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1. Rhode Island politics never loses its capacity to surprise. Joe Trillo, who just five years ago was representing the state on the Republican National Committee, is now running for governor as an independent. His move only added to the big-time uncertainty that still surrounds the 2018 race. The Republican primary already has two serious candidates in 2014 nominee Allan Fung and House GOP Leader Patricia Morgan, and it could get a third if businessman Gio Feroce goes through with his plans to run next year. They will be competing for a relatively small group of voters – only 32,000 votes were cast in the 2014 Republican primary (won by Fung), though in high-interest years that number has topped 60,000. On the Democratic side, Gina Raimondo is a well-funded incumbent, but Lincoln Chafee would have no problem matching her in money and name recognition if he mounts a challenge. (Former Rep. Spencer Dickinson and Burrillville Land Trust President Paul Roselli also say they plan to run in the primary.) And now the November general election is at least a three-way race between the two party nominees and Trillo – and it’s not unimaginable that a crowded field could entice a fourth or even fifth candidate onto the November ballot. One thing’s for sure: if all this leads to a third governor in a row elected with under 50% of the vote, calls for Rhode Island to establish a runoff system will grow.
2. The backlash from Republicans was swift and fierce after Joe Trillo’s shock announcement on Matt Allen’s show that he was bolting the GOP to run as an independent. (One Republican dubbed Trillo “Traitor Joe.”) Their reasoning is straightforward: Rhode Island’s last two gubernatorial ballots were crowded ones, and the result was a Republican candidate earning barely one-third of the vote. Trillo, with his GOP background and longstanding support for Donald Trump, would seem particularly likely to siphon off more conservative votes, which could help Governor Raimondo should she be renominated. The counter: Raimondo’s numbers are weak, her hold on her own party is insecure, and if the 2016 election taught us anything it’s that conventional wisdom is sometimes very wrong. As for Trillo’s motivations, he alleges he was not getting a fair shake from Republican leaders who prefer Allan Fung – for what it’s worth, Patricia Morgan says she hasn’t experienced that – and wants to make his case to a November electorate that will be nearly 10 times larger than the GOP primary one. He received some support from Ken Block, who’s faced his own criticisms from Republicans for his 2010 Moderate Party bid and his 2014 GOP run. “Trillo’s decision is rational,” Block argued on Twitter. “His age means he likely won’t have another shot at the governor’s race, and the overly crowded GOP primary (it would have been 4 candidates competing for 25,000 votes had he stayed in) is a total crap shoot which anyone can win.”
3. Unsurprisingly, the Senate Finance Committee’s revised PawSox bill does not appear to have swayed any of the proposal’s most vocal critics. But it did tackle a number of substantive concerns raised during the panel’s 29 hours of hearings, including the wisdom of expanding eminent domain and the deal’s affordability for Pawtucket. (You can read the panel’s entire 67-page report here.) Senate Finance Chairman Bill Conley said he expects the committee to approve the bill during the first week of January, setting up a vote by the full Senate in short order. Presuming Senate President Dominick Ruggerio rounds up the necessary votes, that would shift the spotlight to Speaker Mattiello, who has made abundantly clear the House won’t look at the ballpark bill until it’s been approved by the Senate. Mattiello isn’t dead set against the proposal, but he’s clearly wary of it, as are any number of rank-and-file members – there will be some intense lobbying after the Senate vote. Hanging over all this is Worcester’s increasingly serious-sounding effort to woo the team there, which now has at least general support from Governor Baker. But that city still hasn’t put any dollar figures on its offer.
4. A long time ago, they say, Rhode Island had budget surpluses big enough that the fight at the State House was over what to do with all the extra money. Those were the days. The state now seems to be in a budget doom loop, with lawmakers committed to programs whose cost grows more every year than revenue from the tax system established to fund them. House Fiscal Advisor Sharon Reynolds Ferland laid out the grisly details on Tuesday, expressing particular concern about the $60 million shortfall that’s opened up in the current-year budget and a perceived lack of urgency from the Raimondo administration in tackling it. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase pushed back at the latter assertion, but acknowledged to the committee, “It is a challenging fiscal environment we’re in, despite a strong economy. It’s sort of an unusual time, where we have very low unemployment, job growth, and yet a difficult budget environment.” As Ferland pointed out, if balancing the budget is this difficult at 4.2% unemployment, what will happen if and when there’s a recession? The fiscal picture is sure to be a factor in the 2018 gubernatorial race, too; the Republican Governors Association is already arguing Raimondo “neglected her responsibility and refused to act quickly to make needed cuts.”
5. Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan has been a vocal opponent of the Commerce Corporation tax-incentive programs that the Raimondo administration uses to lure businesses to the state. But that doesn’t mean she’d axe them entirely if elected governor. “Listen, there is a place for the corporate welfare, as I call it,” Morgan said on this week’s Newsmakers. “There is a place for it. There’s no doubt about it. I just think it’s been done poorly in Rhode Island. And I also think we wouldn’t have to be so aggressive about giving money out to companies if we fixed some of the fundamental problems.” Morgan cites the success of Quonset, the thriving military base-turned-business park, as “a shining example of what can happen when you create an atmosphere that is easier for companies to come, grow, build. I would like to see us have a similar Quonset, so to speak, in Northern Rhode Island and maybe on the East Bay, where our Commerce Corp. would actually get a large piece of land and manage it the same way we do Quonset.”
6. Rhode Island will soon have cut unemployment taxes by $40 million.
7. Speaker Mattiello has taken another step that should tamp down speculation about whether he’ll run for a seventh term in 2018: securing an office. Mattiello confirmed Friday that he’s opened a re-election headquarters at 713 Oaklawn Ave. in Cranston, right in the heart of House District 15. Fellow dog owners may recognize the address as being about 350 yards from Oaklawn Animal Hospital. It’s also just up the street from Mattiello’s 2016 election headquarters.
8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “If you’re thinking that the Rhode Island School Building Task Force’s recommendation that voters approve $500 million in general-obligation bonds for school repairs by 2022 isn’t close to the amount needed to cover all infrastructure improvements, you’re right. But the 16-member panel sees the bonds as a central component to achieving the state’s goal of eventually bringing all of Rhode Island’s schools into good condition. As Treasurer Magaziner explained this week, the task force also wants the state to continue setting aside at least $80 million a year to reimburse school districts for repairs. Between the bonds and the annual reimbursements, that could mean at least $1.3 billion in repairs over the next 10 years. Add in another couple of hundred million dollars that cities and towns will be required to spend and you’ll be approaching $2 billion. Even that won’t get the state all the way there, though; experts hired by the state say the schools need more than $600 million in repairs just to make them ‘warm, safe and dry,’ and about $2.2 billion to bring them all into good condition.”
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9. Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell will be racking up the frequent-flyer miles to Washington this month. On Monday night, Bell and his wife were at the Naval Observatory for a Christmas party hosted by Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife. Bell said there were about 50 people at the event, with RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel among those in attendance. Bell reports he lobbied Pence to visit Rhode Island to raise money at some point down the road. (Bell and his wife also snapped a yuletide photo with the VP.) And this Thursday Bell will be back in Washington for a White House Christmas party hosted by President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. Even in a blue state, there are perks to being a party chairman when you’re party is in power.
10. Charles DiLuglio, a veteran member of the General Assembly’s stable of part-time lawyers, retired last week after 31 years in the Legislative Council office, a House spokesman confirms. DiLuglio served as chairman of the Jamestown Democratic Town Committee years ago and at last check was still secretary of the Democratic Senatorial District Committee in District 13, which Teresa Paiva Weed represented before Dawn Euer succeeded her.
11. Governor Raimondo will be the new vice-chair of the Democratic Governors Association, the group announced this week, further raising her national profile. “We have a historic number of candidates running in 2018 in red, blue and purple states alike,” she said in a statement. “The 2018 cycle is also an opportunity for us to grow the ranks of female governors, with strong candidates running across the country.” While no certainty, the appointment increases the chances Raimondo could chair the association down the road should she win re-election. The Republican Governors Association was, naturally, unimpressed by her selection.
12. The sexual misconduct allegations that have convulsed the nation in recent weeks brought back memories of a notable case that U.S. Senate candidate Robert Flanders heard two decades ago while on the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The 1997 case, Vallinoto v. DiSandro, concerned a woman who sued her divorce lawyer, alleging he coerced her into a sexual relationship by making her fear he would refuse to represent her if she didn’t comply. All but one justice sided with the lawyer – all but Flanders. “Edmond A. DiSandro’s sexual depredation of the plaintiff while serving as her divorce attorney constituted a flagrant breach of the fiduciary duties he owed to his client,” Flanders argued. He went on to say the lawyer had created a “conflict of interest” by initiating a sexual relationship with the client, and described doing so as “legal malpractice.”
13. Al Franken’s sudden resignation has left Minnesota’s governor facing a tough decision about whom to appoint as an interim senator until a permanent successor is elected next November. So what would happen if a Franken situation developed in Rhode Island? The governor wouldn’t be involved. Back in 2010 – during, not coincidentally, the term of Republican Don Carcieri – state lawmakers voted to strip the governor of his or her power to appoint an interim senator, mandating that a special election be held. Democrats were motivated in part by fear that Jack Reed would someday be plucked for an appointment in the Obama administration, allowing Carcieri to hand a safe blue-state Senate seat to the Republicans for some period of time. Carcieri vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode him in January 2010, the same month Scott Brown shocked the world by winning Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat – proving that Rhode Island’s approach isn’t foolproof for the majority party, either.
14. An avid reader with a superstitious streak checked her horoscope on Tarot.com earlier this week, only to find a bit of wisdom from an unexpected source: Lincoln Chafee. His inspirational quote for Leos on Dec. 4: “Trust is built with consistency.” A Google search shows Chafee originally made the remark in a 2008 interview with Mother Jones when he was publicizing his then-new memoir.
15. The proposed CVS-Aetna merger made big news nationwide this week, though it’s far from a done deal. An enormous amount has already been written about the proposal; for a taste, check out Linette Lopez on how the deal could help consumers and Michael Hiltzik on how it could hurt them.
16. Partners will decide on acquiring Care New England by February.
17. Via PBN’s Eli Sherman, American Banker did an extended interview with Citizens Financial CEO Bruce Van Saun that’s worth a read. Among other things, Van Saun is a proponent of the tax bill moving through Congress. “If there is an agreement on a corporate tax rate reduction, that will be very good for sentiment and unleash some of the animal spirits,” he said. Van Saun points out that Citizens – like another major Rhode Island company, CVS – is likely to benefit in particular from the tax bill, because their domestic-focused operations force them to pay closer to the statutory 35% tax rate.
18. Josh Barro breaks down how the tax bill will affect regular people.
19. This past Thursday marked 76 years since the Pearl Harbor attack – allowing The Westerly Sun to remind us it printed the news first.
20. A neuroscientist reveals the most important choice you can make.
21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, Republican candidate for governor. This week on Executive Suite – Nick Garrison, president and founder, Foolproof Brewing. 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 (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook