1. I’m not Walter Cronkite, but I think I know the big reason Lincoln Chafee’s approval rating is so low. It’s not the media – it’s this chart. The percentage of Rhode Islanders with a job was at a historic low when Chafee took office, and it’s barely budged after two years under his leadership. To Chafee, fiscal responsibility means one thing: balanced budgets. But the best way to balance a budget is robust economic growth, and Chafee has shown little imagination when it comes to boosting short-term demand in Rhode Island. No wonder then that people are warming up to the idea of abolishing the sales tax: doing so would put money in Rhode Islanders’ pockets, which is a more obvious response to the state’s present crisis than anything Chafee has put forward. The governor’s aides complain that he doesn’t get credit for deficit reduction, but it’s hard to give him much when his best-known proposal for doing so – the 2011 sales-tax overhaul – crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. Chafee does have accomplishments – ending transportation borrowing, fixing the DMV, repairing Central Falls, avoiding a supplemental budget – but they’re limited. And while there are issues where his views are broadly popular – 38 Studios, municipal pensions, gay marriage – he’s not an op-ed columnist (or a U.S. senator); he’s the governor, and people care more about his effectiveness than his prescience. One reason why coverage of Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo may seem more favorable is because they’re both much more committed than Chafee is to explaining themselves clearly – and repeatedly. Until Chafee improves, his approval rating won’t.
2. Three recommended reads about economic development. Stephen Miller offers lessons for Providence, inspired by Buffalo. “It’s time Providence started playing to its natural and historical advantages instead of ignoring them,” he writes. James Kennedy issues a call-to-arms: “Allowing the Superman Building to be demolished for more car-oriented development could be the straw that breaks Providence’s back, while a successful push to save the building could be an opening hurrah for making our city more transit and bike oriented.” Finally, while we’re talking development, what about switching to a land tax in the capital city?
3. We talk a lot about Rhode Island’s falling population, but when you dig into the data the picture gets more nuanced – and more interesting. The state is definitely losing locals: in 2011-12, the net result of migration between Rhode Island and other states was a 5% decrease in population, the 5th-biggest loss in the nation. But that same year, Rhode Island reported a 3.4% increase in residents from net international migration, the 11th-biggest gain in the country. Basically, Rhode Island is shedding Americans and attracting foreigners. That trend, if it continues, has big implications for the state’s future. It also raises the question of whether Rhode Island should be doing more to encourage its residents to have babies.
4. One reason people might be moving away – the relatively high cost of housing in Rhode Island. Ryan Avent suggests two ways to increase the supply of housing, thus driving down prices and allowing more people to take part in the Providence-area economy: “You can remove barriers to construction of housing, like zoning and height limits. And you can invest in transport infrastructure that increases access to these metropolitan markets. You can also do both, and allow for greater population density around and along new transport lines, the former providing a market for (and financing for) the latter.” That kind of thinking has led Providence’s Jason Becker to say it should be “a no-brainer” for Downcity homeowners to back a surtax that pays for the proposed streetcar line, which Mayor Taveras says he wants.
5. One thing to consider as discussions about the Superman building continue: opportunity costs. Taxpayers may be asked to provide $40 million (or more) in tax credits for the building’s overhaul – are there other ways to spend that money that would help the city’s economy more? Maybe not. But ask.
6. Last week, House Speaker Gordon Fox was with Gina Raimondo to unveil their road-repair bill. This week, he joined Angel Taveras for the unveiling of the mayor’s economic plan. With those two on a collision course as 2014 nears, I asked Fox if it’s getting awkward for him. “Everyone’s thinking about 2014,” he told me. “It happened to me – the minute I got elected speaker they were already wondering who the next speaker was going to be. At some point it’s about people doing their jobs, and I like to look at it – they’re both my friends, as is the governor, and if it propels them for interest in future office to do a great job, to be dynamic and be creative, then we’re all winners for that.” But, I pressed, would he endorse one of them over the other? “That is a question that’s premature,” the speaker said, sounding exasperated but amused. He added: “We don’t know who the candidates are yet!”
7. A few media notes … congratulations to my pal David Scharfenberg, who’s leaving The Providence Phoenix to become WBUR’s new online reporter in Boston … congrats as well to Philip Eil, who’s taking over as Phoenix news editor … smart move by Justin Katz’s Ocean State Current to go the traditional-article route with its overtime investigation, which led to much media pickup … savvy move by GoLocalProv to bring on Aaron Renn as a regular columnist.
8. Next year could be a big one for mayoral races in Rhode Island if Angel Taveras leaves Providence, Scott Avedisian leaves Warwick, Dan McKee leaves Cumberland and Henry Kinch challenges Don Grebien in Pawtucket. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is also set for a statewide run, but his four-year term doesn’t end until 2016, so his seat wouldn’t open up unless he won higher office (or resigned). This year could be interesting, too, if Lisa Baldelli-Hunt challenges Leo Fontaine up in Woonsocket or James Diossa draws an opponent in Central Falls.
9. One of this year’s biggest battles on Smith Hill is over the push to rein in payday lending in Rhode Island. My WPRI.com colleague Dan McGowan writes from the front lines: “Much has been made about former House Speaker Bill Murphy lobbying for payday lending giant Advance America, but the group pushing to cap APRs at 36% has brought in a hired gun of their own: former ace fundraiser Brett Smiley. This week Smiley upped the pressure on Speaker Fox to pass a reform bill by convincing four mayors – Central Falls’ James Diossa, Cranston’s Allan Fung, Warwick’s Scott Avedisian and Woonsocket’s Leo Fontaine – to join the likes of Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo in supporting the legislation. Advance America exec Jamie Fulmer, for his part, says the industry is willing to compromise, but he warns that dramatically lowering the interest rates will force his company out of Rhode Island. The clock is ticking: Fox spokesman Larry Berman expects the payday-lending bill to go in front of the House Finance Committee in ‘a few weeks.'”
10. Did you know the Peanuts gang made a cartoon for the EPA in 1979? Watch:
11. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Tim Horan, president of National Grid in Rhode Island. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.
12. Happy Easter!