Nesi’s Notes: July 1

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. “The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.” The late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous quip is a window into the mindset that took hold in both General Assembly chambers Friday afternoon after Speaker Mattiello’s stunning announcement that the House was calling it quits. Senate President Ruggerio’s highly unusual decision to amend the House-passed budget encroached on one of the House’s most treasured prerogatives, its primacy on tax-and-spending bills – a tradition the Senate understandably dislikes. Suddenly the divide at the Assembly wasn’t Democrats vs. Republicans, it was House vs. Senate – as evidenced by GOP House Leader Patricia Morgan standing behind Mattiello (literally) at his news conference, and by all five GOP senators backing Ruggerio on the climactic budget vote. The brinkmanship has left Rhode Island without a state budget for the foreseeable future, and the collateral damage includes high-profile bills like paid sick days and domestic abusers’ gun rights. Now the standoff involves the most incendiary material on Smith Hill: egos. Mattiello drew a clear line in the sand Friday, saying the House isn’t coming back this summer, and maybe not at all this year; Ruggerio’s nascent leadership will be sharply diminished if he backs down after picking such a high-stakes fight. “It’s a really messy situation,” one lawmaker told me late last night. You can say that again.

2. The actual policy at the heart of Friday’s impasse would appear to have had zero impact on Rhode Islanders over the next 12 months. The budget amendment adopted by the Senate would trigger a pause in the car tax phaseout if the state dips into its rainy-day fund, which theoretically would only happen in the event of a major revenue shortfall. So the amendment would still have cut Rhode Islanders’ car taxes starting today, as Speaker Mattiello wanted, and would not have spread out the cost of the phaseout nearly as much as some senators wanted. But of course, in the end this wasn’t a fight about the car tax – it was a fight about who’s in charge. (Paid sick days was also an important part of the story: Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin wasn’t happy with the House’s more business-friendly version of her bill, and she holds a lot of sway among her fellow Senate Democrats.)

3. Among the reasons the Senate’s move on the budget came as such a shock is that it wasn’t loudly telegraphed in advance. There were subtle signs – notably President Ruggerio’s very terse, noncommittal statement on the plan – but no clear explanation that the House had approved something fundamentally unacceptable to the Senate. And the move wasn’t made until the final legislative day, just hours before the end of the fiscal year. That said, it wasn’t completely out of left field. Ruggerio also surprised Mattiello in May when he abruptly declared that the Senate would not take up the PawSox stadium plan this session, short-circuiting the debate until the fall. And the Senate has shown a willingness to test the House before: in 2010, just after Gordon Fox became speaker, the Senate amended a midyear spending bill and sent it back to the House; they eventually resolved their differences. There were also Senate attempts to amend the budget in 2000 and 1976, according to the Journal archives.

4. So much for the idea that Nick Mattiello and Dominick Ruggerio would get on swimmingly compared to the speaker’s relationship with Teresa Paiva Weed.

5. Absent from Friday’s drama was the state’s top elected leader, Governor Raimondo, though her top aides were on the scene throughout. Asked about her whereabouts during the evening, spokesman Mike Raia told me, “She’s with her family and has been in regular contact with her senior staff throughout the evening.”

6. The Assembly impasse makes State Budget Officer Tom Mullaney one of the most powerful men in Rhode Island for now. The Depression-era law governing state spending without a budget, last revised in 1956, gives Mullaney the authority to dole out the same amounts of money appropriated for programs under last year’s budget, in “monthly or quarterly allotments.” So the machinery of government will grind on. But that doesn’t mean the budget’s absence will have no effect. The R.I. League of Cities and Towns’ Brian Daniels told me Friday night local leaders are concerned due to the uncertainty. “Many communities have delayed issuing car tax bills while waiting for the budget to be enacted, and this development now creates an even greater administrative challenge for cities and towns,” he said. “We will work with municipal leaders and state officials to determine the appropriate next steps.” Another example: local education aid. The proposed budget included another increase in spending under the K-12 funding formula, so school leaders may not have as much money coming in as they expected, at least for a little while.

7. Steve Frias, Rhode Island’s Republican national committeeman, is also an amateur historian of some renown, so I asked him about the origins of the law that lets the state keep operating under last year’s budget. “This could be the biggest Rhode Island budget breakdown since 1934,” he said. “Rhode Island was in the middle of the Great Depression, and was running a large budget deficit. The House and the governorship (T.F. Green) were controlled by Democrats, the Senate controlled by Republicans. Throughout 1934, a budget for FY 1935 was never adopted. The legislature would meet even during the fall but could not come to agreement, and Rhode Island ran a budget deficit for months. In January 1935, the Democrats staged a coup and took over the Senate. After the Senate changed from Republican to Democratic control in January 1935, the impasse on the budget ended and a budget for FY 1935 was finally adopted. The law RIGL 35-3-19 that says the prior budget stays in effect if a new budget is not adopted was originally enacted in 1935 as a result of the budget breakdown of 1934.”

8. The Senate appeared to be done with its business just before 10 p.m. Friday, with Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey saying his goodbyes and thanking the staff. Suddenly, a few minutes later, the bell rang – one more bill to vote on this year. The lucky winner: the union-backed Almeida/Archambault bill to add “illness” to the definition of what allows a disability pension for law enforcement. It passed 18-3, meaning 16 senators – nearly half the chamber – missed the vote. Unions had another big victory amid the chaos, with the proposal for evergreen municipal contracts also clearing both chambers. Other legislation that squeaked through at the 11th hour: automatic voter registration and hands-free cell phone use. But Rep. Jacquard’s controversial highway-surveillance bill never cleared the Senate.

9. The end-of-session chaos also raises new questions about the PawSox stadium proposal. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Conley, taping Newsmakers on Friday morning, said his committee plans to hold hearings starting early this fall in different cities and towns statewide. “We have to learn from our mistakes,” he said. “One of the things that we know is that for the people of the state of Rhode Island to have trust in whatever product finally comes out of this, it has to be an accurate assessment, not a skewed assessment.” But Speaker Mattiello is already lukewarm about the Pawtucket proposal compared with the 2015 Providence proposal, and while the speaker has committed to House Finance hearings this fall, it’s doubtful Friday’s developments made him more amenable to a special fall session for the ballpark.

10. Much like the Army, the General Assembly marches – or votes – on its stomach. With legislative votes going well into the night this final week of session (well, until Friday at least) Assembly leaders tapped their $40-million-ish budget to bring in catered food for the rank-and-file. Who provided the grub? On the House side, dinner came from Lemongrass (Monday), Roma (Tuesday), Pranzi Catering (Wednesday), Spirito’s (Thursday) and Wes’ Rib House (Friday). For the Senate, it was Roma (the only shared choice), plus China Inn, Millonzi Fine Catering and Pauly Penta’s.

11. In non-Assembly news, Sean Spicer will be in town on Sunday for a fundraiser to benefit the Rhode Island Republican Party. Among the potential 2018 gubernatorial candidates, both Joe Trillo and Patricia Morgan confirmed they plan to attend the event, while Allan Fung declined to share if he’ll be there, too. “All I’ll say is, Sean’s a friend,” Fung said.

12. Shot, from the Dems’ Bill Lynch: “President Trump’s top spokesman is in town this week raising money for the GOP, and Rhode Island Republicans are falling all over themselves to cozy up to him. Isn’t it funny how quiet these same Rhode Island Republicans have been in the last five months, as their party secretly planned to shove 22 million more people off health care, so they can give more money to the richest of the rich?” Chaser, from the GOP’s Brandon Bell: “Republicans are focused on reducing health care costs and premiums, unlike Obamacare which increased them. This is a lame attempt at Bill Lynch trying to be relevant. If he wants to have a real impact in our state, Senior Advisor Lynch should stand up at the next Democratic fundraiser and call for the firing of Frank Montanaro for his free tuition scam. That would send a real message to the State House insiders who play games every day with hardworking Rhode Islanders.”

13. The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats took aim at Congressman Langevin on Friday for supporting Kate’s Law, which increases penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes and re-enter the country, saying it was “revolting” that he supported a “racist, anti-immigrant bill.” (David Cicilline and Joe Kennedy III both voted no.) In a statement, Langevin defended his vote. “Our country must be welcoming to immigrants, but those who have been deported after committing a crime and attempt reentry must also be held to a legal standard,” he said. “This bill was supported by Republicans and Democrats, and a similar provision closing a loophole that allowed certain felons to escape enhanced penalties was included in the Democratic immigration package in 2013. I regret that this issue has been so politicized by President Trump, who has made a point of demonizing immigrants since his very first day on the campaign trail.”

14. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien and Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley. This week on Executive SuiteMark Hellendrung, owner/president, Narragansett Beer, and Jeremy Duffy, co-founder, Isle Brewers Guild; Mike Kelly, president/CEO, Nelipak Corp. 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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