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. The first major legislative issue of the year cleared the General Assembly this week with the passage of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, first introduced by Rep. Katherine Kazarian and Sen. Bridget Valverde. The act expands abortion coverage to Medicaid recipients and state workers, which budget officials estimate will cost $529,000 and $29,500, respectively, during the fiscal year beginning July 1. The legislative journey to passage, however, didn’t come without some drama, as questions had swirled for weeks about whether the bill would receive support from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a pro-life Democrat. In the end, not only did he support the measure, but he also helped tip the scales by voting ex-officio in the Senate Judiciary Committee to move the legislation forward with a 7 to 6 vote. Republicans and other pro-life Democrats voted against the measure, with Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz lambasting its passage as “an egregious overstep of state government.” Ruggerio rationalized his support, describing it as “a simple insurance equity measure.” But that support may have had its limits, as he didn’t show up to Gov. Dan McKee’s bill signing ceremony where supportive lawmakers – including Ruggerio’s counterpart, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi – made sure to be there for the photo op.
2. The General Assembly now heads into the witching hour when behind-the-scenes budget negotiations heat up predominately between legislative leaders, the executive branch and advocates. The horse trading is commonplace toward the end of session each year, and time is running out, as the House will have to unveil its budget proposal sometime around June 1 if lawmakers truly want to end session by June 16. It takes a week to move the budget bill from committee to a final vote, and the legislature usually leaves one week after completing the budget to finalize any unfinished business before taking off for summer.
3. The legalization of online gambling, often called iGaming, continues to be one of the big question-marks hanging over the final month of session. Proponents argue it would be a boon for the state, bringing in $210 million of general revenue over the next five years. Opponents raise concerns over exacerbating problem gambling, as legalization would mean people could use their smartphones to play all the games currently available only in-person at the state’s two casinos run by Bally’s North America. Responding to some of the concerns, Bally’s vice president of government relations Elizabeth Suever this week told my colleague Kim Kalunian, “On our app we have lots of different things that people can use to help them utilize gaming in a responsible way,” explaining there are different buttons people can hit to limit or eliminate their use of the app. Debate aside, there’s also a question of legality, as R.I. Lottery chief Mark Furcolo said this week the proposed legislation is “likely unconstitutional.” Online gambling is currently legal in five states.
4. Another contentious issue spurring heated debate in the final month of session is the Attorney General Peter Neronha-backed proposal to reclassify wage theft as a felony offense. The state’s top prosecutor took to Twitter to advocate for its passage and challenge lawmakers who oppose it. “If you’re an elected official and don’t have a real or metaphorical bullhorn in your hand advocating for why making intentional theft of wages a real crime is just and right, I’d love to hear your explanation for your lack of enthusiasm,” he wrote. My colleague Sarah Guernelli and I did a deep-dive on the issue in February. The Boston Globe’s Amanda Milkovits had a read about it this week.
5. Speaking of AG Neronha, his widely publicized push for the General Assembly to give him an extra $2 million in the budget, so he can hire more lawyers, is setting up an interesting test for legislative leaders. The funding request has cooled an already chilly relationship between Neronha and Governor McKee, as the governor nixed the extra money in his budget proposal sent to the General Assembly in January. Now, if the House reinstates the funding, they’re bound to upset the governor, which could complicate a relatively warm relationship. To leave it out is to cross the state’s top prosecutor, who’s shown he has no problem publicly criticizing his opponents.
6. With time running out in the session, Governor McKee has continued to submit a steady flow of cabinet nominations, which require Senate approval. This week he named Jonathan Womer to become director of R.I. Department of Administration. Womer, a longtime state budget official who left the public sector in 2021 to join The Policy Lab at Brown University, replaces Jim Thorsen, who left last month to rejoin the U.S. Treasury. OMB chief Brian Daniels has been filling the position in the interim.
7. The nomination that garnered the most attention this week on Smith Hill, however, was Governor McKee’s decision to name former Providence Police Commander Thomas Verdi to lead the state’s Revenue Department. Verdi, who said he’s looking forward to “both the challenge and opportunity,” resigned from the city police department last year after 35 years in law enforcement. His nomination came as a surprise to many – including people inside the revenue department – as his police background is atypical for a state job with responsibilities including tax collection and setting fiscal policy. (We examined the resumes of all past directors here.) Gary Sasse, who helped create Revenue as a standalone department under former Gov. Donald Carcieri, put it to me this way: “The revenue department has several missions, but two of the most important are the state maximizes the money that’s due through taxation and the second is to recommend policies that are fair, equitable and competitive,” he said. “To accomplish those things requires a deep understanding of tax policy and tax administration.” The pick now goes to the Senate where Verdi’s daughter formerly worked as legal counsel to Senate President Ruggerio.
8. The Rhode Island Cannabis Act, which created the regulatory agency known as the Cannabis Control Commission, was signed into law a year ago next week. The legislation called for Governor McKee to name his picks for the commission within 40 days of the bill becoming a law. Much to the chagrin of industry players, however, McKee blew through that deadline and didn’t end up making his picks until this week. He’s nominated Kimberly Ahern, Robert Jacquard and Layi Oduyingbo to serve on the inaugural panel. My colleague Steph Machado has a good rundown on the nominees and their backgrounds here.
9. Also from Steph Machado on the cannabis beat: the ban on cannabis advertising for Rhode Island businesses appears to be coming to a head, as Mother Earth Wellness owner Joe Pakuris thumbed his nose at the regulation this week and put up a billboard for his retail shop anyway. Massachusetts businesses are allowed to advertise in Rhode Island, but local businesses haven’t had the opportunity in part because Governor McKee has been slow to appoint commissioners.
10. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s profile continues to rise in Washington, as his name keeps coming up more and more in the debate over the debt limit. Speaking to Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC this week, the Rhode Island Democrat encouraged President Biden to “keep his constitutional option on the table in case negotiations break down.” Rhode Island native Andy Boardman, who follows the issue closely, took note of the senator’s role as of late. “Whitehouse and other senators’ concerns appears less that a deal is unreachable and more that one could prove too reachable — that the White House might concede an uncomfortable amount to Republicans,” he told me. “The president so far shows little inclination toward taking the unilateral escape hatch on offer. A blowup in negotiations remains possible. But with the president and congressional leaders currently in deal-making mode, Whitehouse and colleagues’ hope may be that their advocacy for the 14th Amendment helps shift the terms of the eventual legislative outcome in a more favorable direction.”
11. Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO Neil Steinberg continued his farewell tour this week, as he’s stepping down on June 1 after 15 years of leading the state’s largest philanthropic organization. “I’m feeling bittersweet,” Steinberg said this week during an exit interview on Newsmakers. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” A former banker, Steinberg’s tenure at the foundation has come with marked financial growth. Since he started in 2008, assets have grown from $455 million to $1.3 billion. And the foundation gave out $800 million in grants and raised $700 million in contributions during that time. He will be replaced by Congressman David Cicilline, who’s exiting Washington midterm for the job.
12. What’s next for Neil Steinberg? While he said he plans to take the summer off to relax, it’s unlikely he’ll fall off the map. The Pawtucket resident – without hesitation – ruled out the prospect of running for public office. But he’s expressed interest in potentially serving on some public boards or commissions in the future. And the Projo’s Patrick Anderson made an astute observation while reviewing legislation introduced by Speaker Shekarchi on Friday that would create a quasi-public agency – including a board of directors – to oversee an ongoing effort to grow the state’s life sciences industry. Per the legislation, the board would have to include “a senior executive with extensive background in banking, grant making and fundraising fields.” In a tweet, Anderson quipped, “Can think of someone who fits this description who might be available” It’s also worth noting the idea for a new life-sciences agency was first outlined in two Rhode Island Foundation-funded reports that were unveiled last October and presented earlier in the year to Shekarchi. He described the idea at the time as “a great opportunity.” Governor McKee has proposed $45 million in his budget for bioscience investments.
13. Congressman Cicilline’s imminent departure from Congress casts a continued spotlight on the race to replace him in the 1st Congressional District. This week’s top news in the race included the Rhode Island Working Families Party – a progressive organization known for getting several state lawmakers elected in recent years – endorsing Democratic candidate Aaron Regunberg. “Aaron is exactly the type of leader Rhode Islanders need in Congress,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, the Working Families Party’s New England regional director. The endorsement evoked immediate criticism from Regunberg’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Sandra Cano, whose campaign manager Sydney Keen said, “It is deeply disappointing to learn that the Rhode Island Working Families Party has chosen to not endorse the type of candidate they claim to champion: a woman of color, an immigrant, a working mother.”
14. With so many candidates (15 Democrats) in the race, it can feel a bit daunting to try and get to know them. Take this as your weekly reminder to watch Kim Kalunian’s interviews with them here. It’s a great way to catch up quick.
15. The arrest of Cranston City Councilman Matthew Reilly made for a wild week in city politics. Reilly, who resigned three days after the arrest, is accused of getting caught smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine in his car. He’s been charged with one count of possession of the drug. On Friday, the state’s disciplinary counsel suspended Reilly’s law license.
16. Bernard Joseph Sirr, who was fired from his state job after participating in the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol, is scheduled to be sentenced next week in federal court. Tim White reports the defendant’s lawyers are asking the judge for him to be spared jail time, arguing President Trump and his supporters told him lies and falsehoods about the presidential election being stolen. “His love of his country was used against him,” the lawyers wrote in a memo. Federal prosecutors aren’t buying it, calling for a 10-month prison sentence.
17. Rhode Island continues to grapple with regaining all of the jobs it lost during the pandemic. The R.I. Department of Labor and Training announced the April jobs report this week, showing the unemployment rate continues to drop to 3%. But Rhode Island still has only recovered about 89.2% of the jobs lost during the health emergency.
18. This New York Times story about how naming the James Webb telescope turned into a fight over homophobia is well worth your time.
19. A big congrats to my 12 News team for receiving five Edward R. Murrow regional awards this week, including the coveted overall excellence. The station was recognized for its coverage of a dramatic shootout between police and a suspect in Providence, along with two Target 12 investigations. The first examined an influential lawmaker who had a trail of hidden debts. The second stemmed from the ongoing naked fat test scandal in North Kingstown. Kudos to all.
20. Programming Note: There’s no Nesi’s Notes next week for Memorial Day. Ted Nesi will be back the following week. Thank you for your readership the past few weeks — I truly appreciate it!
21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO Neil Steinberg and New England First Amendment Coalition executive director Justin Silverman. 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).
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.