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Nesi's Notes: March 3

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Happy Saturday! Here's another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com - as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. The battle over Care New England has had more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera since the hospital company revealed in 2015 it was shopping itself around. This week came another surprise, as Lifespan announced it is joining the 10-month-old merger talks between CNE and Boston giant Partners HealthCare. Lifespan and CNE have been the Ross and Rachel of local hospitals for two decades now, and it wasn't so long ago that Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau was publicly questioning why CNE chose Partners over his company. But with neither entity going anywhere, Babineau and Partners CEO David Torchiana apparently felt it was wise to at least have some formal conversations - particularly as Brown continues to raise concerns about the Partners-CNE deal. (For what it's worth, Brown seemed as surprised by this week's news as Lifespan was by Brown's decision to work with Prospect on an alternative CNE bid; its president said school leaders "hope to be included in these discussions" in the future.) While Lifespan and Partners don't appear to have a clear sense of where the negotiations could go, a full-on acquisition of Lifespan by Partners on top of CNE would face high regulatory and financial hurdles. Still, expanding the discussions only raises the already high stakes - Lifespan and CNE together employ more than 20,000 people in Rhode Island, and have combined revenue of over $3 billion. As Dr. Stuart Altman, a noted health wonk and chair of the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, told Modern Healthcare, "Rhode Island has to look at how much concentrated power this entity would have."

2. Exciting news: WPRI 12 and our brand-new polling partner, Roger Williams University, will release our first Rhode Island Campaign 2018 survey on air Monday at 5 p.m. The landline/cell phone live-interview poll, conducted this week by Fleming & Associates, surveyed registered voters to see who's ahead in the race for governor, how they feel about a long list of local politicians (plus President Trump), and where they stand on big issues like guns, immigration and sexual harassment. The findings should be very interesting - don't miss it Monday. WPRI and RWU will be conducting more polls throughout the year, and the school's Bristol campus will also be the site of one of our televised debates.

3. Joe Fleming is busy these days, with two polls he conducted coming out this week - one commissioned by PawSox backers to test support for the stadium, and another by Bryant's Hassenfeld Institute on education issues. The PawSox poll confirmed what previous surveys indicated: a majority of voters oppose spending taxpayer money on a new ballpark unless they are certain it will generate enough revenue to pay for itself. Supporters say it will do just that, but the findings did not appear to move Speaker Mattiello, who argued the questions which drew positive responses relied on "assumptions that are speculative at best." The education poll also reinforced conventional wisdom, showing two-thirds support for the proposed $250-million school-repair bond but mixed feelings about the state's K-12 system in general.

4. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Robert Flanders has a new campaign manager: Richard Kirby, the former East Providence city manager and a lawyer by trade. (Kirby was ousted from the EP job in September 2016 amid political turmoil on the City Council.) The campaign "is going well, and I'm glad to have Richard on board," Flanders told me Friday night. "He brings a deep knowledge of Rhode Island politics and is a very energetic and upbeat person." Kirby is taking over for Marissa Martinez, a sharp young operative from Washington who previously worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Reached separately, Martinez said, "He's going to make the best U.S. senator. I wish him the best of luck." The change comes after Flanders' end-of-the-year fundraising report showed him with $345,000 on hand, lagging far behind incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse's $2.8 million. (The other Republican, Bobby Nardolillo, had $45,000.)

5. Guns have jumped to the top of the political agenda in the wake of the Florida school shooting. The "red flag" bill appears to be on the fast track - though Republicans and the ACLU are raising concerns - and the introduction of an "assault weapons" ban drew a big crowd to the State House. The latter bill, however, faces resistance from Democratic legislative leaders in addition to strong opposition from groups like the NRA. GOP gubernatorial hopeful Allan Fung staked out a set of firearms-friendly positions in an interview Monday, drawing criticism from left and right for not speaking up sooner but getting his message across to 2nd Amendment proponents. Governor Raimondo, meanwhile, has been devoting a lot of her public appearances to promoting gun control. In an interview with Kim Kalunian on Thursday, she said she supports her daughter's plans to join an upcoming school walkout - and has never shot a gun herself.

6. Steph Machado surveys the candidates for governor on offshore drilling.

7. More criticism over Governor Raimondo's fundraising deal with city Dems.

8. The field is set for the April 3 special election to replace Pawtucket state Sen. Jamie Doyle. City Councilwoman Sandra Cano easily won the Democratic primary, taking 61% of the vote despite facing two challengers and some talk that her support for the PawSox deal would be a problem. Pawtucket Republican City Committee Chairman Nathan Luciano won the GOP primary, which drew just 124 voters to the polls. It's safe to say Luciano is an underdog: the last time Pawtucket had a Republican in the General Assembly was 1931, according to the state library.

9. Remember the Moderate Party? The political party founded by businessman Ken Block, who abandoned it long ago, is still in existence under the leadership of Chairman Bill Gilbert. And the Moderates will still have a line on the November ballot just like the Republican and Democratic parties thanks to nominee Bob Healey's strong showing in 2014, when he easily cleared the 5% threshold necessary to keep the party alive. Gilbert has set up a campaign account to run for governor and loaned it $100,000, but he is still working to find someone else who will step up and be the Moderate candidate instead. "I want to keep those conversations close to the vest," Gilbert said on this week's Newsmakers. But, he said, "I've had a lot of interest. I've had meetings with prominent people on both sides of the fence, and independents also." The Moderate nominee would be the fifth candidate for governor on the ballot, along with the Democratic nominee, the Republican nominee, and independents Joe Trillo and Luis Daniel Muñoz.

10. Providence issued 12,000 speed-camera tickets in barely a month.

11. The Rhode Island Foundation has an interesting new program called Impact Investing. The idea: use up to 5% of its endowment, or nearly $50 million, to make loans or equity investments in Rhode Island nonprofits and companies. The foundation expects to earn a return on the transactions, but a below-market one. The first two investments are a $1 million bridge loan to help fund Rhode Island Public Radio's expansion and a $300,000 purchase of preferred stock in the Urban Greens Food Co-op. Is it risky? "Some of us know banking," Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg, former chairman and CEO of Fleet Bank Rhode Island, said on this week's Executive Suite. "Some of us know what banks should be doing sometimes and maybe aren't doing as much - and I know I'll get in trouble for that. But we're being prudent. ... We're a little further on the risk spectrum, but we're not going into this to lose the endowment money." The concept is intriguing - if Brown University, for example, allotted 5% of its roughly $3.5 billion endowment to a similar program, that would make about $175 million available to invest locally. (Full disclosure: the foundation is an Executive Suite sponsor.)

12. Congressman Cicilline set aside his vocal concerns about big corporations getting bigger at a hearing Tuesday to defend the proposed acquisition of Aetna by CVS Health; the Woonsocket-based company is based in his district.

13. Walt Buteau reports the General Assembly's marijuana legalization commission won't be releasing its findings this year after all.

14. TransitMatters is out with a plan to overhaul regional MBTA commuter rail service it says could cut a trip between Providence and South Station from 71 minutes to 46. Influential transit wonk Alon Levy, who worked on the report, has more here. Improving train service between Providence and Boston is often discussed as something that could boost economic development in Rhode Island, including in the 2016 Brookings report on the state's economy.

15. SCOTUSblog recaps this week's U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in a pivotal case for the future of Rhode Island's powerful public-sector unions.

16. What happens when your childhood bully is murdered?

17. Kate Arthur ranks all 89 Best Picture Oscar winners.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers - Moderate Party Chairman Bill Gilbert; a poll preview with Joe Fleming and Lisa Pelosi. This week on Executive Suite - Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts - click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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