Nesi’s Notes: April 25

Ted Nesi
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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. The human toll of coronavirus in Rhode Island is all too real: more than 200 Rhode Islanders have died, hundreds of people have been hospitalized, thousands have been infected. Yet the current numbers can feel anticlimactic when compared with early estimates suggesting hospitals would be overrun with thousands of critically ill patients. And the economic damage from the response looks worse each day, with the level of unemployment claims in Rhode Island now estimated to be the nation’s fourth-highest. So did Governor Raimondo overreact, or have the steps she’s taken kept the virus in check? “It’s a catch-22,” Raimondo told me Friday night when we sat down for a one-on-one interview. “Because the reason we’re in pretty good shape is because we did the stay-at-home order and clamped down our economy. If we hadn’t done that, we would have seen the horrible experience you saw like in Italy. You have to remember — they were running out of spaces for bodies, running out of ventilators, running out of hospitals. So the good news is we never got there — the bad news is we took the precautions in time to prevent that.” Raimondo said she’s eager to get through the next two weeks and be able to lift her stay-at-home order when it expires May 8. But she’s also concerned about moving too quickly, citing post-shutdown setbacks in Singapore and Hong Kong. “I want to know, what’s my blindspot?” she said. “I want to make sure we’re covered so we don’t have that. Because I never want to have to close the economy again.”

2. When Governor Raimondo arrived for our interview, she apologized for being late, then offered a window into her days of endless phone calls. “I just was hassling Pete Gaynor,” she said, referring to her former emergency management chief who now runs FEMA. The subject: Rhode Island’s need for more hospital gowns. “I don’t care if you have a problem getting gowns to Minnesota,” she said in characterizing their conversation. “What are you doing for me lately?” Before that Raimondo was on the phone with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, seeking help now that the Rhode Island Veterans Home has its first coronavirus cases. And prior to that it was U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. Why? Because Raimondo said she’d gotten a text from U.S. Sen. Jack Reed warning her that the next tranche of CARES Act hospital aid would be given out under a formula that would disadvantage Rhode Island. “Jack Reed is the man!” she declared, saying texts and emails from the senior senator have been tipping her off to potential good and bad news out of Washington. Call after call after call: “That’s what I do all day,” she said.

3. Governor Raimondo has won generally good marks for her response to coronavirus, and a new poll Joe Fleming conducted for Bryant’s Hassenfeld Institute bears that out: 81% of Rhode Island voters say she’s done an excellent or good job dealing with the situation. (The number for President Trump is only 34%.) Once the immediate crisis fades, Raimondo’s team will face a challenge — can she capitalize on many voters giving her a second look and use it to close out her second term stronger? There is precedent in Massachusetts: Gov. Charlie Baker impressed Bay State voters with his handling of the MBTA collapse during the winter right after he took office in 2015, and he’s never lost the strong support he gained in those days. But the task will get harder when the rally-’round-the-flag effect fades.

4. The General Assembly is beginning to stir from its coronavirus slumber, and money is proving to be the smelling salt. Now that the federal government has deposited $1.25 billion in the state’s bank accounts from the CARES Act — and Governor Raimondo’s administration has already spent roughly $150 million dealing with COVID-19 — the House and Senate have formed a joint task force to oversee emergency spending that will meet for the first time next week. (The lawmakers will gather in person, but whether reporters are allowed in the room had not been decided as of Friday.) And that’s just a prelude to the big task ahead: figuring out how to write a state budget in a time of economic disaster and unprecedented uncertainty. Those discussions will really rev up once the official revenue estimates are decided on May 8. It’s not going to be pretty. Moody’s projects at least a $630 million hit to the state budget from revenue shortfalls and increased Medicaid costs, and a $735 million hit under a severe scenario. “It’s going to be very rough,” Raimondo told me Friday night. “It’s going to be very difficult.” A huge variable is how much rescue money will come from the federal government. Over $1 billion has already been allocated — and it goes well beyond the much-discussed $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund — but leaders in Rhode Island and other states are holding out hope for no-strings-attached budget support. Senator Reed is proposing a $600 billion fund in the next coronavirus spending bill to bail out state and local budgets, but he’s also managing expectations about how much will likely be coming. “I’m for doing more, but I worry the administration mistakenly believes we’ve done enough,” he said Friday.

5. My full interview with Governor Raimondo — including whether she’ll bring reporters back into the daily briefings after May 8 — is available to watch here.

6. Coronavirus is spinning off so many secondary crises it’s hard to keep track. But don’t overlook the financial havoc it’s causing at Rhode Island’s top hospital groups.

7. U.S. House Democrats were forced to scrap a plan to allow proxy voting this week amid an outcry from Republicans and unease among traditionalists. One person who foresaw the problem long ago: Jim Langevin, who entered Congress just before the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequently led an unsuccessful effort to figure out how federal lawmakers could do their work electronically. The sponsors “recognized at the time that in a crisis, whether due to a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or pandemic, members of Congress might not be able to assemble in Washington, D.C., or be in close proximity to one another,” Langevin recalled Wednesday. “In our view, it was vital that the business of Congress be able to continue in such a circumstance.” His bill, the Ensuring Congressional Security and Continuity Act, would have required an investigation of how lawmakers could communicate and vote remotely and securely. “Sadly, we did not seize the moment at that time, and we are paying the price today as we wrestle with brittle rules and procedures that are stymieing much of our normal business,” Langevin said, though he supported the unsuccessful proxy voting proposal put forward this week. (It was sponsored by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, who used to represent the Attleboro area before redistricting.)

8. We officially have a race in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District: Democrats Jake Auchincloss and Jesse Mermell say they’ve both officially made the ballot in the Sept. 1 primary to succeed Joe Kennedy. Nearly a dozen others are working on the task, and the whole field of candidates has raised over $4 million so far — a huge amount of money with two quarters still to go. But they face a daunting challenge to break through while they’re being overshadowed by not only coronavirus, but also Kennedy’s U.S. Senate primary against Ed Markey.

9. Former Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts has a new gig: director of URI’s Academic Health Collaborative. “I am working with the deans of the Colleges of Nursing, Pharmacy and Health Sciences to expand interdisciplinary education, research and clinical training,” Roberts told me Wednesday, three days after she started. “The Collaborative was created four years ago to strengthen URI’s role in training the health workforce teams of the future. I will be working on campus and with our research and clinical partners across the state.”

10. Businessweek offers a reality check on life in Wuhan after the pandemic.

11. Will Broadway ever recover from coronavirus?

12. How the 1960s turned Norman Rockwell into a social dissenter.

13. Fellow ’90s kids: prepare to be transported back in time by this YouTube video of Game Boy classic “Kirby’s Magic Dream Land.”

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Health Care Association President and CEO Scott Fraser. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. 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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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