Nesi’s Notes: April 7

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. Could housing costs be a sleeper issue in this year’s Rhode Island election? As we detailed in a report on Tuesday night, it’s a seller’s market for homes in Rhode Island once again, with very low inventory pushing prices up fast. “There are more buyers than there are sellers, so we need more product,” R.I. Association of Realtors President Joe Luca said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We don’t want to have a bubble,” he added. “We just want to have healthy, sustained growth, and increases in equity.” But there’s little sign of that additional product: Rhode Island ranked 51st nationwide for residential building permits in the last five years, according to HousingWorks RI Director Brenda Clement. Experts suggest a healthy ratio of new jobs to new housing units is roughly 0.75 to 1.25, but Rhode Island’s ratio was 5.3 in 2017. That means about 3,700 fewer new housing units were permitted than the suggested minimum. Clement said HousingWorks data shows no community in Rhode Island is currently affordable for residents who make less than $30,000 annually, and only 12 are affordable for residents who make less than $70,000. “That’s a lot of people priced out of the market, and a lot of people who are priced out of the opportunity for equity and the security that homeownership gives,” she said. Luca, Clement and R.I. Builders Association President David Caldwell Jr. all argue the biggest factor holding back construction is red tape at the local level. “There’s a distortion in the market,” Caldwell said, “and that is exactly these local municipal regulations.” Yet what one person sees as burdensome regulations another may see as necessary protections. So it will be interesting to see what the gubernatorial candidates have to say about housing as the campaign progresses.

2. Much of the coverage about President Trump’s tariff program has focused on its effect on agricultural interests the Midwest, such as soybean farmers. But Builders President David Caldwell says his industry is also feeling the effects here in Rhode Island. “Between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, softwood lumber went up 18% because we’re playing with tariffs with Canada,” he said. “Two weeks ago, the price of cedar went up 21% overnight – another tariff.” He also said construction companies have been “put on notice” that the cost of roof shingles, vinyl and gypsum will also be going up.

3. The PawSox stadium debate has fallen out of the headlines, but behind the scenes the proposal is still alive. Speaker Mattiello met a few weeks ago with team and city representatives to discuss a path forward after he rejected the Senate-passed stadium bill. And on Friday, PawSox and city officials had a meeting with House Fiscal Adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland, one of Mattiello’s most influential advisers. “There was no set agenda and the discussion focused on setting a framework for future discussions and possible hearings,” PawSox adviser Guy Dufault told me. “The parties agreed to keep the dialogue moving forward with the understanding the House Finance Committee will become very busy with its upcoming budget hearings in May.” House spokesman Larry Berman also confirmed that the two sides are engaged in “ongoing staff-level discussions.” Another meeting is planned next week. The clock is ticking – the General Assembly will shift into high gear after they return from their mid-month spring recess, as they begin their annual sprint to finish the session by late June.

4. The Republican gubernatorial primary continued to roll along this week. Allan Fung’s campaign announced an endorsement from the Warwick Republican City Committee, pocketing a seal of approval in a crucial city for GOP primaries and one represented by his leading rival Patricia Morgan. Fung likely has his eye on once again winning the party endorsement down the road. Morgan continues attacking Fung for sponsoring a 2005 City Council resolution asking lawmakers to let cities install red-light cameras, this week asking if he is “the world’s biggest Cher fan” because he’s trying to “turn back time” on the issue. (Fung made light of the attack, tweeting his own song reference after Coventry police found some rare coins of his that had been stolen long ago.) And then there is Giovanni Feroce, who continues building a campaign even as he’s dogged by headlines about his business failures. Feroce is giving a speech on Tuesday he’s dubbed “The Rhode Island Papers,” an allusion to The Federalist Papers, that he says will set out his vision for the state.

5. Most of Rhode Island’s 15 Republican state lawmakers aren’t taking sides in the gubernatorial primary, at least for now. After canvassing the group this week, only six are on the record supporting a candidate – and one of the six is Patricia Morgan herself. Allan Fung has four legislative backers: Brian Newberry, Mike Chippendale, Bobby Nardolillo and Thomas Paolino. Morgan has the backing of one colleague, Blake Filippi. But seven of the 15 say they’re staying neutral. “I love Patricia and Allan,” Hopkinton Sen. Elaine Morgan told me. “Both candidates are 100% capable of cleaning up this state.” East Greenwich Rep. Anthony Giarrusso said in an email, “I am staying out of the picking game until after primary. The winner in September will have my full support.” And Cranston Rep. Robert Lancia said, “I am letting the process play out.” Two of the 15 – Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere and Rep. Justin Price – did not respond to requests for comment.

6. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The 2018 edition of a bill to help Providence sell or lease its water supply system is coming, but Mayor Elorza’s top aides have been tight-lipped about what it will look like. What we do know is it will not be the same regional board proposal that Speaker Mattiello killed before it ever got a hearing last year. One idea floated behind the scenes last year but never introduced was a plan to allow municipalities with poorly-funded pension systems to sell or lease certain assets. But it’s unclear if that’s the bill that will be pitched this year. Of course, it’s unlikely lawmakers will have any appetite for a controversial end-of-session bill in an election year, and the mayor’s office is tempering its expectations. A bill is expected to be introduced sometime in April.”

7. Don’t miss Dan McGowan’s rundown of where Mayor Elorza stands on all his campaign promises.

8. Thinking about running for office in Rhode Island or Southeastern Massachusetts? Rhode Island Public Radio is hosting an “Ask a Reporter” panel April 16 featuring Ian Donnis, our own Dan McGowan, the AP’s Michelle Smith, the Herald News’s Will Richmond and The Valley Breeze’s Ethan Shorey. That murderer’s row of writers will give some insight into how the news media works, and take questions. Seating is limited, so click here to RSVP.

9. Abortion is set to take center stage at the State House on Tuesday, when the House Judiciary Committee will take up a bill sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin they say will codify Roe v. Wade into state law. Supporters argue the issue has taken on more urgency as President Trump begins making appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Rhode Island must affirm, once and for all, that a women’s right to make decisions about her own body is protected in our state, before the federal government stops doing that job for us,” Goldin said in January. Rhode Island Right to Life – which wields more influence on Smith Hill than might be expected in a blue state – is marshaling opposition, arguing the legislation “would make Rhode Island a haven for abortionists with virtually unrestricted and unregulated taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand right up to the moment of birth.” Meanwhile, Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee was assailed by four progressive groups for telling RIPR that the Ajello-Goldin measure is “more of a gesture.” Those groups included Rhode Island Working Families, which is among the organizations backing progressive Rep. Aaron Regunberg in his primary challenge against McKee. And just in time for the hearing, a new website called SeeVotesRI.org has posted maps showing where state lawmakers stand on abortion, among other issues.

10. Thanks to the dogged pursuit of The Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson, Commerce RI on Friday released a redacted version of Rhode Island’s pitch for Amazon HQ2. You can read the entire report here. Some of the ideas in the proposal – autonomous buses with dedicated lanes, for example – could reemerge eventually in non-Amazon contexts.

11. A passenger train from Newport to Boston? Seaview Transportation President Eric Moffett thinks it’s a possibility if Massachusetts ever actually builds the long-discussed South Coast Rail line to Fall River, which could then link up in Tiverton with the existing state-owned Aquidneck Island tracks. Moffett, who also owns the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad on the island, said on this week’s Executive Suite there may be a new use for the tracks coming sooner. “Short term, we’re actually looking at maybe doing some rail shuttles to satellite parking lots on the island, because of the congestion, because of the change in the Pell Bridge realignment,” he said. “We’re actually in contact with some folks to come up with some ideas to [address], how do we run a local shuttle, a mile or two?”

12. A changing of the guard is taking place at the R.I. Ethics Commission, where staff attorney Jason Gramitt will be succeeding Kent Willever as executive director. Phil West, the longtime former head of Common Cause Rhode Island, heaped praise on Willever in an email. “Kent brought an impressive resume when he took over after a meltdown that nearly destroyed the [Ethics Commission],” said West, who retells the story in his book. “Were it not for his steady leadership and some good appointments by several governors, we might have lost what is unarguably the strongest such panel in the United States.” West added that he expects Gramitt will “do a great job” following in Willever’s footsteps.

13. Via critic Marc Myers, check out this documentary on the Celebrity Club, a legendary jazz club in Providence’s Randall Square.

14. Steve Pearlstein breaks down the U.S. Postal Service’s deal with Amazon.

15. Can changing your diet help alleviate depression?

16. Michael Hendrix fears that America is getting lonelier.

17. A reality-show MBA? Alex Tabarrok says “The Profit” can teach you a lot.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a roundtable on Rhode Island’s housing crunch with R.I. Builders Association President David Caldwell Jr., R.I. Association of Realtors President Joe Luca and HousingWorks RI Director Brenda Clement. This week on Executive Suite – Seaview Transportation Co. President Eric Moffett; R.I. Mushroom Co. CEO Michael Hallock. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. 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 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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