26 million allocated for year one. The Commerce Corporation’s budget was trimmed, but not its authority to offer incentives – there’s just less advance funding for them. (Mattiello warned, however, that lawmakers will need to “have a debate on Commerce in the near future.”) Lobbyists for hospitals and nursing homes earned their pay this week, restoring tens of millions of dollars the governor had put on the chopping block to close the deficit. A last-minute $950,000 was added in to hire more magistrates and bail officers. And the governor has to find $25 million in unidentified savings across government to make the sums add up. You can read the full thing here.

3. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “In their decision to establish a watered-down-with-more-strings-attached version of the Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship program, Governor Raimondo’s office and the General Assembly appear to be placing an enormous amount of pressure on the students who finished high school this year and the ones who will graduate next year. The students from those two cohorts who attend the Community College of Rhode Island are the only ones currently guaranteed to receive two years of tuition-free schooling – and they’re the ones everyone will be looking at when it comes time to decide whether to extend the program beyond its initial pilot phase, around this time in 2020. So here’s the most important question: what does success look like? Aside from two classes of students being an inadequate sample size, CCRI is starting off in a pretty bleak place. We know the two-year graduation rate for students who started at CCRI in 2014 was under 5%. We also know that on average the high school class of 2017 and the one that will graduate next year – no matter where they go to college – didn’t perform particularly well on any standardized test during their first 12 years in school, and it’s likely more than half of the kids receiving the scholarship will have to take at least one remedial course. So is a 20% graduation rate a win? Or will lawmakers consider the other 80% a failure and scrap the program? Granted, plenty of free-tuition opponents in the ‘fix K-12 first’ camp will argue this is why the scholarship is unnecessary in the first place. But if that’s not the path Democratic leaders want to take, it will be important for them to set realistic goals for Rhode Island’s Promise.”

4. As Ian Donnis pointed out during Thursday night’s budget debate, quite a few of GOP Leader Patricia Morgan’s remarks sounded like a preview of the case she’ll make against Governor Raimondo if she challenges her in 2018. “We have avoided making those hard choices that would do fundamental reform to the way we do business here in Rhode Island,” Morgan said in her closing speech. “So one more year of we miss an opportunity. We can’t keep passing budgets on a hope and a prayer. We can’t keep passing budgets that continue to grow with no prospects of a brighter future for our citizens.” Morgan tells me she won’t decide on whether to run for governor until the fall – plus, she said, “I think I’m actually pretty good as minority leader.”

5. Many scribes – yours truly included – were a tad skeptical of Speaker Mattiello’s promise to avoid the usual late-night votes during the end-of-session marathon. Score one for Mattiello: the budget debate was wrapped up before 9 p.m., ahead of even the sleepiest citizen’s bedtime. “I was committed to what I said, and we were not under any circumstances going to go beyond 10,” he told me after the debate. So is this the new normal as long as he’s speaker? “Absolutely,” Mattiello said. “I’ve learned from mistakes. Nobody plans to stay in here until 5 in the morning. It’s incremental. It’s one half-hour at a time before you realize, ‘I’ve gone beyond the point of no return.’ Nobody dislikes that more than me, but I’ve learned that lesson the hard way too many times. So I’m prepared to just do hard stops at 10 o’clock. My policy for as long as I’m speaker is going to be, 9 o’clock unless I can get it done by 10, and no later than 10 o’clock. I’ve heard from a lot of citizens, and the way we used to do business when I first got here – and that’s where I learned, when I first got here – the way they’ve always done it in the past is unacceptable today. The citizens don’t want it. So I’ve committed we’re not going to do it, and we won’t do it.” He added: “And we won’t do it as we finish session, either. It’s more important to me to do business at the right time than it is to get it done in a particular day. I’ll come back in the fall if I have to. I want to do business when our citizens can see what they’re doing and can be part of the process through their TV set or coming down to the State House and watching it, participating, rather than the early morning hours. That’s very, very important to me and that’s going to be a priority, and I’m going to maintain that as long as I’m speaker.”

6. Speaker Mattiello’s goal is to finish this year’s Assembly session next week – rules were suspended Thursday night and a special Monday session has been called to try and make it happen. One bill to keep watching is the proposal to require paid sick days. The Senate has scheduled a vote Wednesday on the measure, which was reworked in the face of business opposition just before the Senate Labor Committee passed it this week. Mattiello has said repeatedly he only wants to pass a bill if it’s a compromise between progressive advocates and business interests – and the Senate bill still doesn’t have sign-off from the latter. “We remain concerned that the Senate [bill] does not go far enough to protect small businesses and those businesses already providing paid leave,” business lobbyist Elizabeth Suever told me Friday, citing mandates that employers with 10 or fewer workers provide unpaid leave and those with 11 or more provide up to 40 hours by 2019. But Rhode Island Working Families’ Georgia Hollister Isman warned after the Senate Labor vote against “further cuts” and urged “a substantial bill.” Mattiello was back at the State House on Friday trying to find a path to passage.

7. What’s next in the Frank Montanaro affair? Friday’s back-and-forth between the governor and the speaker over the matter suggests the controversy hasn’t died out yet, despite Montanaro’s announcement that he will pay back the $50,000 in free tuition at issue. That’s likely to remain true so long as RIC continues to withhold the documents that would show exactly how its arrangement with him came about. Importantly, though, he still has Speaker Mattiello’s support. “Although Frank utilized a benefit he was entitled to according to his union contract, I talked with him and he took the appropriate action by beginning the process of repaying the college tuition,” Mattiello said Friday. “I look forward to Frank’s continued service.”

8. As I mentioned last week, the Montanaro controversy has drawn an unusually vocal response from viewers, basically all of whom have expressed deep dissatisfaction with what happened. It’s always worth a reminder, then, that if you’re unhappy about something in Rhode Island government, you should take the time to email or call your lawmaker. Legislators take notice of what they hear about from their constituents, and they also take notice of what they don’t hear about. They work for you, after all.

9. Rep. Anastasia Williams has now become the latest elected official to have a case involving her campaign money referred to the attorney general’s office for investigation, following Peter Palumbo, Luis Aponte, Joe Almeida and Kevin Jackson. (Others have settled before the AG got involved.) The news would seem to reinforce Governor Raimondo’s argument in favor of her bill requiring random audits of campaign accounts – but there’s no sign the legislation has momentum in the Assembly. Common Cause’s John Marion, for one, is disappointed so little political muscle has been put behind the measure. “Rahm Emanuel once said, ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste,'” Marion said Friday. “It might not qualify as a serious crisis, but it sure is alarming how many Rhode Island politicians have been referred by the Board of Elections to the attorney general for campaign finance problems. … Governor Raimondo has proposed a well-crafted reform that would increase the frequency of audits and deny ballot access to campaign finance scofflaws. Unfortunately, with days to go in the legislative session, we haven’t heard from her on the issue, and there’s no indication it made the governor’s list of priorities in the inevitable end-of-session horse-trade.”

10. And speaking of Common Cause, newly minted board member Ed Fitzpatrick flags a bill that he says would make Rhode Island “the 13th state to pass a law protecting the rights of student journalists.”

11. Sheldon Whitehouse is getting a lot of attention this year thanks to his perch on Senate Judiciary amid the ongoing Russia probe. More evidence of that in this week’s Time magazine cover story, which argues: “A fact of Washington life that ought to be a maxim, but isn’t: not every important moment gets a headline. One such moment was a largely overlooked exchange in May between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and [James] Comey, who still held his job at the FBI.” Whitehouse also makes an appearance in Al Franken’s new book, during a section on Franken’s disdain for Ted Cruz: “There are plenty of senators who are smarter than I am, or have more natural political aptitude than I do. For example, my own senior senator, Amy Klobuchar. Or my friend Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Or Lindsey Graham. But I like them all. Because none of them are sociopaths.” Ouch. You can’t win ’em all, though: the Washington Examiner ran an article Wednesday headlined, “Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a hypocrite on the First Amendment.”

12. Also in the books-by-congressional-colleagues department, David Cicilline is hosting Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro at his home in Providence tonight for a book party in honor of her new tome, “The Least Among Us.” (She shares a publisher with Sheldon Whitehouse, whose new book “Captured” was also brought out by New Press.)

13. Jim Langevin and Pennsylvania’s Glenn Thompson celebrate bipartisanship.

14. As long as Rhode Island keeps sending Democrats to Congress, the state’s power in Washington will depend significantly on whether their party can win more elections. Two recommended reads on that front: The American Prospect’s symposium on Democrats and the white working class, and The Atlantic’s new deep-dives by Franklin Foer and Peter Beinart.

15. New R.I. Airport Corporation CEO Iftikhar Ahmad has started his tenure with a bang since taking over last fall, announcing the arrival of four new airlines at T.F. Green. His goal is to nearly double the annual number of passengers there from its current level of roughly 3.5 million to 6 million. “An airport without passengers is just a big building,” Ahmad said on this week’s Newsmakers. He also said he’s working with Mayor Avedisian to try and improve the rundown condition of many properties around the airport. “We’re the first impression as folks are coming in; we’re the last impression as you’re getting into the airport as people are leaving. And it needs to present the best face of Rhode Island,” he said.

16. The R.I. Ethics Commission has a new member, Arianne Corrente, appointed this week. Governor Raimondo picked her from a list of five possible picks put forward by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, as required by law; his other ideas were Angel Taveras, Catherine Cool Rumsey, Colin Kane and Thomas Verdi.

17. I’ll be moderating a panel discussion among the candidates for Providence City Council Ward 3 on Tuesday night at MLK Elementary School on Camp Street, co-sponsored by the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, the Summit Neighborhood Association and Leadership Rhode Island. Congratulations are also in order for Leadership RI, which recently received an Excellence in Innovation Award from the Association of Leadership Programs for its Make RI Stronger initiative, and is also a semifinalist for Drucker Institute’s $100,000 Drucker Prize for nonprofit innovation.

18. Our sister station getTV is airing a 1965 Perry Como-Lena Horne special taped in Boston this Monday night at 11 p.m. Appropriately for this time of year, the news release reports they’ll sing “Old Cape Cod.” It’s Channel 12.3 over the air.

19. Susan Campbell on a local company with a 32-hour work week.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Airport Corporation CEO Iftikhar Ahmad; reporters’ roundtable. This week on Executive Suite – Dr. Anne S. De Groot, founder and CEO, EpiVax. 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

SIGN UP: Get Nesi’s Notes by Email