1. The Republican primary fight between Allan Fung and Ken Block is starting to get interesting, as well it should – the GOP nomination is a valuable commodity. The Rhode Island Democratic Party hasn’t won an election for governor since 1992. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has suggested that recent Republican gubernatorial wins in Southern New England have been part of a slow fadeout for the party locally, akin to how Democrats held onto some Southern congressional seats well into the 1990s. Maybe. Then again, Don Carcieri managed to win re-election in 2006 despite an extremely difficult political environment for Republicans. Carcieri won 18,000 more votes than Lincoln Chafee that year; John McCain underperformed Carcieri by 32,000 in 2008, and Mitt Romney did so by 40,000 in 2012. So both Fung and Block have good reason to fight for the GOP banner if they want to be the next governor. Fung remains the favorite because of his longer history with the party and previous elected experience, but the decision this week by Carcieri fundraiser Tony Bucci to sign on with Block is another sign the former Moderate Party founder will be competitive.
2. Congratulations to Brown University’s Mark Blyth on having his book “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea” chosen by the Financial Times as one of the best of 2013. “The argument is overstated,” the pink paper opined. “But the central point is right: if closely intertwined countries all cut public spending, the outcome will be a deeper depression and more public debt.” Check out Blyth’s April interview on Executive Suite for more about the book and how he came to write it.
3. One of the biggest policy questions lawmakers will face when they return to Smith Hill next year is how to pay for HealthSource RI once federal money runs out in 2015. Executive Director Christine Ferguson says she’s seeking an annual operating budget of $17 million to $20 million, which is going to be a hard sell with no source of funding identified. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island CEO Peter Andruszkiewicz isn’t taking a position yet on the right way to fund HealthSource, but he does have some ideas about the wrong way. “It can’t be to continue to burden our smallest customers, individuals and small groups who are having the most difficult time with the affordability question, with more taxes and assessments,” Andruszkiewicz said on this week’s Executive Suite. “Today those small, fully insured customers pay a premium tax, for immunization, and they’re paying a federal tax now as well. We can’t keep loading new fees on those customers who can’t afford it.” Reading between the lines, Andruszkiewicz is really talking about the growing number of self-insured employers in Rhode Island who pay their own claims instead of premiums to an insurer (like Blue Cross). State assessments and taxes are on premiums, as opposed to medical claims, which can make it cheaper for a large organization to go self-insured; about 42% of privately covered individuals were in self-insured plans as of 2011. If the proposed HealthSource RI funding models link its revenue to other health spending, watch for whether lawmakers target premiums or claims.
4. Speaking of health care, Sheldon Whitehouse teamed up with two all-star Democratic policy wonks – Ezekiel Emanuel and Peter Orszag – on a Bloomberg View op-ed this week celebrating the slowdown in medical inflation and urging President Obama to set big goals for further changes to the sector. “Imagine paperless health care in 2020, with no real per capita growth and with most payments set according to value rather than intensity of treatment,” they wrote. “That’s a set of goals worth shooting for.” It’s not the first time Whitehouse has pushed the president to set a specific target for health spending.
5. Bishop Tobin’s latest headline-grabbing statement led to another round of predictable punditry on the polarizing prelate, with columnists like Kevin Cullen and Bob Kerr criticizing him and the American Life League coming to his defense. There was certainly a clear contrast between Tobin’s Mandela statement and Pope Francis’s condolence telegram, which made no mention of abortion – especially since the bishop released his thoughts proactively, rather than in response to an interviewer’s question, and wasn’t necessarily under an obligation to comment at all as the leader of Rhode Island’s Catholics. It bears repeating that there’s no evidence Bishop Tobin and Pope Francis actually disagree on church doctrine (as Time magazine belatedly figured out). Rather, this is about style and emphasis; as Tobin himself put it this week: “The pope is a much nicer person than I am.” But with at least some conservative Catholics uneasy about the new pope, Tobin could also emerge as a national or even international voice for those who don’t want to see the church downplay its teachings on abortion and other social issues in the public square.
6. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “On the list of issues Providence Mayor Angel Taveras was expecting to deal with during his campaign for governor, strip clubs probably didn’t crack the top 50. But now the first-term Democrat is staring at a major confrontation with an industry that keeps one of the state’s most powerful lobbyists on retainer: former Senate Minority Leader Robert Goldberg. Taveras and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare are dead set on banning private booths and establishing a one-strike policy that would revoke the license of any adult club where dancers are caught soliciting customers. On the other side, the Rhode Island Entertainment Association – which pays Goldberg $25,000 a year to serve as their lobbyist – is willing to remove curtains or doors from booths, but refuses to eliminate them altogether and considers the one-strike rule tantamount to a ‘death penalty,’ according to spokesman Eric Robichaud. In the middle is outgoing Board of Licenses Chairman Andrew Annaldo, also an influential State House lobbyist. Annaldo wants to get rid of the booths, but has questioned whether a one-strike rule would ever hold up in court. The Taveras administration this week declined to meet with representatives from the strip clubs, but there is still one major hurdle that hasn’t been discussed yet: the Providence City Council. Any law changes would first have to be approved the majority of the 15-member council, which is by no means a rubber stamp for the mayor. Look for the strip club lobby to make a plea to the council to avoid emotional decisions based on negative headlines, and for Taveras to try and use his bully pulpit to ram through the changes he wants made.”
8. It turns out Jack Reed isn’t the only one who’s a big fan of work-sharing, a program that lets employers cut workers’ hours rather than lay them off and uses jobless benefits to boost their paychecks. Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, expressed support for it in a Wonkblog interview this week. “We wouldn’t want to ban layoffs,” he said. “But if there are firms who would rather not lay people off but feel like they have to because they’re in a state that doesn’t allow work-sharing … if we can give all firms a choice between work-sharing and layoffs, that could be a really positive innovation and could have an effect on unemployment.” Of course, as Strain notes, this won’t do much good for the long-term unemployed who have already lost their job; an estimated 4,900 of them are expected to lose jobless benefits when the federal extended insurance expires at the end of this month.
9. Rhode Island PBS was good enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Ian Donnis, Ed Fitzpatrick and Jim Baron. The four of us gave a preview about what we think is in store for the General Assembly in 2014. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.
10. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items Dan McGowan, Tim White and I published this week: a rough fiscal year at Lifespan left Rhode Island Hospital’s parent owing $14.9 million … the 38 Studios auction netted only $320,000 and didn’t sell “Copernicus” … HealthSource RI had 2,669 enroll in private plans through Nov. 30 … Blue Cross’s CEO called HealthSource enrollments “disappointing” so far … the R.I. Board of Education wants $2 million to split itself up (again) … Angel Taveras missed a national education event to raise money in Puerto Rico … the Providence City Council froze that obscure grant program … the judge got a 12th briefing on state pension mediation … and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating discriminatory hiring practices at Rhode Island’s prison.
11. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Dan Harrop, Republican candidate for mayor of Providence; Jim Ludes and G. Wayne Miller from the Pell Center on their “Story of the Year” (Snowden). Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island CEO Peter Andruszkiewicz. 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. Only 10 more shopping days until Christmas.