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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. With lawmakers aiming to finish this year’s legislative session by mid-June, it’s go time on Smith Hill. And the biggest hurdle will be shoring up the current state budget, along with the next one that begins July 1. The bad news – as expected – is that revised revenue estimates came in this week about $64 million lower than predicted, fueled largely by slumping personal income taxes. The good news is that the shortfall isn’t as painful as some anticipated, and Gov. Dan McKee had a $600 million surplus baked into his budget proposal unveiled in January. But the lower numbers do mean House Democrats can’t make everyone happy, turning up the heat on the horse trading that happens behind the scenes each year leading up to the House Finance Committee releasing its revised version of the tax-and-spending bill. Anything can happen in the coming weeks, and there’s often some unpredictable 11th-hour surprises, but House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is already signaling he’s not bullish on the idea of using one-time funds for recurring costs. “I have consistently cautioned against using one-time money for ongoing programs or tax cuts and today’s results reaffirm the need for that caution,” he said after the Revenue Estimating Conference concluded this week. What’s that mean? All will become clearer in the coming weeks. But it’s relatively safe to say McKee’s proposals to cancel a 3-cent gas tax increase and cut the state sales tax from 7% to 6.85% are both low priorities for the General Assembly.
2. Other initiatives with budgetary implications worth keeping an eye on include tangible tax relief, the legalization of iGaming and millions of dollars to replace lead pipes – all supported by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. On the House side, which has the most influence over the budget, Speaker Shekarchi will be pushing for his housing initiatives. Governor McKee is advocating for part of the speaker’s priorities to include funding for more jobs in his fledgling Housing Department, where Secretary Stefan Pryor is hoping to build a bigger team. And in the event the gas tax and sales tax initiatives don’t make it across the finish line, look for the governor’s office to be pushing for some other type of relief for Rhode Islanders. Attorney General Peter Neronha is hoping the General Assembly will give him $2 million to hire 20 new attorneys, a proposal that was nixed in the governor’s budget.
3. The other controversial legislative initiatives likely to garner a ton of attention over the next month include abortion coverage, gun control, LEOBOR reform, wage theft penalties and funding for free school lunches.
4. Outside the State House, Rhode Island’s homelessness challenge continues to rear its ugly head with a major deadline looming. Governor McKee told my colleague Anita Baffoni on Friday the Cranston Street Armory in Providence will indeed close its doors on Monday after operating as a makeshift shelter since winter. The historic building has been housing upward of 130 homeless people each night, and details about where they’re all headed are murky. Despite public safety concerns raised by Mayor Frank Picozzi, it appears about 55 people will head for the Motel 6 in Warwick – which immediately created consternation among some current guests. As for the rest of the people at the armory, McKee said “we should be able to have shelter for the individuals who want it.” He referenced — without elaborating — locations in Woonsocket and North Smithfield. He also mentioned Burrillville, where a proposed shelter hasn’t received regulatory approval, along with “other communities and churches stepping up.” A housing secretary spokesperson said Friday an announcement was forthcoming, but that didn’t end up coming before this column was put to bed.
5. Speaking of Governor McKee, The Public’s Radio’s Ian Donnis asked the governor this week whether he plans to run for re-election in 2026. The governor’s response: “We’ll make those decisions down the line in terms of what makes the most sense in terms of my family and whether we are continuing to do the job we’re doing, which we are. We’ve got great momentum in this state and I’m very optimistic about the future.”
6. With a month and half left in the quarter, many of the candidates seeking to succeed Congressman David Cicilline in the 1st Congressional District are focusing heavily on raising enough money to remain relevant heading toward the primary election in September. While some may grumble about money and politics, the reality is that putting together a team, getting out the vote and paying for advertising to build name recognition all cost money. How much? “You’d want to have at least a half-million dollars to really get your message across,” 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said on this week’s Newsmakers. “If you don’t raise enough, you may get out come June.”
7. One of the 1st District candidates garnering the most headlines so far is Aaron Regunberg, and much of it has stemmed from criticism lobbed by left-leaning Democrats who have challenged his progressive values. “This kind of flak that I’ve been getting from these far-left groups shows that my approach is to actually work with anyone including people I don’t always agree with to actually get things done,” Regunberg said this week in a wide-ranging interview on Newsmakers. The full list of candidates can be found here.
8. In related news, congressional candidate Gabe Amo picked up the race’s first mayoral endorsement from Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong, while candidates Walter Berbrick reported raising $100,000 in 15 days and Sen. Sandra Cano launched a new website and campaign video.
9. Speaking of the congressional candidates, my colleague Kim Kalunian has been doing yeoman’s work interviewing the long list of Democrats who have announced. So far, Kim has talked with 10 of the 15 on the 4 p.m. newscast, and the interviews can all be found here. The rest have been invited.
10. One of the biggest names out there still considering whether to jump into the race is Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien. Asked about it Friday, Grebien told me in a text, “Still heavily considering a run. I have not made a final decision and am working to get to one. I’m currently focused on Pawtucket and our budget process. Plan to make a decision before the filing deadline.”
11. President Biden has appointed Rhode Island Democratic National Committeewoman Liz Beretta-Perik to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.
12. Rhode Island health officials have ripped a page from political playbooks to adapt the campaign strategy of targeting cellphone numbers in specific geographic areas with text messages, warning against spikes of drug overdose and encouraging people to request the lifesaving nasal spray known as naloxone, or Narcan. Tim White and I took a look at the strategy and how it’s working in the fight against an opioid epidemic that’s killing more than one Rhode Islander per day.
13. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Tim White: “The Rhode Island court system ground to a halt for a few hours on Thursday afternoon when it seemed every jurist from the state — and some from beyond — descended on federal court in Providence to witness the designation of Fulton Street as ‘Judge Bruce M. Selya Way.’ Selya has served on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly four decades and has penned an astounding 1,809 opinions and counting. I’ve read a lot of judicial opinions over the years and have often found them to be impenetrably thick, jam-packed with legalese and words that would make even the most gifted wordsmith reach for a dictionary. Selya’s opinions, in contrast, are more accessible and at times even entertaining (in an opinion upholding the conviction of corrupt former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, he said one of the defendant’s arguments was ‘all foam and no beer’). Selya’s opinions are often assigned reading in law schools, and he has shaped hundreds of clerks who worked for him over the decades, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. The turnout on Thursday was a testament to Selya’s remarkable life. Born and raised in Providence and educated at Harvard Law School, he was the first person of Jewish faith to take the bench in Rhode Island. He was nominated to the federal court as a U.S. District judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, then elevated to the 1st Circuit four years later. But despite an appointment to a bench in Boston, Selya kept an office at U.S. District Court in Providence, which the newly minted Judge Selya Way runs alongside. ‘Any way you slice it, I am a Providence guy,’ Selya said in his thick Rhode Island accent. ‘The street itself is a short street, but it runs adjacent to this building and so it links me in perpetuity both with the city that I love and with the courthouse that has become my second home.’”
14. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Sarah Guernelli on the consumer beat: “Over the past couple months, an increasing number of Rhode Island businesses have been reaching out after receiving stacks of surprise electric bills from Rhode Island Energy, sometimes totaling tens of thousands of dollars. The state’s largest utility company is playing catch-up after relying heavily on a practice of estimating how much electricity customers were using during the pandemic, and the adjustments are causing financial headaches for business owners who are trying to balance their books each month. Their stories caught the attention of House Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa, who says she’s now working with Sen. John Burke on legislation ‘to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’ Speaker Shekarchi spokesperson Larry Berman confirmed the legislation is scheduled to be introduced on Tuesday.”
15. Another eye-grabber from Sarah this week: Pawtucket residents who want to repair or repave 50 feet of busted sidewalk with a curb must split the cost 50-50 with the city, meaning residents on average must pay $3,800 – plus a $75 application fee. “The city doesn’t have the dollars to do all the sidewalks,” Mayor Grebien explained.
16. Rhode Island this week joined a growing number of states – including Massachusetts – in moving toward ending the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. Governor McKee’s administration argues the rule-setting on car manufacturers will help the state achieve its carbon-cutting goals, noting vehicles currently account for 40% of the region’s carbon emissions. But the plan evoked criticism from Republican leadership, with Senate Minority Whip Gordon Rogers characterizing it as “another unfunded mandate with arbitrary deadlines pushed forward with the illusion of being on the cutting edge of climate change action.”
17. Governor McKee has appointed Richard Charest to become secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services. The appointment came as somewhat of a surprise to many in the health and human services sector, as it was widely expected the interim secretary, Ana Novais, was a shoo-in for the position. Charest moves up from serving as head of the state’s behavioral health agency; Novais will move back down to her former position as assistant secretary.
18. The Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson reports the House unanimously approved a bill to allow local cannabis companies to advertise on Rhode Island billboards. Under current law, only Massachusetts companies are authorized to do so.
19. Anita Baffoni took a look at added security measures at the R.I. Department of Administration, which requires visitors to go through security and provide an ID. The new protocols are clunky for people trying to access public agencies and they are raising concerns among open-government advocates.
20. The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council is hosting an education forum on Wednesday, which will include a slate of panelists focused on workforce development, education funding and school choice. The keynote speaker is Susan Lusi, a former Providence superintendent and current president and CEO of Mass Insight education and Research.
21. Steph Machado has a good one coming up on Monday examining surveillance cameras tracking cars across Rhode Island – which has created a rift between law enforcement and civil rights advocates. Don’t miss it.
22. Rhode Island Kids Count is slated to release its 2023 Factbook on Monday, offering a comprehensive look into the well-being of children and families across the state.
23. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. If you’re looking for a fun activity this Sunday, my colleagues Shannon Hegy and Kim Kalunian shared their favorite recipes: “Hulk Muffins” and and a fresh fruit tart, respectively. You can also share your favorite recipe here.
24. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — a political roundtable; 1st Congressional District candidate Aaron Regunberg and 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. 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 (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.