Nesi’s Notes: July 8

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. When my colleague Steph Machado caught up with Nick Mattiello and Dominick Ruggerio on Thursday, their comments captured the mentality on both sides of the State House standoff. “I think it’s up to him to give me a call, because we passed the budget,” the Senate president said. “I don’t want to say this the wrong way,” the House speaker countered, “but I’m going to enjoy my summer.” And so it goes, with the state budget impasse now in its eighth day. Even privately, aides to the two men appear to have no idea how long the stalemate will last, or how it will eventually be resolved. One of the few rank-and-file lawmakers to call for a truce is Democratic Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a leading progressive, who wrote Friday on Facebook that he is declining the automatic legislative pay raise because the minimum wage hike is in limbo. “I believe it is our responsibility as legislators to return this summer and do our job,” he said. Conservatives, on the other hand, are in no hurry to see lawmakers back in action; Republican Rep. Brian Newberry tweeted that he hopes the House won’t return until January. Yet the longer the budget remains in limbo, the more impact it will have – particularly once local school districts start announcing how they’ll pare back their budgets to deal with lower state aid. (The mechanics were laid out in an official budget memo on Friday.) With neither Mattiello nor Ruggerio willing to make the first move, it might be up to Governor Raimondo – who remains in touch with both leaders, and has avoided taking sides publicly – to try and get them in the same room.

2. As noted in this space last month, the General Assembly’s budget has been on the rise, though House leaders insist the numbers are misleading because they never spend the entire amount they allocate to themselves. The budget bill in limbo would reduce the legislature’s 2016-17 authorized spending by almost $2 million, to $45.65 million, and make that $2 million available to fund other programs. Then for 2017-18, the Assembly’s authorization would be $42.25 million. For comparison purposes, the legislature’s actual spending in 2015-16 was $37.7 million, more than $6 million less than it was authorized to spend. (Under state law, the Assembly’s unspent money can be “carried over” and added to its budget for the following year.)

3. RIC and Frank Montanaro are still negotiating a repayment agreement. Meanwhile, Acting Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Brenda Dann-Messier’s office reports she is convening a group of officials this month to “to review systemwide policies and procedures around tuition waivers for employees.” Any recommendations they have will be taken up at the September meeting of the Council on Postsecondary Education.

4. CCRI and Governor Raimondo are trying to move forward with the Rhode Island’s Promise free tuition rollout even in the absence of a final budget providing authorization and funding for the initiative. The governor’s spokesman said Thursday, “There are several administrative options well within the governor’s authority that we are exploring to launch.” At roughly $1.5 million, the amount of money needed for the first semester could theoretically be found somewhere else, though Speaker Mattiello has already warned the governor against a unilateral kickoff. (He says he sent the warning by text message, in fact.) CCRI President Meghan Hughes, meanwhile, says she’s confident the budget impasse will be resolved, and is urging students to apply despite it. “If the Promise funding is secured, there will simply be an additional kind of one-page application that indicates your commitment to fulfilling the parameters of that funding as stipulated,” Hughes said on this week’s Newsmakers. However, she declined to specify what options the governor is looking at for a budget-less launch.

5. The tuition plan has put a spotlight on CCRI and its unique position as the only community college in the state, giving it responsibility for both standard associate degrees (nearly 15,000 students a semester) and workforce training programs (about 20,000 a year, though a significant chunk of that is driver’s ed). “I love that the college is both an associate degree-granting institution and a workforce-development institution, and I believe there’s enormous opportunity to do both well,” President Hughes said on Newsmakers. But she also argued CCRI’s workforce offerings have been “underutilized” in the past, and said she is trying to change that by bringing on a new VP of workforce development who will start soon. While Hughes said she’s pleased with existing programs involving Electric Boat, University Medicine and cybersecurity, “I think with even more leadership and filling out that bench – talk to us in a year and see where we’re going.”

6. Standoff or no standoff, Governor Raimondo still faces decisions on whether to sign or veto a number of hot-button bills. Chief among them: the bill that would keep municipal union contracts in force until a new one is signed, prized by unions but hated by many ‘mayors. The governor is under pressure from local leaders, as well as the GOP, to veto both that measure and another that adds “illness” to the criteria for giving out disability pensions. Also of concern to the governor: the so-called “network charters” bill sponsored by Senator Gallo and Rep. Amore that tweaks the definition of which charter schools are part of networks. And there’s the bill to let police access a database of prescription painkillers, which supporters say will help tackle the opioid crisis but opponents say could infringe on civil liberties. The last bill does have a provision allowing the state health director to suspend access, which could make it easier for the governor to sign.

7. The newly released audit showing major accounting gaps in Rep. Anastasia Williams’ campaign finances demonstrated yet again what an influential role Board of Elections campaign-finance chief Ric Thornton now plays in Rhode Island politics. The documents released by the board (after a public-records request) show Thornton spent more than two years doggedly seeking information from Williams and her lawyer, former Speaker John Harwood, so he could document the problems. Now Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is reviewing whether to forward the Williams audit on to the Rhode Island State Police for further investigation. One thing to watch in the coming years is whether these high-profile investigations act as a deterrent going forward, leading to more careful management of campaign money by Rhode Island politicians. Thornton’s previous audits of Gordon Fox, Kevin Jackson, Luis Aponte, Joe Almeida and Peter Palumbo created legal headaches for all five of them.

8. Speaking of Kevin Jackson, voters in Providence’s Ward 3 will go to the polls Wednesday for the Democratic primary to choose his successor on the City Council. The candidates are Daniel Chaika, Nirva LaFortune and Mark Santow. The winner will then face Republican David Lallier Jr. and independent Chris Reynolds in the Aug. 16 general election.

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9. More than 30 of the nation’s governors will descend on Providence starting Thursday for the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, along with plenty of staffers, lobbyists, policy wonks and journalists – and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who confirmed Friday he’ll deliver the keynote. Governor Raimondo is casting the NGA event as a tourism opportunity for Rhode Island, letting influential out-of-staters sample our summertime delights. (The host committee’s plans include a closing clambake at the Eisenhower House in Newport, with fireworks – and no reporters.) Also expected to attend are Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who’s sure to be peppered with questions about the GOP health care bill. (The White House wouldn’t confirm Friday night whether President Trump or Vice-President Pence might come, too.) More info is here.

10. It’s early days, but word so far is that the long-delayed $20-million DMV computer upgrade is going smoothly. “The performance of the new computer system and our employees’ adaptation to it have us cautiously optimistic at this early stage of the launch period,” spokesman Paul Grimaldi told me Friday. “We’re going to focus on improving productivity and reducing transaction times.” He said no “major defects” have been seen so far, and smaller ones “are being dealt with quickly.” He also said the number of daily transactions it handles will be upped to nearly 900 on Monday. UHIP, of course, is the Acronym That Shall Not Be Named among skittish state leaders, and it’s worth remembering that it took a few weeks for the full scale of that fiasco to become clear. Plus, right now the DMV is also using a reservations system to hold down volume. (Indeed, the reservations system was welcomed by many customers who spoke to my colleagues this week, with some suggesting it should become a permanent feature.) But Revenue Director Rob Hull and DMV Director Bud Craddock must be breathing a sigh of relief that the initial rollout has been uneventful.

11. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is a “winner” in the 2017 New England Muzzle Awards, Dan Kennedy’s long-running rundown of leaders he thinks are undermining free speech. Kilmartin’s sins: pushing the revenge porn bill and withholding 38 Studios documents. Spokeswoman Amy Kempe laughed off Kilmartin’s inclusion, tweeting that the AG “would like to know where he can pick up his award or will the @RIACLU drop it off” and, since the article was published by WGBH, asking if it “comes with Rick Steves’ Europe DVD series.”

12. Voters in Newport and Jamestown go to the polls a week from Tuesday for a primary to decide who will try and hold Teresa Paiva Weed’s former Senate seat for the Democrats: David Allard, Dawn Euer, John Florez or David Hanos Jr. (Euer will benefit from Planned Parenthood’s newly disclosed $12,000 outlay on her behalf.) There appears to be decent interest in the race for a midsummer special election: clerks in the two communities report 830 absentee ballots have been requested for the primary, 46 in Jamestown and the rest in Newport. The Democratic winner will face Republican Michael Smith, independent Kimberly Ripoli and Green Gregory Larson in the Aug. 22 general election. And if you want to learn more about the race, come on down to the Jane Pickens Theater Monday at 5:30 p.m. for a candidate forum hosted by What’sUpNewp. I’ll be asking questions along with Ian Donnis and Frank Prosnitz.

13. Both of Rhode Island’s congressional districts moved toward the Republicans in 2016. In David Cicilline’s 1st District the GOP presidential vote share rose from 32% in 2012 to 35%, and in Jim Langevin’s 2nd District it rose from 38% to 44%, per Daily Kos calculations. But there’s an important distinction between them, according to a new analysis by The Cook Political Report. Cicilline’s district was generally stable in its Democratic lean before Trump, suggesting the 2016 shift may have been more pro-Trump than pro-GOP. But Langevin’s district has been trending toward the Republicans for a number of presidential cycles now, the analysis showed, making his an example of “the kinds of districts that can be ripe for a GOP takeover in the right year.”

14. Speaking of David Cicilline, he’s trying to block sales of F-35s to Turkey to punish the country for letting its president’s security detail beat protestors in Washington earlier this year.

15. Senator Reed gave an extended tour d’horizon on how he views the threat from Russia in a recent speech at Salve Regina. “It’s time to sound the alarm bells,” Reed argued. “The Russians know they cannot win in a conventional war, so they have adapted their tactics asymmetrically to leverage their strengths.”

16. Via Rich Lowry, Brown Professor Jeff Colgan had a recent article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs that argues “it is not bigotry to calibrate immigration levels to the ability of immigrants to assimilate and to society’s ability to adjust.”

17. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence wants to raise $50 million.

18. Angus Davis’s Upserve is closing in on 200 employees, and growing.

19. Derek Thompson puzzles out why Connecticut is so screwed up.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – CCRI President Meghan Hughes. This week on Executive SuiteJohn Marcantonio, executive director, R.I. Builders Association. 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

An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect date for the special primary election for Providence City Council Ward 3; the election is Wednesday.

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