The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

Welcome to the latest edition of my new column. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi (at) wpri (dot) com and I may include them. Thanks for all the great feedback so far. Let’s jump in.

1. Is there a fate worse than bankruptcy for Providence? Quite possibly: the city could go the way of Greece. It’s been more than two years since the Mediterranean nation revealed a huge hidden budget shortfall and the crisis there still isn’t over. European leaders have given Greece just enough cash to stay afloat without solving its underlying structural problems. The combination of austerity and uncertainty has crippled the Greek economy and harmed the rest of Europe. It’s possible to imagine a similar situation unfolding in Providence: Smith Hill blocks the city from filing for bankruptcy, providing just enough cash to make payroll without addressing its unsustainable retirement liabilities or providing a permanent increase in funding. A crippled Providence would limp along, unable to really move forward. Yes, they might avoid the headline “Rhode Island capital files for Chapter 9” – but in the long term, is bad publicity worse than bad policy?

2. With Rhode Island Republicans set to file a lawsuit over the Keablemander, it’s worth taking a look across the border at Massachusetts. The birthplace of the gerrymander apparently managed a surprisingly above-board redistricting process this time around.

3. Watching Curt Schilling make the rounds on TV this week offered a tantalizing possibility that, should 38 Studios succeed, some of the benefit will indeed accrue to its new home state. True, Schilling debuted “Reckoning” in Massachusetts and the company still hasn’t held a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony at its new Empire Plaza headquarters. Still, there aren’t a lot of local firms getting the kind of publicity 38 Studios is at the moment; Schilling told Jimmy Fallon it “was built to be something that stays around and becomes huge.” The game is #49 on Amazon at this writing and had a strong debut in the U.K., with a sequel possibly in the works. (But how’s Project Copernicus looking?)

4. I’m keeping an eye on Rhode Island’s tax revenue, which continues to surpass expectations. January’s numbers had the state up 3.6% seven months into the fiscal year, with $57 million more than expected in the treasury. If that continues, it could let lawmakers give Governor Chafee the $39.5 million in extra education funding he wants without having to raise the meals tax as he proposed.

5. U.S. Senator Jack Reed has done some savvy legislating in recent weeks to help his home state. The payroll tax deal included provisions to give high-unemployment Rhode Island longer jobless benefits and to provide federal funds to pay for the WorkShare program. Under the radar, he also backed an amendment to a Senate transportation bill that will let RIPTA use federal money for its operations (as opposed to capital) over the next two to three years, which would certainly be a boon to the ever-cash-strapped agency. Not to be outdone, his colleague Sheldon Whitehouse filed an amendment to create a program to fund infrastructure projects of “national and regional significance,” with an eye on getting money to fix the deteriorating Providence Viaduct bridge on I-95. “We’re looking for ways to provide assistance to the state in very difficult times,” Reed told me Thursday night.

6. I’m a sucker for stories about the impact of the Great Recession on my fellow Millennials, and three interesting ones came across my desk this week: Derek Thompson on the delay of adulthood, Ezra Klein on the failure of liberal arts degrees, and Reuters’ Lou Carlozo on renting as the new American Dream.

7. Adman Josh Fenton’s GoLocalEmpire expanded north Wednesday with the launch of GoLocalWorcester, the first spinoff of his flagship site here in Providence. Fenton knows how to make a splash: the Worcester site’s headliners include Natalie Jacobson, Bob Lobel, Bill Delahunt, Tim Cahill and – as the Boston Herald gleefully noted – Mr. Big Dig, Matt Amorello. GoLo’s detractors are legion, but Fenton’s moxie has made the Providence site a force that local politicos and media types can’t ignore – more so than many may admit. It will be interesting to see how he does in the more competitive Massachusetts media market.

8. The smart money is on TIAA-CREF beating out Great-West for the contract to run Rhode Island’s new hybrid pension plan. CREF is a known commodity – it handles retirement accounts at URI, RIC and CCRI – and can provide the educational tools Treasurer Raimondo has said are a priority. Plus, the optics of picking a Canadian company aren’t so hot.

9. Anecdotes don’t make for good economic reporting, so take this for what it’s worth. But an East Providence real-estate agent of my acquaintance reports home sales in December and January were much stronger than he expected, which he takes as a good sign for the rest of 2012. Meanwhile, The Sun Chronicle found improving demand at some Attleboro manufacturers. Green shoots?

10. On the other hand, there’s this bit of doubt from economist Justin Wolfers: “How much of the #recoverywinter is due to unseasonably warm weather muting the usual seasonal dip?” That must be having an impact here in Rhode Island. RIDOT Director Mike Lewis, for one, seems pretty gleeful about how little he’s had to spend on winter supplies this season. The bean-counters here in TV Land are less thrilled, since nobody’s watching storm coverage.

11. Moderate Party founder Ken Block has been beating the drum this week in warning state and city leaders they’re off on the wrong track when it comes to developing the land in Providence freed up by the relocation of I-195. He suggested tying up all the land and most of the EDC’s tax breaks to attract a national company of Google-esque size and significance. “We will not get nearly as many jobs out of a ‘meds and eds’ approach as we will from hosting a competitive procurement for this land which takes into account total job creation potential,” Block argues.

12. As we wait to find out who won the big Powerball ticket, here’s a funny connection to politics passed along by a reader. John Koza, the guy behind the National Popular Vote initiative, says he got the idea after he spent years working on another interstate compact – the one that authorized Powerball.

13. This week on “Newsmakers” – a wide-ranging conversation with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Watch Sunday at 10 on Fox Providence. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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