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

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. How much should Rhode Island pay for lawsuit insurance? That’s one way to look at the proposed pension settlement finally unveiled Friday afternoon: by giving back $232 million of the taxpayer savings from the 2011 overhaul, the General Assembly can lock in the remainder – $3.9 billion. We’re thus talking about the difference between a 46% decrease in Rhode Island’s unfunded pension liability and a 43% decrease in the unfunded liability – measurable but not major. In most cases, lawmakers would gladly grab 94% of what they originally sought and declare victory. But this isn’t most cases. For Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and others, getting told by Gina Raimondo for the second time in three years that they need to pass the treasurer’s unchangeable pension proposal is tough to swallow. There’s also the broader constitutional question, emphasized by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry and others, of whether the legislature has the right to alter pension benefits; passing a settlement leaves that unanswered. Still, if the unions had called senior state leaders in early 2011 and said, “Hey, we have a proposal we’ll back to slash the unfunded pension liability by more than 40% without a legal fight,” they probably would have jumped at the chance. Will they really say no to it now?

2. Of course, that’s assuming the proposed settlement doesn’t get torpedoed by workers and retirees before the General Assembly even takes it up. The flip side of Raimondo and Governor Chafee locking in 94% of the 2011 pension law’s savings is that the unions would only get back about 6% of what they lost when it passed, at least as measured by the unfunded liability. After the hot rhetoric of the past few years, it may shock the rank and file to see they’d get so little out of a settlement their leaders have already approved. “Our unions actually voted for this settlement?” Providence’s Candace McCall wrote on Twitter. “I’ll be there to help vote it DOWN!!!!!” She added: “This pension settlement is a disgrace. I didn’t pay in 9.5% of my pay for thirty years for this! Unions screwed up! … Let’s go to court!” It will be interesting to see how many others agree with McCall. Then again, should Rhode Island’s workers and retirees accept this to avoid the possibility of an adverse legal outcome that could set a precedent for pensioners coast to coast?

3. Under the terms of the settlement, the pension funds for state employees and teachers would reach the crucial 80% funding level when full annual COLAs are restored in 2031, or 17 years from now.

4. Back in September, Angel Taveras released a Democratic primary poll giving him a 19-point lead over Gina Raimondo. Now, five months later, WPRI 12 and The Providence Journal have released a poll that has Taveras just four points ahead of Raimondo. The partisan split in the two surveys was nearly identical – about 60/40 Democrats to independents – so what changed? Clay Pell, who captured 15% of the vote in our WPRI/Journal poll. Subtracting that 15% from Taveras’s 19-point September lead gives you the mayor’s lead today: four points. As Tim White quipped after the poll results were released, so far it looks like Gina Raimondo should be sending Clay Pell a fruit basket to thank him for getting into the race. Indeed, support for the treasurer is actually slightly lower in the new WPRI/Journal poll (27%) than it was in the September Taveras poll (30%) even though the intervening period saw Raimondo kick off her campaign. This has all the makings of a fierce primary.

5. So that’s the bad news for Taveras. The good news: the guy is really, really popular with Democratic primary voters. The mayor’s favorable rating is a stellar 68%, and his job approval rating is 58%. His favorable rating is at or above 70% with some key groups: union households, self-identified Democrats, women, and 40- to 59-year-olds. Those are enviable numbers for a first-term officeholder who has one of the toughest jobs in Rhode Island politics, and it suggests Taveras has plenty of room to increase his primary support beyond its current level of 31%. But it also puts a real target on his back: if the other two candidates want to win, they’re going to want to pull down the mayor’s popularity.

6. Most of the WPRI/Journal poll findings were unsurprising – which doesn’t make them uninteresting. (It’s always valuable to find out if our assumptions track measured reality.) One statistic that did surprise me, though, was Clay Pell’s unfavorable rating among Democratic primary voters: 21%, almost as high as Raimondo’s (24%) and a tick higher than Taveras’s (20%). Among both men and independents, Pell’s unfavorable rating is already 24%. Those numbers are higher than you might expect for someone who’s been on the political scene for barely a few months. Of course, Pell’s “don’t know” rating is much higher than those of the other two, at 41% – but since he’s already tying his rivals on the unfavorable side of the ledger, it’s incumbent on Pell to make a positive impression with those voters who are still forming an opinion about him.

7. Taveras is beating Raimondo among every subgroup of Democratic primary voters except two: independents and those ages 60 and up. Clay Pell is in third place with every subgroup of voters except one: those in public-sector union households, where he has 19% support while Raimondo has 17%.

8. A fascinating long read: Richard Reeves on the future of marriage in America.

9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “If there’s a major happening in Rhode Island government these days, it’s a safe bet to assume Ray Sullivan is involved. Sullivan, a former deputy House majority leader who led the effort to pass a same-sex marriage law in the state last year before joining Checkmate Consulting as a partner, played a behind-the-scenes public-relations role for organized labor leading up to Friday’s big pension settlement announcement. Sullivan said his firm was retained to ‘assist public employees, teachers and retiree coalitions in communicating with their members’ and indicated that relationship will continue in the coming months as union members and retirees prepare to vote on the deal. Sullivan did not wish to discuss how much Checkmate Consulting was paid or how much information about the settlement he received prior to a court-ordered confidentiality agreement being lifted, but said the firm had been helping with ‘planning behind the scenes for months.’ Separately, Checkmate Consulting helped coordinate the campaign kickoff for Democratic gubernatorial candidate and labor favorite Clay Pell last month; Sullivan said he did not coordinate with the Pell campaign for the pension settlement. Earlier this week, when it appeared as though the settlement talks had blown up, Pell criticized the mediation process for being ‘shrouded in secrecy.’”

10. Speaking of McGowan, if you missed his story on Buddy Cianci running for mayor again, go read it now.

11. Ian Prior, who was Brendan Doherty’s 2012 campaign manager and is now a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, endorsed Ken Block in the Republican primary for governor this week, as did Marion O’Brien, who handled Doherty’s outreach to seniors in 2012. On its own this wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, since Prior and O’Brien aren’t exactly household names. But when you combine their decisions with three other developments in recent weeks – John Robitaille hinting the GOP should give Block a look, Tony Bucci signing on as Block’s finance director, and Mike Napolitano becoming Block’s director of operations – it’s a sign the newly minted Republican is making inroads with the Carcieri/Doherty wing of the local GOP. That doesn’t mean Block is going to win the Republican nomination. But it does suggest he has a serious shot at it, and a risk for Allan Fung.

12. More GOP news: National Review named Dawson Hodgson one of its AG candidates to watch.

13. A bonus Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com ace Dan McGowan: “With a slight lead in the early polls and the best job approval rating of any elected official in the state, it’s not a surprise that Angel Taveras says he isn’t concerned about Clay Pell pulling votes away from him in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But that doesn’t mean several supporters – and even some opponents – don’t wish the mayor would change his mind and stay to help fully solve the problems he inherited in Providence. Paul Doughty, president for the city’s firefighters union, said he tried to nudge Taveras into staying on another term in Providence, in part because he’s worried about the transition to a new mayor. ‘He brought us out of bankruptcy, there’s no question in my mind,’ Doughty said following Taveras’s State of the City address this week. In January, state Rep. John Carnvevale, who co-chairs the Providence delegation on Smith Hill, said he’s backing Pell for governor, but would fully support Taveras if he were staying put. City Councilman Luis Aponte, who has clashed with Taveras for three years and is backing Treasurer Gina Raimondo for governor, said he too wishes the mayor would stick around for another term. ‘He took over the city at a very difficult time and slowed the path into bankruptcy and I think we’ve absolutely moved in the right direction,’ Aponte said. ‘He’s made strategic investments and I think overall he’s been a good mayor.’”

14. Stonehill College’s Peter Ubertaccio suggests Fall River and New Bedford should rethink their multi-decade effort to get commuter rail service extended there. Worth pondering.

15. John Arnold, the Enron alum and hedge-fund billionaire who’s become controversial in Rhode Island for backing Engage RI and American LeadHERship, is becoming to defenders of public-sector pensions what Pete Peterson represents to deficit doves. The liberal writer David Sirota took aim at Arnold twice this week, first for his political activism and then for his funding of a PBS series on pensions; the latter story was quickly labeled “a very important scoop” by Reuters’ influential Felix Salmon, and by Friday afternoon PBS was giving back the money.

16. My guests on Executive Suite this week are Amber Caulkins, who’s overseeing Rhode Island’s new College and University Research Collaborative, and Joe Morone, CEO of Footnote, a Boston startup that translates academic research into general-audience-friendly articles. The collaborative was created last year’s by the state’s 11 schools of higher ed with the financial support of The Rhode Island Foundation and the then-EDC (now Commerce RI) to help policymakers get good information about the challenges they face. (Insert your own joke about the General Assembly here.) The first effort is a cool example of what they have in mind, from Bryant’s Ed Tebaldi: “Manufacturing, Innovation, & Economic Growth: Challenges For Rhode Island And The Country.” Check it out – it’s not as dry as the title sounds, and even features this terrific chart. The most striking statistic in Telbadi’s piece was this: “According to my analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it led the country in manufacturing job loss from January 2000 to January 2013, with 44% of manufacturing jobs in the state evaporating over that period.” The rest of the country lost 31%.

17. I joined Rhode Island PBS for this week’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Scott MacKay, Wendy Schiller and Dave Layman. No surprise: the conversation was dominated by Campaign 2014 – especially the new WPRI/Projo poll – and pensions. 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.

18. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the items we published this week: the latest NECAP results were a mixed bag … Chafee made an undisclosed trip to Texas during the pension talks … Taveras highlighted progress in his State of the City speech … and a Sony executive unloaded on Rhode Island politicians over 38 Studios.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Amber Caulkins, program director at the College and University Research Collaborative, and Joe Morone, CEO of Footnote. 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.

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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