Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 16

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. This week’s Rhode Island jobs report was about as unexciting as they come: unemployment rate the same (4.3%), total jobs the same (499,700), resident employment nearly flat (down 100). Yet the job numbers making headlines were more dramatic, and more worrying – 400 jobs soon to be lost at Benny’s (a majority of them full-time) and another 250 gone at Alexion. Neither company directly blamed the Rhode Island business climate – the owners of Benny’s cited a desire to retire and the decline of brick-and-mortar retailing, while Alexion has been rocked by an accounting scandal and other turmoil. And there was good jobs news, too: a logistics company is hiring up to 300 workers at T.F. Green, and Gemalto’s Shoreline division announced plans to add more than 40 jobs at its expanding Quonset facility. Yet there’s no doubt the job losses, particularly at a place as iconic as Benny’s, got more attention. And that has to alarm Gina Raimondo’s advisers, who are planning a re-election campaign heavily focused on touting job growth and economic dynamism. “What is happening in Rhode Island this week is a reflection of the misguided priorities of Governor Raimondo,” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell declared after the Alexion news, previewing his party’s argument next year. The long-term hit to local morale from Benny’s closing will depend in part on whether its 14 Rhode Island locations sit empty and decaying or quickly attract new tenants. Co-owner Arnold Bromberg sounds confident it will be the latter. “There is a lot of interest,” Bromberg said on this week’s Newsmakers. “They’ll end up being some type of retail store, I have no doubt about that.”

2. Arnold Bromberg called Governor Raimondo last Friday morning to break the news that Benny’s was closing. “Her reaction was, ‘Oh my God! Where are am I going to do my Christmas shopping?'” Bromberg recalled on Newsmakers, chuckling. “She was shocked.” Raimondo asked whether the state could provide help, but he told her consumer habits were changing too much to carry on. (Another problem he cited: manufacturers have been giving special deals to large chains, like Walmart and Target, that aren’t offered to smaller ones like Benny’s.) Still, although Bromberg said state tax and regulatory changes wouldn’t have kept the retailer open, he remains critical of the state’s soon-to-start network of truck tolls. “The trucks are tolled because trucks do more damage than cars,” he said. “But why aren’t the heaviest trucks tolled? Our trucks, fully loaded, maybe weigh 45,000 or 50,000 pounds. But if you get a cement truck or a construction truck, they can weigh 80,000 pounds or more. And they’re not going to be covered by the tolls.” He added, “It makes no sense.” Asked for a response, a RIDOT spokesman said: “There are more tractor-trailers on the highways than there are cement trucks, which make up a very small percentage. Data shows that tractor-trailers cause the bulk of damage to our highways.”

3. The General Assembly will be back in business Tuesday for a rare September session, with the House meeting at 2 p.m. and the Senate joining them at 3. A few bills are all but certain to pass in some form: paid sick days, gun restrictions in domestic-violence cases, Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey’s criminal-justice reform package, post-election vote audits. Still up in the air is whether lawmakers will override Governor Raimondo’s veto of the bill for evergreen municipal union contracts. But the legislature rarely sticks to a script, so watch for surprises. Dozens of bills had already been posted for a vote as of Friday night, including one to give firefighters disability pensions for stroke and heart disease, as well as the controversial highway-surveillance bill.

4. Rhode Island’s budget drama is nothing compared to Connecticut.

5. Thursday night’s seven-hour Senate Finance hearing on the PawSox plan went quite a bit later than some expected – in no small part because city and team officials’ opening presentation lasted two-and-a-half-hours. You can look at their 68-page slide deck here. Supporters outnumbered opponents at the hearing, and there were lots of tugs at the heartstrings. “Losing the PawSox would be like losing your best friend,” said Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club CEO Jim Hoyt. But the critics came armed with research – Sam Bell’s Stop the Stadium Deal submitted this 12-page analysis, and GOP Committeeman Steve Frias provided this 13-page brief. The next Senate Finance hearing will be Sept. 26, and will feature a more detailed look at the legislation from fiscal staff. Meanwhile, House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney has scheduled his own hearing on the PawSox plan for Oct. 10, but it’s still unclear what the project’s prospects are in the House.

6. Whoops: turns out UHIP won’t pay for itself by next June after all.

7. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “We should learn more by the end of the year about how Rhode Island leaders plan to fund between $600 million and $2.2 billion in school repairs over the next decade, but as Governor Raimondo acknowledged this week, the most likely option will be through bonding. The question now is whether the state will seek to borrow the bulk of the money needed to address the 50,500 deficiencies or if cities and towns will be the ones going to voters with local bond referendums. (Don’t be surprised if you see both state and local bond questions.) The state currently reimburses communities for anywhere between 35% and 97% of the amount they spend on school construction projects, but it only spends about $80 million a year on reimbursements. That annual line item is probably going to need to grow if the state is going to make a big a dent in the repair costs. At the same time, you can expect an interesting policy conversation to play out when it comes to the future of certain school buildings. The report released by the state’s consultant identifies 18 schools as candidates for replacement, and at least 50 others whose cost to renovate is at least half of what it would cost to build a new school. It’s possible you’ll see the state attempt to nudge some communities toward consolidation rather than paying for repairs at aging buildings. But that could draw plenty of pushback from local residents who like their neighborhood schools.”

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8. The high-profile Bernie Sanders single-payer health insurance bill has been an interesting test for Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation. Sheldon Whitehouse’s announcement in this space last week that he would co-sponsor the bill earned a tweet from Sanders, which had 1,886 retweets and 6,970 likes at this writing. David Cicilline was already a single-payer co-sponsor in the House, and Jim Langevin jumped on board that bill this week, too. That leaves Jack Reed as the odd man out, though his spokesman told RIFuture he is “reviewing the details” on the Sanders legislation. Then again, while Whitehouse is co-sponsoring the bill, he says he is doing so as only “the start of a long and worthy conversation” – suggesting his support is more for symbolism. Business Insider’s Josh Barro laid out some of the potential pitfalls Democrats face on single-payer, but Ezra Klein argues Sanders has already changed the terms of the debate.

9. Speaking of Senator Whitehouse, he was at the White House on Thursday for a bipartisan meeting with Jared Kushner on the issue of prisoner reentry, which Whitehouse has focused on as part of his broader efforts on criminal-justice reform. “I have worked with Senator Cornyn for years to pass smart, bipartisan prison reentry legislation, and I am glad the administration is taking an interest,” Whitehouse told me in an email. “I hope we can achieve a good-faith, comprehensive plan that includes sentencing reform in addition to prison reentry policies, and takes into account the communities where former inmates return, since they do much of the rehabilitation their returning residents need.” He added: “We must also guard against giveaways to big corporations and their executives for public health crimes, which has emerged as an irrelevant ‘sidecar’ to this effort. If this bill is to be pursued sincerely, protection for corporate polluters has no place in it.”

10. One more on Senator Whitehouse: he was spotted at the Kennedy Center attending a screening of Ken Burns‘ new Vietnam documentary, along with John McCain and John Kerry among others. Whitehouse briefly lived in Vietnam as a teenager in the early 1970s, when his late father, Charles Whitehouse, was serving as a deputy ambassador there.

11. Senator Reed’s D.C. profile was high this week, as he worked with John McCain to manage debate on the military funding bill because of his post as top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “After hours of negotiations,” McCain and Reed “were able to come to an agreement to include over 100 amendments to the bill, which the Senate approved during its Thursday vote,” The Washington Post reports. Reed also made the case against Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s proposed amendment to sunset the 2001 Authorization of Military Force. “We have to think seriously about what the message would be if we adopted this resolution,” Reed was quoted as saying. “The headlines in Baghdad and the headlines in Kabul and the headlines in Damascus would be ‘U.S. moves to end engagement.’ … Unless we could do something literally next week, we would be running into the reality of American military commanders wondering whether or not they should begin to plan for the extraction of our forces.”

12. Jim Langevin has his first 2018 opponent: Sal Caiozzo, a disabled veteran. The Warwick Beacon’s Ethan Herald profiles Caiozzo here. (The first platform plank on his website: “Abolish RhodeWorks Tolls!”) Caiozzo ran against Langevin as an independent last November, taking 4% in a four-way field, but is in as a Republican this time. It won’t be easy to unseat Langevin, who has already said he plans to seek a 10th term next year. But the 2nd Congressional District does appear to be trending in the Republicans’ direction – Langevin’s 58% showing last fall was the second-lowest of his career, and The Cook Political Report has identified the 2nd as the type of district “that can be ripe for a GOP takeover in the right year.” Unfortunately for the GOP, the 2nd District may not exist five years from now.

13. Rhode Island’s uninsured rate is down to 4.3%, giving the state the sixth-highest level of health insurance coverage in the country. The state’s uninsured rate was 11.6% in 2013, when the economy was weaker and the Affordable Care Act had yet to be implemented.

14. Rhode Island Public Radio is in the quiet phase of a new capital campaign to raise $6 million “to double its reach, enhance its production through digital services, and increase local programming to become the most trusted journalism provider in the region,” according to a pamphlet handed out to Projo retirees this week. “Rhode Island Public Radio’s goal is to be the leading independent news source in Southern New England,” the pitch declares. RIPR GM Torey Malatia declined to comment further, but said he’ll have more to share once the campaign enters its public phase next year. RIPR began broadcasting in July on the old UMass Dartmouth signal, 89.3 FM, and is embarking on a construction project to significantly expand that signal’s reach.

15. From Brookings’ Richard Shearer, a sober take on the nationwide scramble to land Amazon’s new HQ2. Meantime, Massachusetts’ top economic-development official is suggesting New Bedford might be a strong option for the massive facility.

16. The St. Joseph’s pension plan blame game continues: Bishop Tobin tells his official newspaper that the diocese bears no responsibility for what went wrong. “I think the only entity that can improve the condition of the pension funds now is Prospect Medical Holdings,” Tobin is quoted as saying. “They’re a billion-dollar for-profit corporation.” But Prospect maintains it’s had no legal responsibility for the plan since 2014, either.

17. Sunday is Constitution Day, a federal holiday that commemorates the signing of the supreme law of the land. What you may not know is that Rhode Island was notoriously reluctant to ratify the Constitution back in the late 1700s – so reluctant, in fact, that Congress nearly slapped a trade embargo on the state because of its refusal. We didn’t earn the nickname “Rogue Island” for nothing.

18. A new poll shows 37% of Americans can’t name one 1st Amendment right.

19. An in-depth look at ISO-NE, the outfit that runs our power grid.

20. A cool event taking place next Saturday: Doors Open Rhode Island.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Benny’s co-owner Arnold Bromberg. This week on Executive SuiteChristian Cowan, director, Polaris MEP; Kevin Cunningham, founder, Spirare Surfboards. 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 and Facebook