Happy Saturday! This is Eli Sherman, filling in for Ted on his weekend column while he’s out on paternity leave — you can send your takes, tips and trial balloons to email@example.com and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. As a young(er) reporter, an editor offered me the sage advice that people can lie much better than documents. It doesn’t mean a document can’t lie. But government officials often are legally obligated to put down on paper information they don’t necessarily want to share verbally, which is one of the many reasons why it’s important the public should be able to access their documents. While seemingly esoteric, the state’s Access to Public Records Act is one of the most important laws protecting the public’s access to governmental information, and currently it’s getting the most attention I’ve ever seen in Rhode Island. First, Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Joe Solomon – both Democrats – are sponsoring a bill that would revamp the law, which hasn’t been touched in more than a decade. Open-government advocates including Common Cause Rhode Island chief John Marion argue it would strengthen a law that’s increasingly tilted toward obfuscation. Various public bodies — including Gov. Dan McKee’s office, the R.I. State Police and the R.I. Executive Office of Commerce — oppose the legislation, arguing in part against an increase in fines that would be levied against them if they violate the law. “To the extent the fines are levied against a public body, the burden will be borne by the taxpayers,” McKee’s top lawyer Claire Richards wrote in an opposition letter. Separately, Attorney General Peter Neronha issued an advisory opinion this week telling public bodies they could no longer require public-document seekers to request records through antiquated communication systems, such as fax machines, as it violates the spirit of the law. “It puts them on notice that refusing to accept complaints by email/requiring them to be submitted by fax violates the APRA. If a complaint is filed based on failure to follow this directive, the ruling against them will be swift and $ penalties sought,” he tweeted.
1a. A quick note on the previous item: Claire Richards’ argument that violating APRA would hurt taxpayers is a red herring. Fines assessed by the attorney general’s office against a state agency – such as the governor’s office – typically go right back into the general fund, costing taxpayers zero dollars (outside of Richards’ salary).
2. There’s rarely a legislative session lately when abortion isn’t a subject of debate, and this year is no different. The House this week passed the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would expand abortion coverage to state workers and Medicaid recipients. “It shouldn’t be that you can only have access if you can afford it,” argued House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, who’s sponsoring the bill. Still, 24 members of the House voted against the bill, including 15 Democrats. “The government should not force people to pay taxes for something they’re fundamentally against,” said Rep. Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat, who voted no. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where there’s no guarantee it will get a vote. While there are plenty of lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber who support the bill, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is pro-life and hasn’t taken a position yet. “The Senate president has an open mind on the EACA bill,” spokesperson Greg Pare tells me. “He looks forward to the hearing on the legislation, after which he will discuss it with the chairwoman.”
3. Speaking of Senate President Ruggerio, he has been battling a back injury that forced him to miss session for about a week and a half. He was back in the State House on Friday and is reported to be “feeling much better.”
4. Governor McKee’s attempt to defuse tensions between him and Attorney General Peter Neronha was quickly scotched by the state’s top prosecutor. McKee insisted the pair “have a professional relationship that is strong,” and suggested his refusal to allocate an extra $2 million for Neronha’s budget is about keeping expenses in line amid gloomy revenue forecasts. But the attorney general quickly responded via Twitter. “Let’s get serious,” Neronha said. “This isn’t about balancing the budget.” Neronha’s recent decision to become more vocal about his opinions on social media has caught the attention of both policymakers and voters. He told Tim White earlier this month he’s more willing to speak out in part because he’s term-limited. But many are also wondering whether it’s indicative of an early attempt to draw attention ahead of a potential run for higher office, such as a challenge to McKee in 2026. Neronha addressed the conjecture, saying, “here’s why I use [Twitter]. To raise awareness re where critical action is needed, like healthcare & climate. To amplify and explain the work of the Office where necessary. And to sometimes have just a little fun. And my plans? That will have to wait.”
5. There are few issues more pressing than homelessness and housing right now in Rhode Island, and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has made the subject his top priority this session, backing a suite of legislative initiatives he argues will spur development. But the effort hasn’t come without criticism, with the Rhode Island GOP challenging the speaker on a bill that would make it easier for commercial property to be turned into residential units, citing his record as a private attorney focused on land use and zoning laws for private developers. “It raises the question of whether Shekarchi is pushing legislation, which overrides local control, in order to benefit his clients and his law practice,” said GOP chairman Joe Powers, citing a letter from Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias. Shekarchi dismissed the criticism, highlighting that the legislation has the support of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and isn’t tied to his day job. “It does not impact any of my current or past clients and is not effective until next year,” he told me. “We have a severe housing crisis in Rhode Island, and this is one of many bills that will make a difference. I am not going to let a Republican national committeeman deter me from creating more housing opportunities in Rhode Island.”
6. On the homelessness front, Governor McKee has failed to meet his own deadline to shut down a makeshift shelter in the historic Cranston Street Armory in Providence. The governor opened the state-owned building to homeless people after booting them from an encampment set up in front of the State House last winter, promising the armory would be a temporary solution until April 15. After first extending the deadline to April 30, the governor is now saying they need additional time, and he just announced a new closure date of May 15. The McKee administration didn’t have an answer for what was happening until late Friday, following much prodding from reporters.
7. Homelessness is only one part of the ongoing headache for Governor McKee’s administration at the Cranston Street Armory. The governor’s office is also grappling with fallout from a highly embarrassing business trip two of his directors took to Philadelphia last month to visit developer Scout Ltd, a state contractor. Scout has been working on an Armory redevelopment plan, but there hasn’t been much movement since Target 12 first reported about the business trip where the developer alleged in an email DCAMM Director David Patten acted inappropriately. Patricia Socarras, a spokesperson for Mayor Smiley, said city officials last met with Scout during the week of April 5, which is when the Target 12 report came out. A state spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
8. Director Patten’s alleged bad behavior was outlined in an email that Governor McKee and Speaker Shekarchi are refusing to release publicly. Target 12 is filing a complaint with AG Neronha’s office this coming week asking for an expedited legal review, given state leaders are mulling whether to allocate tens of millions of dollars toward the Cranston Street Armory redevelopment effort.
9. Here’s a dispatch out of Providence from my colleague Steph Machado: “The No. 1 comment I heard from elected officials and members of the public after Mayor Smiley’s budget address on Tuesday was this: does the mayor really think large commercial landlords will pass on tax savings to apartment renters? That’s exactly what Smiley called for them to do in his first budget address on Tuesday night, when he proposed to lower the commercial tax rate by nearly 4%. The average commercial apartment building — defined as having six units or more — will save $1,900, according to the Smiley administration’s calculations. Pressed on the issue after the speech, Smiley said if landlords won’t lower rents, he hopes they will at least ‘slow or pause’ rental increases after getting a tax cut. At the same time that he wants to lower taxes for commercial properties, Smiley is proposing to raise the residential tax rate by 5%, an idea which is already drawing ire from residents and city councilors who point out that many homeowners saw a tax hike last year due to the property revaluation. The proposal would also decrease the homestead exemption from 45% to 40%, further increasing tax bills for homeowners who live in their properties. Smiley says the hike is unavoidable. ‘We have no choice but to raise taxes this year,’ he said, citing in part his predecessor Jorge Elorza’s decision to use one-time federal cash to balance the budget. It’s too soon to say if the council will pass this tax increase; Council President Rachel Miller hedged on weighing in just yet, while Finance Chair Helen Anthony told me she’s eager to question Smiley’s team about their reasons behind the tax increase. Her first chance to do that in public will be on Monday; Anthony has scheduled a Finance Committee meeting on the budget for 5 p.m.”
10. The biggest news this week in the crowded race to replace Congressman David Cicilline was that nobody new announced they’ll be running for the soon-to-be open seat. Currently, there are 15 Democrats who have announced plans to run for the 1st Congressional District, while many others continue to consider whether to join the fray. (A full list of who’s in and out can be found here.) No Republicans have announced runs yet, but a lot could still change before papers are officially due in June.
11. Congressional candidate Aaron Regunberg — who was the subject of some criticism last week — made headlines this week by calling on his competitors to decline corporate PAC money; he called the progressive litmus test a “no-brainer.” Candidates Gabe Amo, Nick Autiello, Sandra Cano and Don Carlson tell me they’re not accepting corporate PAC funds, emphasizing that their decisions have nothing to do with Regunberg. Candidate John Goncalves has previously said he’d refuse them as well. Candidate Allen Waters tells me he’s accepting the funds, but said “as the next congressman” he would advocate for prohibiting PAC contributions to campaigns during non-election years. A spokesperson for Stephanie Beauté declined to respond to Regunberg’s challenge, while the remaining candidates did not respond to a request for comment.
12. Forget 2023 — Republican Raymond McKay has announced plans to run for U.S. Senate in 2024, seeking to oust incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. The Army veteran and former Warwick network and telecom manager announced his campaign this week, arguing Washington needs new leadership amid soaring cost of living and strict government regulations hurting working Rhode Islanders. Whitehouse’s spokesperson declined to comment on the announcement by McKay, who previously mounted an aborted challenge against Jack Reed.
13. The Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan had a good scoop this week, reporting that Senate President Ruggerio’s chief of staff, Jake Bissaillon, is running to fill the seat left empty by the death of Sen. Maryellen Goodwin. “It’s a very bittersweet opportunity that’s presented itself,” Bissaillon told me, adding that he got the Senate president’s blessing to run. “I’ve lived in Providence ever since I came here to go to Providence College. It’s a community and a neighborhood that I’m proud to call home.” The Projo’s Kathy Gregg reports at least one other candidate is seriously considering a run: Niyoka Powell, a Republican who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Goodwin last year as an independent.
14. There’s always a local angle: President Biden has named Julie Chávez Rodriguez to run his 2024 re-election campaign, and Chávez Rodriguez was congressional candidate Gabe Amo’s boss at the White House before he exited to run for Congressman Cicilline’s seat. Amo — who said working for her was “the privilege of a lifetime” — tells me he isn’t Chávez Rodriguez’s only Rhode Island connection. “Of course, she has a famous background — in fact, we share an affection for RI AFL-CIO George Nee, who was her grandfather’s bodyguard at one time — but she is also amongst the most loyal, respected, and hardest workers I’ve ever met,” Amo said. That grandfather was Cesar Chavez, the famed labor leader and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association. Nee tells me he was sent to California in 1975 to work on Chavez’s security detail, at the time when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the nation’s first law allowing farm workers to organize. “Jerry Brown signed the law and we did a thousand-mile march through California and brought the law to the farm workers,” Nee said. “I did about 800 miles, but Cesar did the full thousand.”
15. Congressman Cicilline, who’s a lame duck as he prepares to become CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation later this spring, lambasted Speaker McCarthy’s debt-cieling bill, which Democrats have dubbed the “Default on America Act.” Cicilline called the measure an “absurd, cruel proposal that is not – as House Republicans claim – fiscally responsible.” His junior colleague, Congressman Seth Magaziner, echoed the criticism. “Led by the most extreme elements of his conference, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has put forward a MAGA Republican ransom note: either we go along with the Republicans’ plan to hurt seniors, or they will blow up the entire U.S. economy,” he said. Senator Whitehouse, who was also critical, has called a May 4 Budget Committee hearing to examine the issue.
16. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a discussion this week with the Center for New American Security focused on transforming the U.S. military to be competitive with China. He called on defense leaders to develop its tools to remain up-to-date, and to integrate its activities with international allies.
17. Don’t miss this Washington Post write-up about President Trump’s 2020 campaign hiring former Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Ken Block to study election fraud claims. Block, who confirmed the information detailed in the report, was paid more than $750,000. He told the newspaper, “no substantive voter fraud was uncovered in my investigations looking for it, nor was I able to confirm any of the outside claims of voter fraud that I was asked to look at …. Every fraud claim I was asked to investigate was false.”
18. Governor McKee continues to fill out his cabinet. He’s nominated Kim Merolla-Brito for director of the R.I. Department of Human Services and Elizabeth Dwyer for director of the R.I. Department of Business Regulation. Both have been filling the positions in an interim capacity and now await Senate confirmation. Dwyer received some immediate praise from the SEIU Local 580 union, which tweeted that the department under her leadership “is a model for how other agencies can create an environment of high morale conducive to the delivery of efficient/effective public service.”
19. A very cool project here by the Brown Daily Herald, which mapped business turnover on Thayer Street in Providence. If you’re a fan of nostalgia and/or data visualization, this one’s for you. Kudos to the team at the Herald for putting this one together.
20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Roger Williams University School of Law Dean Gregory Bowman and Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sunday at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.