1. Happy New Year! Today’s Saturday Morning Post may be a brisker read than usual after a whacky week that saw a holiday followed by two days of snow coverage (including one of those always-delightful 4 a.m. shifts). But I can’t complain: I got to report from inside while my trooper colleagues froze through their live shots in Providence, New Bedford, Cape Cod and elsewhere. I hope all of you are shoveled out and have plenty of heat to get through this bitter cold spell. As always, our WPRI 12 meteorologists are the best source for all things atmospheric. Onward!
2. This week is going to be a big one for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who’s leading the push to get emergency unemployment benefits extended retroactively for another three months after they expired Dec. 28. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure early next week, but so far Nevada’s Dean Heller is the only Republican backing Reed publicly. “On a human level, many of these people are desperate,” Reed told The Guardian this week. “It is the difference between being able to pay their mortgage or not.” According to Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, 4,907 unemployed Rhode Island workers have lost an average of $337 a week in benefits since the program expired, for a combined $1.7 million unpaid in the first week alone. And it’s not just liberals who agree with Reed: center-right wonks Jim Pethokoukis and Michael Strain have both suggested unemployment checks shouldn’t be cut back while the labor market remains weak. Yet even if Reed wins passage in the Senate, the outlook in the GOP-controlled House is uncertain. His own colleague Congressman David Cicilline, in fact, is pushing an alternative measure that would pay for the $6.5 billion cost of the extension by cutting subsidies and corporate tax breaks – which goes against Reed’s argument that unemployment benefits are emergency spending and therefore shouldn’t require immediate offsets. (Speaker John Boehner also wants an offset, though probably not Cicilline’s.) No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer also poured cold water on Cicilline’s proposal Friday: “I have not heard any representation from the leadership yet that they would support unemployment insurance with an offset.”
3. Of course, this is hardly the first time two members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation haven’t been on the same page. Back in the late 1970s, U.S. Sen. John Chafee introduced a resolution to block construction of the “palatial monstrosity” that is now the Hart Senate Office Building – even though his home-state colleague Claiborne Pell was among those backing it.
4. Nellie Gorbea is a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, so it’s not too surprising that she opposes Rhode Island’s 2011 voter ID law. What may be surprising is that she also opposes the master lever – and she argues the two are related, because she thinks both policies could present a challenge to citizens exercising their right to vote. “I want to make government easier to use,” Gorbea told Tim White on this week’s Newsmakers. “I want to make all of our services easier to get. And so if there’s something like that, that confuses people, we need to get rid of it.” Gorbea, who was a deputy secretary of state under former Secretary of State Matt Brown, is a passionate believer in the power of the sometimes-sleepy office, and argues she’s a better bet than her Democratic opponent Guillaume de Ramel. “I think I bring a diversity and depth of experience to that office that makes me the best candidate on day one,” Gorbea told Tim. “I can walk into that office, I know what it does, I know what it needs to be doing. I think he has a very different set of experiences. I come into this with 20 years of experience of rolling up my sleeves in the community, being a leader in the nonprofit sector, in the Latino community, as a working mom.”
5. Book recommendation: “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” by Peter Baker. A very judicious and thoroughly reported account of the eight dramatic years of the Bush administration.
6. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “The FBI might not have found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in its probe of the Birch Vocational School, but the Providence School Department’s 25-page report released to the Providence City Council Thursday night does raise other questions about the school that was accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by making students work manual labor for little or no pay. For example, how did three audits – two from the R.I. Department of Education and one from the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools – conducted on the city’s special education department over the last five years completely miss what was happening in the 40-year-old school? Councilman David Salvatore – who called for a complete review of the school back in June – wants more answers. ‘The purpose of the review is to ensure that each and every student in Providence receives the best possible education,’ Salvatore told WPRI.com. ‘As the DOJ findings indicated, the program at Birch Vocational was severely outmoded, and diminished the opportunities of students with disabilities to fully function in community-based work environments as adults.’ Salvatore said the City Council Subcommittee on Education will review the report in the coming weeks.”
7. Sheldon Whitehouse got some good coverage and some not-so-good coverage down in Washington this week. On the plus side, Politico Pro ran a generally positive Q&A about his efforts to get Congress to pass legislation on climate change. (The senator’s interlocutor? Former Projo scribe Talia Buford.) Whitehouse said he thinks 2015 is the most likely year for a climate bill to pass, because “by then, the EPA regulations for existing power plants will be moving closer onto the radar of the big polluters. … [W]hen they’re looking down the barrel of those EPA regulations, the notion of an economy-wide carbon pollution fee I think will have a lot more appeal.” Some less positive press for Whitehouse came from New York Times legal eagle Adam Liptak, who argued lawmakers are going overboard in giving cute names to their legislation. One of Liptak’s examples: Whitehouse’s beloved DISCLOSE Act, short for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.” According to Liptak, academic research shows such names are “a new phenomenon” that “cheapen and distort the legal process.”
8. For media junkies, Marc Tracy’s look at the changing Weather Channel is a fascinating read.
9. Also for media junkies, read why Warren Buffett is investing in some local newspapers.
10. A bonus Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Jake Bissaillon, who’s spent the past three years as chief of staff to the Providence City Council where he served as Council President Michael Solomon’s closest advisor, has resigned from his post in order to concentrate on law school as he enters his second semester at Roger Williams Law. His last day was Friday. The move also frees up Bissaillon to focus solely on Solomon’s campaign for mayor rather than catering to the entire 15-member council. Bissaillon has mostly flown under the radar since running Steven Costantino’s failed mayoral campaign in 2010, but he quietly played a vital role in solving one of the biggest council dustups in recent years. When Finance Chairman John Igliozzi had a falling out with council leadership, it was Bissaillon who suggested the council create a new committee – Ways and Means – to vet all budget information after several failed attempts at removing Igliozzi from his throne. It wasn’t the most well-received decision at the time, but it was politically savvy. The move effectively eliminated Igliozzi – although he may have had the last laugh – and paved the way for Councilman David Salvatore, a Solomon confidant, to become chairman of the council’s most powerful committee.”
11. Another week, another bummer of a national ranking for Rhode Island. The Providence region ranks #50 out of 52 on a new Forbes list of the big U.S. metropolitan areas with the most economic momentum going into 2014. The only places with less momentum than Providence are bankrupt Detroit (#52) and burst-bubble Las Vegas (#51). According to Forbes, Providence, Detroit and Cleveland (#48) all “have fewer people than in 2007 and at least 5% fewer jobs.” The nearby Boston metro area, by contrast, ranks a healthier 26th.
12. Providence’s economic problems could grow in the coming years if Aaron Chatterji, a Duke business professor and former senior White House economist, turns out to be right about this: “‘Ed and meds’ have already accounted for a significant share of employment growth over the past several years. More important, these jobs are the only thing keeping many small and midsize American cities from sliding into deeper decline. Several regions are consciously building around these services under the logic that they cannot be outsourced, and local demand will continue to grow. Unfortunately, both assumptions are wrong, and that could mean bad news for many local job markets around the country.” Such concerns won’t be news to loyal Nesi’s Notes readers.
13. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the items we published this week: Rhode Island’s population grew for the first time since 2004 … most Providence mayor candidates oppose the downtown parole office … Rhode Island taxpayers have spent $28 million on road salt since 2008 … the nor’easter pushed the next pension meditation update to Monday … Tony Mascaro is replacing Craig Schwalb as WPRO’s program director … the FBI looked into Providence’s troubled Birch School … Governor Chafee and National Grid are working on hydropower legislation … HealthSource RI enrollment tripled in December … and Tazza Café closed its doors.
14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Nellie Gorbea, Democratic candidate for secretary of state; Steven King, managing director, Quonset Development Corporation. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Christine Ferguson, HealthSource RI’s executive director (encore). 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.