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 For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Who is Nick Mattiello? Just before he was elected speaker, I suggested the Cranston Democrat was a moderate who might be a Republican if he was in another state. Others – particularly unhappy progressives – have suggested Mattiello isn’t really a Democrat at all. But the speaker himself rejected that suggestion on Friday. “I’m a Democrat. I’m a proud Democrat,” Mattiello said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I don’t believe that Democrats all have to be on the furthest-left outpost. There’s some people that believe that, but that is not the majority of the Democrats in Rhode Island. I believe I represent a typical Democrat.” Noting his support for “an appropriate safety net,” Mattiello said: “Middle-class values are in the middle, and I tend to politically be situated in the middle.” Asked why he appointed Republican Rep. Doreen Costa as vice-chair of House Judiciary, Mattiello said: “There’s too much raucous debate between the parties. I think that we have to respect each other more. … It doesn’t mean I’m less of a Democrat.” One reason Mattiello’s views are interesting – the speaker will play a key role in determining whether Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo or Clay Pell gets the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s gubernatorial endorsement. His No. 2, John DeSimone, has already endorsed Taveras.

2. Mattiello repeated his policy mantra – “jobs and the economy” – roughly 500 times on Newsmakers. But no politician campaigns against jobs and the economy, so what does the new speaker think would help? Two items to watch: Rhode Island’s corporate and estate taxes. On the corporate tax, Mattiello told us he wants to get the rate down to 7% from its current level of 9%. On the estate tax, Mattiello noted that Rhode Island currently has one of the lowest exemptions in the nation – $921,655 in 2014 – and that it has a “cliff,” where an estate valued at $1 more than the exemption triggers a tax on the entire estate (not just the amount above the exemption). “We’re looking to eliminate the cliff and possibly increase that threshold a little bit so that we can keep high wage-earners and people that have accumulated wealth in Rhode Island, rather than have them leave as soon as they retire,” Mattiello said. All that will be music to the ears of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, which has long made the case that those changes would improve Rhode Island’s business-climate ranking and cost less than, say, lowering the sales tax. But they’ll still reduce revenue in a difficult budget climate, and they’ll face serious pushback from the left.

3. Mattiello and DeSimone sounded lukewarm at best when asked about Common Cause Rhode Island’s five-year crusade to restore the Ethics Commission’s full jurisdiction over state lawmakers. After another repetition of his “jobs and the economy” focus, Mattiello questioned Tim White‘s suggestion that there is a corruption problem in Rhode Island government. “I know of no corruption in government,” the speaker said, adding that “there’s no underlying corruption that we have to get rid of.” He suggested that whatever triggered the recent FBI raids on Gordon Fox’s home and office is likely “more personal in nature and not governmental,” while the ethics bill raises thorny constitutional questions. “I just simply may not have enough time in the day to address a very complicated issue,” Mattiello said. He sounded somewhat more open, however, to getting rid of the master lever: “We are in discussions to consider that. … That’s a slightly simpler issue to deal with; there’s no constitutional issues involved.”

4. Those who expect recent events will lead outraged Rhode Island voters to flood the polls in November demanding change may be wrong. This 2011 NBER working paper suggests political corruption can actually have the opposite effect, causing dismayed citizens to withdraw from the political process altogether.

5. State and local leaders have come together on a financing plan to convert a vacant 26-story downtown tower formerly occupied by Bank of America into 286 rental apartments. Sounds like the Superman building, right? But it’s actually happening in Hartford. The financing there is educational when contemplating the Superman building’s future: the $78-million project is relying heavily on government loans and tax credits, with the quasi-public Capital Region Development Authority even taking an equity stake. But one of the most important numbers – and one to keep an eye on in any Superman deal – is how much value the developer put on the building itself when he contributed it to the project. The Hartford tower’s owner paid $13 million for it in 2006, but wound up getting just $7 million for it in the apartment deal. That begs the question, what is fair market value for the Superman building – and how much of a haircut is David Sweetser willing to take? (For more on the comparison, check out Patrick Anderson’s story in this week’s PBN.)

6. Why is it so expensive to build a bridge in America? Here’s one answer, from The Week’s Ryan Cooper.

7. A new survey suggests the Affordable Care Act is reducing the number of uninsured Americans, which adds context to the numbers coming out of HealthSource RI. Rhode Island’s uninsured population was estimated at 126,000 before Obamacare, and almost 94,000 Rhode Islanders have signed up through Health Source RI so far; if two-thirds of those people didn’t have insurance before, the state’s uninsured population will have shrunk by half. That’s a significant “if” – we don’t have good data on the prior insurance status of those who enrolled – but it shows why local Affordable Care Act supporters are feeling good. It won’t necessarily be smooth sailing for HealthSource RI going forward, though. For one thing, there’s deep skepticism about whether the agency should have a roughly $20-million annual budget, and no consensus on how to pay for it; for another, HealthSource chief Christine Ferguson said this week the high cost of its plans is preventing some people from signing up. Those Medicaid numbers, too, are a double-edged sword: state number-crunchers have yet to say how much more the unexpectedly high enrollment is going to cost Rhode Island taxpayers.

8. The Washington Post’s Paul Kane examined Rhode Island’s senior U.S. senator on Friday in an interesting piece about the power of committee chairmen on the Capitol Hill of 2014: “What the Congress needs more is more Jack Reeds and more Dave Camps. Reed, the incredibly serious Senate Democrat, Camp, the wonk House Republican; neither of them aspired to the White House. Each wanted to come here and stick around for a good long time and make a difference. One tries to tilt the legislative policy windmill a little more to the left, the other a little more to the right. Each has succeeded, even in these dysfunctional times. Reed is about to win another Senate term and he’ll likely chair Armed Services, and over the next decade he will continue to impact policy, moving the ball little by little, in a way that won’t get noticed on Twitter but will have real impact. Ted Cruz may take a run at the White House in 2016, and if he does, the odds are stacked wildly against him winning. They just are. And after that he may go get a Fox News show and if/when he does, he’ll be talking to 1 million or so like-minded people, day in and day out. He won’t be actually moving the needle one bit. Back in the Senate, under this scenario, Jack Reed be will shaping America’s global power structure in ways near and far, in ways that many people won’t notice but will have vast impact around the world. All from sitting at the center of the dais, holding a chairman’s gavel. That gavel still matters, still has clout, so long as the person wielding it understands it’s more than a toy to bang against a table.”

9. Providence alt-rockers Deer Tick contributed a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Night After Night” to the new album “Bob Dylan in the 80′s: Volume One.”

10. Whatever you think of their recommendations, give credit to the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity for being specific in laying out what should be cut from the state budget. It’s always easier to stay studiously vague when calling for spending cuts. Getting specific about what should actually get the ax triggers an actual debate about whether taxpayers should spend, say, $11 million on legislative grants or $2.3 million on the State Council on the Arts. It’s also interesting that the center chose not to put its bullseye on social services, going so far as to say at least some of those programs “represent the legitimate and clear preferences of the Rhode Island and American public to help, for example, struggling families secure enough food.” Indeed, some of the larger items on its chopping block – $50 million for historic tax credits, $8.4 million for the Governor’s Workforce Board – are more likely to find defenders among the state’s establishment business community than its progressive wing.

11. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the Smithfield Democratic Town Committee endorsed Ralph Mollis, Peter Kilmartin, Jack Reed and David Cicilline … the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen Local 3, Rhode Island Chapter endorsed Gina Ramondo … the Westerly Republican Town Committee endorsed Allan Fung … the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Guillaume De RamelVictor Capellan endorsed Ernie Almonte.

12. I joined Rhode Island PBS for this week’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Scott MacKay, Wendy Schiller and Denise Aiken. 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.

13. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the items we published this week: Providence’s mayoral candidates talked city issues at a forumCharlie Kroll’s Andera was acquired for $48 million by a New Hampshire company … the PEDP board hired another law firm to deal with litigation … Aaron Regunberg is running for Gordon Fox’s House seat … and Rhode Island’s $10,000 aggregate campaign-contribution cap may disappear thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and House Majority Leader John DeSimone. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Alden Anderson, senior vice president and partner, CBRE New England. 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 ( ) covers politics and the economy for and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

An earlier version of this item incorrectly attributed the Smithfield Democratic Town Committee’s endorsements to the Scituate Democratic Town Committee: the Scituate group has only endorsed Gina Raimondo and Ernie Almonte so far.

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

  1. Speaker Mattiello ….

    “Mattiello questioned Tim White‘s suggestion that there is a corruption problem in Rhode Island government. “I know of no corruption in government,” the speaker said, adding that “there’s no underlying corruption that we have to get rid of.”

    Is he serious? ROFLMAO!!!

  2. #why isn’t Mattiello concerned about the middle class people who leave the state after retirement? There are the real numbers. The rich don’t leave their beach houses. Mattiello mentioned that he would like to make taxes competitive with neighboring states. Ok, why not eliminate taxes on Social Security and pensions, just as Massachusetts does? This way, retirees will stay, instead of moving to Florida and North Carolina, as many retirees do. Mattiello, it’s the middle class that can’t afford to live here after retirement. They are the ones leaving the state, not the 1%. How are we to believe Mattiello is a democrat when he is in line with the thinking of the Chamber of Commerce?

    • Yes, Snow, I agree. Eliminating taxes on social security and pensions would definitely help retirees stay in RI. Unfortunately, two bills to that effect – H7207 and H7418 – have already received the kiss of death at the state house… “Committee recommended measure be held for further study.” I had such high hopes they would pass.

  3. #10 I think you make a good point here. Let’s start a discussion about these items, especially the legislative grants. I agree that progressives too often are reactive. Too often we do not get out in front of problems, but trail behind. Although I don’t agree with many of the cuts suggested, I do think it is important to start setting the states agenda instead of reacting to it.

  4. Has anyone asked the question what the Ethics Commission would have done that the FBI, U.S. attorney and IRS could not do? If there was a corruption issue, it seems the right groups were in charge, and none were appointed by anyone in RI government.

    • FBI/US Attorney, etc. are there to police laws, not ethics. There is a difference. Not all ethical failures are illegal. Therefore we need an entity policing ethics, specifically.

      • Ethan, thank God someone like yourself has some sense to understand the role investigative offices play. John is listening to talk radio and thinking they are journalists.

  5. Worse than all the corruption in our state is the silencing of the media. It seems reporters are afraid to confront politicians in power or who they think will be in power for fear of losing access should they get elected. Can anyone name a reporter from the major networks, projo, or WPRI who is willing to do serious investigative work on any of the likely winners of the gubernatorial race. Likewise, Gordon Fox, seemed to operate with impunity by using control over assembly perks to silence his minions. Paiva Weed, Rubbers Ruggerio, and the merry senators are along for the ride. Governor Chafee is enjoying the perks of his office, scooting all around the planet while chaos reigns in RI government. Where’s the Attorney General? No involvement in the investigation of Speaker Fox. No comment on the highly irregular method of voting in the Pension Mediation Proposed settlement. Where’s the outrage? When union leaders and politicians are able to meet in private for over a year at the direction of the judiciary and then collude to assemble a voting scheme that resembles a system similar to what the Mullahs of Iran use in their local neighborhoods, with numbered ballots identifying whose vote is whose and non returned ballots counting as votes in the affirmative for a question that the proponents want answered in the affirmative. More than a little is not right with such a circumstance. Again, to the media, where’s the outrage?

  6. I love Rhode Island, but when I retire I’m spending 179 days a year here. The rest of my time will be at my official residence in Florida. The way Rhode Island enforces the estate tax is criminal.

    Lets see how much uncompensated care Rhode Island hospitals have to offer in 2014. If the number isn’t significantly reduced the ACA won’t be delivering on even the low hanging fruit of cost savings. Expanding healthcare is a noble effort. Doing so without lowering the amount of money we spend as a % of GDP is to fail. Simply expanding the rolls but making other people pay for it misses the point.

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