Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 18

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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. Governor McKee has made the toughest call yet of his nine months in office, announcing a mask-or-vax mandate for indoor establishments across Rhode Island, effective Monday — just in time for Christmas and New Year’s. Instinctively wary of such restrictions, McKee was persuaded by Health Department leaders and other experts that he needed to take action in order to protect the state’s health care system. Rhode Island is averaging over 1,000 new COVID cases a day — flagged by The New York Times as the worst outbreak in the country — and hospitalizations have doubled since Thanksgiving. “It’s not a time to just sit and wait,” McKee said. Yet this isn’t March 2020, when uncertainty about the virus created a temporary political consensus around such restrictions. Republicans have condemned McKee’s order, questioning the democratic legitimacy of continued policymaking by executive fiat, while some on his left say he should have acted sooner and done more. Businesses fear a hit to vital December sales, as well as the strain on already burned-out staff who will need to start checking vaccination cards or policing masks. Many people are simply exhausted after dealing with the pandemic for almost two full years. McKee has promised to reassess the mask-or-vax policy after 30 days; the hope is that an uptick in booster shots and a more cautious holiday season will slow the surge in cases and hospitalizations. But the outlook is cloudy, particularly when it comes to the Omicron variant. As for the governor, he will have to hope that a majority of Rhode Islanders see his new policy as unfortunate but necessary — and that voters will still feel that way when they deliver their verdict on his leadership at the ballot box next year.

2. Longtime medical journalist Donald McNeil Jr. argues that it’s no longer accurate to use the phrase “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in describing the current COVID situation. “It is becoming a pandemic of the unboosted,” McNeil wrote Wednesday, citing the decay in vaccine efficacy for those who got their shots many months ago. (British officials have come to the same conclusion, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordering a fast-track booster campaign over the next two weeks as Omicron triggers record case counts.) You can see some evidence for McNeil’s point in the Rhode Island data. As Eli Sherman reported, two-thirds of the state’s hospitalized COVID patients were unvaccinated as of Monday, even though they make up only 17% of the population. Similarly, the rate of new cases for unvaccinated Rhode Islanders was nearly four times higher last week than it was for those who’ve gotten jabbed. On the other hand, Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate may have provided a false of sense of security as cases surged over the last month. While nearly 74% of Rhode Islanders have gotten either one dose of J&J or two doses of Moderna and Pfizer, only about one in four has gotten a booster or other extra dose — leaving a majority of the population more vulnerable to Delta and Omicron. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is among those concerned about the possibility of Delta, Omicron and flu patients all hitting New England’s hospitals at the same time. “You could have a very difficult situation where health care systems start to get pressed very hard over the next two to three weeks,” Gottlieb said Friday on CNBC.

3. Confused by all the different percentages flying around about how many Rhode Islanders are vaccinated? Eli Sherman walks you through all the numbers here.

4. Lawmakers have set up Governor McKee for a significant win to start the new year, with his American Rescue Plan “down payment” bill on track for passage in early January after clearing the House and Senate Finance Committees this week. The revised bill includes all $113 million that McKee sought, plus an additional $6 million for child care, though it does give the executive branch less discretion on spending money than the governor’s draft did. Here’s a detailed look at what’s in the legislation.

5. An estimated 361 Rhode Islanders lacked shelter during the two weeks from Nov. 21 to Dec. 4, according to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, which tracks the data for the state. How to help them survive another cold COVID winter has been a major topic of discussion at the State House in recent weeks, not least because of the 17-day protest over the issue by state Sen. Cynthia Mendes and her supporters, who slept in tents outside the State House. Governor McKee announced Thursday that the state has added more emergency shelter capacity for the winter, and is creating a new quarantine-and-isolation center at the old Memorial Hospital. Mendes and her fellow protestors declared victory, arguing they had forced state leaders to take action. McKee’s team pushed back, pointing out he first announced $5 million in new funding to address homelessness back on Nov. 3.

6. After a slow start, Helena Foulkes’ nascent gubernatorial campaign is starting to show more signs of life. Foulkes was the only Democratic primary candidate to issue a statement in response to Governor McKee’s mask-or-vax announcement, saying she supported the policy but it should have been announced sooner. Meanwhile, Foulkes continues to staff up. She just brought on board a deputy campaign manager, Matt Shumate, who is currently Mayor Elorza’s deputy chief of staff and senior advisor on legislative affairs.

7. At last, someone is actually running for general treasurer in 2022: former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa announced his campaign this week, making him the first candidate to formally enter the Democratic primary. Diossa quickly touted an endorsement from former Treasurer Paul Tavares, who held the job from 1999 to 2007. His media consultant is GPS Impact, whose partners include Andy Roos, a former Treasury chief of staff to both Gina Raimondo and Seth Magaziner. However, Diossa is unlikely to be the sole candidate for long. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor is widely expected to challenge Diossa in the Democratic primary, and at least three others — Senate Finance Chairman Ryan Pearson, House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney, and Democratic National Committeewoman Liz Beretta-Perik — are thinking about it, too. Unlike a lot of down-ballot contests in Rhode Island, though, this isn’t a race where you can automatically assume the victor in the Democratic primary will win the office — former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is highly likely to jump in on the Republican side.

8. It’s much quieter over in the race for secretary of state, where Rep. Gregg Amore kicked off his campaign with a show-of-force rally in September that demonstrated his support from various wings of the Democratic Party. So far no other Democratic or Republican candidates to succeed Nellie Gorbea have emerged. Amore held a fundraiser Monday evening at Narragansett Brewery, as he continues to prepare for a more competitive contest than the one unfolding so far.

9. As he finishes his third year as attorney general, Peter Neronha continues to show a willingness to stick his neck out on big issues. One example was the proposed opioids settlement with Purdue Pharma; Rhode Island was one of nine states that refused to join the deal — and Thursday night a judge rejected the settlement, effectively siding with Neronha. Another is the proposed sale of National Grid’s Rhode Island operations to Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp., a major deal that has generated little attention locally. Neronha isn’t on board, and has made that clear to regulators. “This transaction as currently structured is not in the best interests of the people of the state, and until we see significant change in how it is structured, we’re going to continue to oppose it,” the AG told Kim Kalunian this week on 12 News at 4. One of his concerns: Rhode Island would no longer share a utility company with neighboring Massachusetts, potentially making it harder to get backup crews in place following a major outage. Bigger picture, the AG acknowledges that he’s more aggressive than his predecessor. “I think it reflects kind of a different approach from the office,” he told Kim. “We’re getting much more involved and out on offense on behalf of the people of the state.” That has won Neronha many fans, but also drawn criticism from Republicans like GOP Chair Sue Cienki and his 2022 challenger, Chas Calenda.

10. Has your municipality switched to a .gov URL yet? Sarah Guernelli explains why it matters.

11. Jack Reed checked off the biggest item on his 2022 to-do list this week, getting the annual defense policy bill through the Senate on a lopsided 89-10 vote. (Among the handful of “nay” votes were three of Reed’s fellow New England Democrats: Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders.) While the major headlines around the measure were on issues such as sexual-assault reform and an Afghanistan commission, Reed’s office also made sure to flag some of the provisions that will benefit Rhode Island specifically — including over $11 billion for the submarine program that keeps Electric Boat humming at Quonset Point.

12. Speaking of Jack Reed, it’s hard not to think about the seniority that both he and Vermont’s Patrick Leahy hold on the Senate Appropriations Committee when you read this political science finding: “Our research found that having an additional senator or representative per million residents predicted an extra $670 in aid per capita summed across the four relief packages. In total across the bills, we estimate that this bias shifted around $30 billion in relief funds to small states, which are more evenly split between red and blue than often assumed. That’s equivalent to the federal funding for the development, manufacturing and distribution of coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics in the bills.” Reed and Leahy are big fans of “small-state minimums,” which give states like Rhode Island and Vermont a larger share of federal programs than they would receive on a straight per-capita basis. One example was in last year’s CARES Act — Rhode Island got $1.25 billion from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund because the final legislation required every state to get at least that much. Thus Rhode Island got $1,180 per capita from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, while Massachusetts only got $388. (Vermont got $2,003!)

13. Most of what you hear about Congress is partisan squabbling and legislative dysfunction. But a more complex picture tends to emerge when you look closer. Here’s an example. On Monday, Sheldon Whitehouse was sparring on the Senate floor with Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan over stalled judicial nominees. Whitehouse said of Senate Republicans, “They’re jamming up traffic.” Sullivan countered: “What goes around comes around.” A few days later, the same pair of senators sent a triumphant press release announcing that their proposal to bolster maritime security had been included in the defense policy bill. “I look forward to continue working with Senator Whitehouse on pirate fishing and on cleaning up our oceans,” Sullivan said. “Our work together is a model for how two senators, from different sides of the aisle, can work together to get big things done for our nation.” Indeed, Sullivan has emerged as one of Whitehouse’s most frequent GOP partners, including on their multiple Save Our Seas laws.

14. Steph Machado has an update on the status of Rhode Island’s redistricting process. No more hearings are expected before the final vote, but if you want to weigh in, you can go submit feedback by clicking “Contact” at the top of riredistricting.org.

15. The 10th anniversary of Rhode Island’s 2011 pension overhaul passed without much notice last month. A lot has changed since the original law was enacted — a 2015 settlement significantly altered its provisions, and under General Treasurer Seth Magaziner the pension system’s projected rate of return has been lowered to adopt more conservative assumptions. The State Retirement Board got an update on the system’s financial health this week, projecting that the state employees’ pension fund will go from 57% funded this year to 84% in 2031. The teacher’s pension fund is projected to improve from 59% to 80% over the same period.

16. Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma held a hearing Tuesday so the panel could make recommendations on the variety of issues its members have tackled this year — including the controversial ILO Group contract. The committee’s suggestions: prohibit switching from a request for proposals (RFP) to a master price agreement (MPA) once the procurement process begins; ensure the relevant state agencies are directly involved in developing RFPs and negotiating with bidders; reevaluate who can be named to an RFP review committee; and review the procedures for dealing with conflicts of interest during the bidding process.

17. St. Pope John Paul II named Thomas Tobin as Rhode Island’s new Catholic bishop on March 31, 2005, just days before the iconic pontiff’s death, and Tobin has often been a controversial figure during his nearly two decades in the job. Yet the day is approaching when Tobin will no longer lead the Diocese of Providence — in 2023 he will turn 75, the age when church rules require a bishop to submit his resignation letter to Pope Francis. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Tobin said he expects to remain in place at least through then. “The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that when a bishop sends in his letter of retirement, it’s not accepted right away, usually,” he said. Then, with a laugh, he added: “In my case it might be!” Indeed, Tobin is not exactly a poster child for the Francis pontificate — he even publicly tweaked the pope on Twitter for failing to confront President Biden over abortion when they met at the Vatican. “I had hoped the Holy Father would be more direct,” Tobin said on Newsmakers. Yet at the same time, Tobin is not the leading hardliner among the nation’s bishops. He has never denied Communion to any of the many pro-choice Catholic politicians in his flock, and he isn’t among those expressing disappointment that a controversial recent document issued by the bishops made no mention of doing so. “I think when those who were writing it or promoting it started out, they expected something a little bit more political, a little bit more tangible,” Tobin said. “But as things evolved, after discussion and prayer and consultation, it became a little bit more — what should I say? — a little more general, a little more pastoral, a little more spiritual. And that’s not a bad thing.”

18. Eli Sherman and Tim White have the latest on the Aaron Thomas scandal in North Kingstown.

19. A month after winning a big redistricting battle on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss has founded a new PAC that will steer campaign contributions to his allies in state and local offices.

20. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux could be a candidate for higher office in 2022.

21. In his State of the City address, New Bedford Mayor John Mitchell hailed the fact that the long-delayed South Coast Rail project is finally under construction. “After years of advocacy by elected officials and businesses alike, the passenger rail connection to Boston is now under construction in earnest, and the state intends to start running trains in just over two years,” Mitchell said. Back in 2018, the mayor quipped that Governor Baker’s version of the project was “the scenic route,” with an estimated 90-minute ride to get from New Bedford to South Station. (Eventually there’s supposed to be a speedier Phase 2 route.) Yet the world of work looks very different today than it did in 2018, when it was assumed that a hypothetical New Bedford-to-Boston MBTA commuter would be making the trip every day. Could the 90-minute journey seem less daunting for someone who now only needs to do it once or twice a week, thanks to liberalized work-from-home norms? And could that be an economic development opportunity for New Bedford? “The service will offer one more good reason for people to live here,” Mitchell said.

22. As you plan your weekend, don’t forget our guide to the area’s best holiday lights displays.

23. Bruce Feiler shares a simple way to collect family stories this holiday season.

24. A programming note: believe it or not, this is the last Nesi’s Notes edition for 2021. (And what a year it’s been, huh?) I’ll be taking off the next two Saturdays for the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you and your families!

25. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersBishop Tobin. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here on Jan. 8.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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