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Ted Nesi's Saturday Morning Post: Oct. 8

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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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 most important thing to remember about Speaker Mattiello's re-election race is this: Rhode Island is heavily Democratic, but his district isn't. In 2012 Mitt Romney got only 35% of the vote statewide, but he received 49% in Mattiello's District 15, running just 156 votes behind Barack Obama. It's true that Mattiello ran much stronger, topping Republican Robert Bach by more than 1,000 votes and winning all four of District 15's precincts. But the circumstances this year are quite different. For one thing, Mattiello was majority leader then, but this time he's speaker, the face of the often unpopular State House status quo. For another, Hillary Clinton is less popular than Obama and Donald Trump may outperform Romney, both of which could scramble the math for races further down the ballot like Mattiello's. (Gina Raimondo doesn't exactly walk on water, either.) With all that in mind, this past week wasn't a confidence-booster for Mattiello's allies as he fights challenger Steve Frias. His decision to call a big news conference and promise tax cuts five weeks out suggested a need to shake up the race; his misstatement about Ray Gallison was an unforced error; and his attack on Frias over 38 Studios landed like a lead balloon. Mattiello's team has explanations for all three - the news conference allowed him to address a key voter concern (car taxes) and provided a long-planned opportunity to show off his support from John Hazen White Jr.; the Gallison quote was a simple mistake; and the Frias attack could have been a fair point about GOP involvement in 38 Studios if he hadn't garbled it. Cumulatively, though, the stories made the speaker appear more wobbly than supporters say he is. Frias will remain the underdog until Nov. 8, but no one should dismiss his chances. (And their Nov. 4 debate on Newsmakers should be fun.)

2. If Nick Mattiello were defeated next month, he'd join a long line of Rhode Island House speakers who couldn't exit on their own terms. Gordon Fox (2010-2014) resigned in disgrace after the FBI State House raid. John Harwood (1993-2002) stepped aside after a sex scandal. Joe DeAngelis (1988-1992) didn't seek re-election after RISDIC. Matthew Smith (1980-1988) left of his own accord to become a court administrator, but had to resign from that under fire a few years later. Edward Manning (1977-1980) was charged with bribery after his own FBI State House raid. All that history makes Bill Murphy (2003-2010) seem quite impressive, not only for leaving at a time of his own choosing to focus on his legal and lobbying work, but for successfully passing the speakership first to Fox and then to his protégé Mattiello. Seems doubtful, though, that any speaker will ever surpass the famed and feared Harry Curvin, who held the job for an astonishing 23 years (1941-1964).

3. If Nick Mattiello loses, the scramble for power in the House could make the one back in 2014 look as tidy as a British coronation. Think about the power vacuum - not only would the speaker be gone but so would his No. 2 (John DeSimone), and the House Finance Committee chairman will have been in the job for less than two legislative months.

4. It's hard to know what to make of Speaker Mattiello's announcement that he'll tackle the car tax next year if he's re-elected, since he didn't offer any policy details except to promise "meaningful relief." It's a more complicated issue than it might seem - cities and towns rely on car tax revenue to balance their budgets, which is why replacing it with state aid was at the center of the 1998 car tax repeal plan. But that would mean, for example, shifting a tax burden of $35 million which currently falls on Providence taxpayers alone onto taxpayers across the state. It also means state dollars put toward offsetting the car tax won't be available for other purposes. The political upside is obvious, though: many people hate the car tax in a visceral way, and Warwick House candidate Evan Shanley probably spoke for many of his fellow Democratic hopefuls when he cheered Mattiello's announcement.

5. A few other outtakes from Speaker Mattiello's press conference. ... On John Carnevale: "I get the frustration over John Carnevale. But he didn't live where he said. That's up to his constituents to figure out." ... On Ray Gallison: "Contrary to popular belief, when people commit crimes they don't brag about it. And he never told me what he was doing in his private practice. And nobody had any idea." ... On the minimum wage: "I have indicated that 2017 we'll increase the minimum wage. ... I thought it was important for this past year to just give our small businesses a break, let them absorb the rates they have now, and move forward." ... On legalizing marijuana: "We're going to look to see what Massachusetts does, and we'll take that up early next year. ... If it passes in Massachusetts, it's going to be something that we have to consider. ... Quite frankly, time will be of the essence at that point."

6. The advisory about Speaker Mattiello's news conference came from his campaign spokeswoman Patti Doyle and was attended by a number of his campaign staffers. So it didn't escape the notice of reporters that his State House chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and policy director, Lynn Urbani, were in attendance during business hours. Asked by WPRO's Steve Klamkin if they were attending on taxpayer time, Mattiello at first said: "Yes. This is policy. This is state policy. I'm the speaker of the House. They're here on  business time." Skenyon quickly jumped in, telling the speaker he had taken time off to attend. "You're here on your own time?" Mattiello responded. "Alright. He indicates he's here on his own time. Which, I don't know why he had to be. This is - everything that an elected official does has an element of politics. ... I have a responsibility to lead and to govern, and that's exactly what we're doing. We're informing our constituents that we've heard what they say and we have a plan moving forward. That is a governmental function." (Skenyon's political work for Mattiello has made headlines before.)

7. The trucking industry plans to spend money on up to six Assembly races.

8. The name of Taco CEO John Hazen White Jr. sometimes comes up as a possible 2018 challenger to Governor Raimondo. So is the 58-year-old Barrington resident interested? "Never say never," Hazen White said Tuesday, echoing the answer he's given in the past. Asked if he'd run as a Republican, he shot back: "I might run as a Democrat." (More seriously, he said he's unlikely to run as an independent.) One reason he could consider running, he said, is that Taco is evolving in a direction where his day-to-day leadership is less necessary. He also said he'd like to serve with Speaker Mattiello: "If I were governor and I ran as a Republican, I would want a leader like that guy. Because I am not right or left. I am very centrist."

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9. GOP Chairman Brandon Bell tells me he's "disgusted" by the leaked Donald Trump video. (As of late yesterday, VP nominee Mike Pence was still scheduled to be in Newport tonight.)

10. Jack Reed was in Ohio on Thursday and Friday to stump for Hillary Clinton, his first out-of-state trip for the Democratic ticket during the general election. David Cicilline also went out of town for the Democratic nominee this week, headlining a fundraiser in Hartford alongside U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. Sheldon Whitehouse hasn't been anywhere for Clinton since August, when he went to New Hampshire events in Keene and Peterborough. But a Whitehouse spokesman says he's planning to go talk climate change later this month in Pennsylvania, a state whose U.S. Senate contest could help decide if Democrats control the chamber next year. (Small world: the Republican incumbent Whitehouse hopes to help unseat, Pat Toomey, attended Providence's La Salle Academy.) Unlike the other three members of the congressional delegation, Jim Langevin has made no out-of-state trips for Clinton and has no such travel lined up, per his office.

11. If you're reading this column, you're probably already registered to vote. But if you're not - or if you have family or friends who aren't - remind them that tomorrow is the registration deadline in Rhode Island (to the dismay of Chuck Schumer and Pat Leahy). You can now register online at this website. In Massachusetts the deadline isn't until Oct. 19, and you can register online here.

12. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com's Dan McGowan: "It isn't every day you see Democrat City Council members urge voters to oppose infrastructure bonds – think about the election year palm card: ‘Councilman X voted against paving your street' – but welcome to Providence. One month before a $40-million bond question will appear on the ballot, several members of the council are raising red flags over a proposal that would allow individual council members to have more of a say over projects in the neighborhoods they represent. East Side Councilman Seth Yurdin took to Facebook to urge his supporters to vote no unless there is an ‘immediate meaningful revision.' Across the city, Councilman David Salvatore said giving the council more control over the money creates ‘opportunities for misuse of taxpayer dollars.' Heck, Mayor Elorza called it a ‘slush fund' twice in two sentences on Thursday night. Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around on this bond proposal. No one in the mayor's office mentioned a plan to borrow money until July, weeks after the city budget had already been approved. The original list of projects the administration gave the council was flawed. And other members of the council still question whether the city can even afford the bond. Now, the administration and the council appear to be reneging on a promise to publish a list of every proposed project before voters head to the polls on Nov. 8. With all the internal finger pointing taking place in City Hall, it remains unclear whether officials still have time to make their case."

13. After days of headlines about missing benefits and multi-hour waits, the Raimondo administration tried to do damage control Friday on the $364-million UHIP IT project by calling a press conference where Elizabeth Roberts, Mike DiBiase and Melba Depeña Affigne insisted the system is working for "the vast majority" of its 318,000 users. A summary they provided reporters said they've resolved specific problems with SNAP, child care, EBT and SSI benefits but are still dealing with issues affecting HealthSource RI and Medicaid enrollees. Yet they were unable to provide any information about a screenshot, widely circulated since John DePetro posted it, that shows a woman being issued $504 three times; Depeña Affigne claimed they'd been unable to confirm it happened. Since many benefits programs are tied to the first of the month, Nov. 1 will be a key test of whether the system is getting more reliable. Also of note: Roberts and DiBiase maintained the $16 million in promised savings from UHIP this fiscal year shouldn't be affected even though it will be weeks before they start using the more robust eligibility verification that's supposed to trim the benefit rolls.

14. A striking stat: just 9% of Rhode Island's 317,000 Medicaid enrollees accounted for 71% of the $2-billion program's health claims in 2014-15. Most of those 28,000 high-cost enrollees are elderly or disabled adults, and they cost the state and federal governments $1.4 billion combined in 2014-15. At the other end of the spectrum, about half of Medicaid enrollees - 165,000 - cost less than $1,000 per year in claims, or $51 million combined. Another way to look at it: excluding the high-cost cases, the other 91% of enrollees accounted for only 29% of spending.

15. Did you know Rhode Island first noticed its Italians on Columbus Day 1892?

16. GE Digital has hired 12 people so far at its temporary Providence office, which Governor Raimondo is scheduled to visit Tuesday, and nine of them are Rhode Islanders. GE is staffing up with help from TechHire, a White House initiative to help diversify the tech work force, and GE Digital's Joe Carey praised the program on Medium: "We had to staff our team quickly, and the partnership with TechHire Rhode Island helped us reach candidates that we had not found through our traditional recruiting methods," he said.

17. Business Insider likes Rhode Island's new open textbooks initiative.

18. Care New England and Southcoast Health expect to submit the application for their big hospital merger to the R.I. Department of Health sometime in the next month or so, spokeswoman May Kernan reports, calling it "a very complex and time consuming process." The two companies hope the merger will be complete by the end of March, but she noted they "are not in control of all of the timing aspects of the regulatory process."

19. Congrats #1 to Bank of America's Rhode Island president, Bill Hatfield, newly elected chairman of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Here's my 2014 Executive Suite interview with him.

20. Congrats #2 to Peter Wilhelm, who received USRowing's 2016 John J. Carlin Service Award. Wilhelm is a volunteer coach at Narragansett Boat Club.

21. Doris Kearns Goodwin does an exit interview with Barack Obama.

22. Hey thanks, Pope Francis!

23. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. This week on Executive SuiteFred Humphries, vice president of U.S. governmental affairs, Microsoft; Tom Tong and Rosamond Lu of Tom's BaoBao. 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 hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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