Ted Nesi

Nesi's Notes: Feb. 9

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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. If Governor Raimondo were to announce a plan to borrow $779 million to clean up Narragansett Bay, such a massive proposal would likely be hotly debated and heavily scrutinized. But because the so-called CSO project's third phase has instead been put forward by a somewhat obscure quasi-public agency, the Narragansett Bay Commission, it's getting a lot less attention than lower-priced initiatives like UHIP, 38 Studios or the PawSox. (In fairness, the first two got so much attention partly because they went disastrously wrong.) Now Treasurer Magaziner is speaking out about CSO, warning even the slimmed-down current proposal will be unaffordable for thousands of vulnerable families in cities like Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. Yet the federal Clean Water Act is clear: the Bay must be fishable and swimmable, and the commission says completing CSO is the only way to get there. (Even Magaziner is quick to say he supports the goal, just not the financing.) One of the commission's own members has suggested the benefit is too marginal for the cost, but Senator Whitehouse argues the Clean Water Act standard remains the right one. He expects the East Providence waterfront to benefit, for example. "When the Bay is clean enough to be fishable and swimmable all the way up, and when those coasts are cleaned of that debris, then I think there's a huge value proposition," Whitehouse said on this week's Newsmakers. The senator suggested residents further down the Bay should consider chipping in for the project, though some in those communities counter that they did not create the problem. As for obtaining more federal funding, Whitehouse suggested it's possible a future infrastructure bill could include a program to help finance projects like CSO but said his hands are tied in terms of direct appropriations. "Unfortunately, this is one of the costs of taking earmarks out of the federal system," he said. "This would be the kind of thing you could do."

2. Congressman Cicilline was quick to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, the multitrillion-dollar proposal championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced as a resolution this week. "This is a 10-year plan that we can achieve," he declared in a statement. (Speaker Pelosi was more dismissive: "The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?") So far, Cicilline is the only Green New Deal co-sponsor in the Rhode Island delegation. That may be a particular surprise in the case of Senator Whitehouse, who's carved out a reputation as his chamber's loudest voice on climate change. On Newsmakers, Whitehouse called the resolution "a good thing," saying, "It brings energy, it brings enthusiasm - it brings a new narrative." But, he continued, "I'm also somebody who needs to win this fight on the Senate floor, and in order to win this fight on the Senate floor, we will be much advantaged if we have Democratic unity." The Green New Deal resolution could "become a point of division," he suggested. "It's actually kind of important I think, in making the caucus work together, that somebody who's as hawkish on climate as I am is not getting on, and is giving everybody else cover and some space to keep working together until we're in a position to actually run the winning play."

3. A few more highlights from Senator Whitehouse on Newsmakers. ... Why he's optimistic there won't be another shutdown: "I was speaking to Dick Shelby on the floor yesterday, the senior Republican in the Senate on this, and he said it's looking good. We seem to have a good feeling from the White House that they'll accept what we come up with." ... Why he didn't stand up and applaud when President Trump decried socialism during the State of the Union: "I think they're using that word because it's kind of a rallying point for the Republican faithful. ... I wasn't into standing up too much for this speech." ... What he's most pleased about in the bipartisan criminal-justice law: "Preparing people in prison for release, whether they need anger management, whether they need family reconciliation, whether they need drug treatment, whether they need psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Making sure that they have that once they're out on the street. That is transformative." ... Who intrigues him most in the Democratic presidential primary: "Bloomberg. He brings so much money and power and clout into this that he could basically completely self-fund, and he's also in a position to fend off the Republican attack and smear machine. ... I don't necessarily agree with him on all his positions, but I've got to admire him on the work he's done on climate and on guns."

4. A rare sight: Rhode Island's two senators split on a major vote this week.

5. Governor Raimondo hailed the contract for Ørsted's proposed 400-megawatt wind farm as a significant step toward her goal of getting 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy for Rhode Island by the end of 2020. But wait — if the project isn't going to be done until 2023, how can it count toward the 2020 goal? "We count projects that have either a PUC-approved long-term contract or are interconnected to the grid," Robert Beadle, spokesman for R.I. Office of Energy Resources said in an email. So how close is the governor to success? In 2016, the state had 100 MW of renewables. At the end of last year, it was up to 363 MW. The new wind farm would push the number to 763 MW. And National Grid is currently reviewing 41 bids submitted last fall in response to the Rhode Island Clean Energy 400 MW RFP, which should be more than enough to push past 1,000 MW; the winning bids are expected to be named by May. (And if you want to learn more about the new wind project, check out Ørsted Co-CEO Jeff Grybowski on this week's Executive Suite.)

6. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com's Dan McGowan: "Mayor Elorza is planning to roll out his legislative agenda next week, but it appears his long-shot goal of finding a way to monetize Providence’s water supply is going to have to take a backseat to something more urgent: state aid. City leaders are deeply concerned that Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget slashes about $4 million from what they expected to get from the state’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), especially since a strange accounting rule means the cut would actually create a hole in the current year’s budget. Raimondo’s office points to an increase in education aid as evidence that Providence makes out fine in her plan, but the mayor and the City Council have a different view. That means the mayor’s big ask of the legislature – whether he frames it this way or not – will be to restore PILOT funding. He held a private meeting earlier this week with several members of the Providence delegation and the City Council, although turnout was light. Considering his already-fragile relationship with many State House leaders, even full PILOT funding might be asking a lot. As for the water supply, it's been made clear to the mayor that he shouldn’t hold his breath."

7. Also from Dan McGowan, an example of why beat reporting matters.

8. Two watchdog stories on House leadership from the Smith Hill press corps: the Projo's Kathy Gregg discovered the Reform Caucus Democrats have all been denied office space, while The Public's Radio's Ian Donnis documented a growing number of Speaker Mattiello's constituents on the General Assembly payroll. Meanwhile, Senate President Ruggerio is taking criticism from outspoken Democratic freshman Sam Bell and the group Rhode Islanders for Reform over his newly proposed Senate rules.

9. Tim White finds state government's $100K Club has grown 21%.

10. Another black eye for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

11. RWU Professor June Speakman won the Democratic primary for House District 68 on Tuesday, making her the party's nominee in the March 5 special election. (This is the seat in Bristol and Warren that Laufton Ascencao gave up.) Speakman will face three rivals: Democrat-turned-independent Rep. Ken Marshall, Libertarian Bill Hunt, and independent Jame McCanna III.

12. I had a great time visiting the Warwick Rotary Club last week to talk about the future local news, politics, the economy and more. The Cranston Herald's Tim Forsberg has a great recap here.

13. Brendan Nyhan argues fears of "fake news" are overhyped.

14. Robert Caro must-read on how he's researched his LBJ books.

15. "What is democracy?" Here's how E.B. White answered that in 1943.

16. The Hollywood Reporter on 50 years of "Sesame Street."

17. PSA: Don't forget that next Thursday is Valentine's Day!

18. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSenator Whitehouse. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind Co-CEO Jeff Grybowski. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook


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