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

Welcome to the latest edition of my new weekly 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. Governor Chafee’s media team put out another YouTube video this week and managed the impressive feat of making the municipal fiscal crisis feel like the trailer of a summer blockbuster. There was only one problem. The video calls on viewers to “stand with Governor Chafee” because “the time to act is now.” Yet it never spells out what exactly we’re supposed to do “to act” right now. Contrast that with Engage Rhode Island’s ads, which created the same sense of crisis but told those watching to call their lawmakers and and urge them to vote for the pension bill. Chafee’s video is a call to action that’s missing the action; he and the mayors haven’t even filed a bill yet. Should we call Providence’s retirees? Protest at Rhode Island Hospital? Perhaps call Chafee and ask him to appoint a receiver in Providence?

2. Mark your calendars – this year’s first exclusive WPRI 12 poll of the 2012 campaign drops Monday at 6 p.m. Is Doherty ahead of Cicilline? How do people feel about Chafee? Should Providence go bankrupt? All the questions are here, and I’ll be on John DePetro’s WPRO radio program Monday morning at 9 to preview the results.

3. With Brown University President Ruth Simmons set to retire in June, attention is turning toward the question of her legacy. There’s no question Brown is a much more formidable institution than it was when she took the reins, with more professors doing more research, a new medical school and stronger finances. Brown’s troubled relationship with the city, however, points to the inward focus of her tenure. Simmons was never a big presence in the community, and she’s largely unknown at the State House. That’s left her (and Brown) with few allies as the school tried to fight off Mayor Taveras’s push for a bigger contribution to the city budget.

4. The Projo’s Ed Achorn ended his column Tuesday by asking, “Do voters in Rhode Island care enough to elect less conflicted members to represent them? They haven’t yet, but you never know.” A new study suggests, however, just the opposite is possible: “Voters can become disillusioned and withdraw from the entire political process if there’s evidence of broad-scale corruption without the promise of further reform,” Wonkblog’s Suzy Khimm reports.

5. N.J. Gov. Chris Christie has been a conservative hero for taking a hard line against higher taxes and state spending. Governor Chafee, by contrast, has been pilloried by the right as a spending-happy union toady. But dig into the numbers, Chafee’s proposed budget for 2012-13 is actually more austere. Christie wants to boost spending 3.7% over this year’s revised level in New Jersey, while Chafee wants to reduce spending 2.8% here.

6. The media landscape in Rhode Island is in quite a state of flux. The Providence Journal will reportedly launch its paywall on Tuesday, an apparent sign management remains committed to the new website despite a 33% decline in traffic since its October debut. (Projo editor Tom Heslin didn’t reply to my email requesting confirmation.) Next week will also see the unveiling of The Ocean State Current, a news site edited by Anchor Rising founder Justin Katz and funded by the right-leaning R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Katz says its mission will be “to expose the consequences of bad government and its effects on real people.” And Friday brought news of more layoffs at the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call, neither of which was exactly overstaffed before.

7. Few people at the Projo have done a better job embracing social media than health care writer Felice Freyer, whose Twitter account has 1,537 followers. She does a great job finding that elusive mix of links to her own stories and great material elsewhere. Alas, we’re still waiting for @kathyprojo to dive in – though she’s racked up an impressive 170 followers without so much as a tweet.

8. There will be plenty of speculation about what, if anything, is portended by Governor Chafee’s position as a co-chair of the Obama-Biden re-election campaign. With a 23% approval rating and an uncertain outlook for 2014, perhaps Obama will find a position for the governor in his administration should he win re-election, making Elizabeth Roberts the state’s new leader. Or perhaps this will be the final step before Chafee officially joins the Democratic Party and decides to run on the “D” line of the 2014 ballot. We’ll see.

9. Few people are working crazier hours these days than Department of Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly and Division of Municipal Finance Director Susanne Greschner. They’re two unsung heroines of the municipal financial crisis.

10. Rhode Island held its last constitutional convention in 1986, which led to the state’s sweeping Code of Ethics. Voters are required to be asked every 10 years whether or not to hold a “con con,” with the next mandatory vote in 2014. (State Sen. Paul Fogarty wants to ask them this November.) Holding a convention would allow a host of issues to be tackled, including gay marriage, but the one some lawmakers will worry about most is restoring the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over them, a power the R.I. Supreme Court took from the commission in 2009. Ask your lawmaker what they think about the idea.

11. A few weeks back, in a spirit of rebellion, I switched my default search engine from Google to Microsoft’s Bing. I’ve switched back. Google may be weighing its platform down with Google+ and controversial privacy policies, but it’s still the best bet for somebody who spends his days ferreting out very specific pieces of information. Bing didn’t do a bad job, but I found myself returning to Google when I really needed to do a thorough search. On a related note, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum made an astute point last week: “The Internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter. If you don’t know how to use it, or don’t have the background to ask the right questions, you’ll end up with a head full of nonsense. But if you do know how to use it, it’s an endless wealth of information.”

12. I was shocked – shocked! – to learn recently that there is an impostor version of “Newsmakers” airing out in Cincinnati. Not only is it another weekly public affairs show, but it’s on Channel 12, which is a CBS affiliate there. It may be time for an “Anchorman”-style news team battle.

13. This week on “Newsmakers” – R.I. Department of Transportation Director Mike Lewis and Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island. 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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