Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. The debate on Smith Hill these days isn’t about whether to use the projected surplus to lower taxes, but rather over which taxes should be cut, and by how much. Governor McKee made his opening bid in January, proposing a nearly $100 million package of tax cuts, notably a reduction in the sales tax from 7% to 6.85%. While McKee advisers said they proposed only a modest decrease to be fiscally responsible, the offer of a 6.85% rate has generated little enthusiasm. “I don’t think it’s enough,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said on this week’s Newsmakers. And he has a specific alternative in mind: he wants to go to 6.5%. “We’re trying to get more money into the pockets of the residents of Rhode Island,” he said. The Senate Fiscal Office estimates a cut to 6.5% would lower state revenue by $113 million annually, versus a price tag of only $35 million for McKee’s 6.85%. Ryan Pearson, the Senate’s new majority leader, suggested covering the gap by dropping some of McKee’s assorted proposals and getting more money behind a lower sales tax. “Maybe rather than doing a little bit everywhere, you pick where you really want to do tax relief … that’s most effective,” Pearson said. McKee has no problem with that — he recently told the Newport Chamber, “Whatever progress the General Assembly makes on this issue will be welcome.” Ruggerio has another levy in his sights: he wants the state to reduce the burden of the tangible property tax, too. Where does Speaker Shekarchi stand? He’s been more circumspect across the board, backing tax cuts in theory but warning that the state’s finances may not be in as rosy shape as presently projected.
2. No lawmaker has clocked a longer tour of duty on Smith Hill than Senate President Ruggerio. First elected to the House in 1980, he moved across the rotunda to the Senate in 1984 and is now entering his seventh year as the chamber’s leader. There had been speculation before last November’s election that Ruggerio might decide to retire during his current term, but lately observers have been remarking that he seems to be enjoying the job more than ever. On Newsmakers, Ruggerio put to rest any doubts about his future. “I’m running for re-election to the 4th Senatorial District,” he said. “Definitely going to run.” But he also added a twist: “I mean, I really don’t have to be the Senate president in order to be a senator in the chamber.” True, most House and Senate leaders retire once they give up the top job rather than stay on, but Ruggerio suggested he would have no problem returning to rank-and-file status. Leader Pearson is now Ruggerio’s admitted heir apparent. “When the president is ready, I’d love to succeed him as the Senate president,” Pearson said, adding, “And I would love to have him still around to work with.”
3. Breaking Friday night: Senate President Ruggerio is calling on Scott Avedisian to resign as CEO of RIPTA, citing “unacceptable management gaffes,” including the lobbying contract awarded to Avedisian’s fellow West Bay Republican Allan Fung. Read the full story here, and pair it with Patrick Anderson’s deep dive on RIPTA’s finances here.
4. The Rhode Island political community was stunned Wednesday night as word spread that Judge Richard Licht, a former lieutenant governor and consummate insider for decades, had been struck by a vehicle as he crossed Smith Street outside the State House. Licht remained hospitalized as of Friday night, but earlier in the day his family released this statement: “Our family is deeply appreciative of the outpouring of concern regarding Richard’s injuries and the support and prayers for his healing and recovery. His injuries were serious, but he is a fighter: he has come through emergency surgery well and is resting and in the capable hands of a team of physicians at RI Hospital. Those who know Richard know him to be strong in every dimension, and his strength, determination, and resilience will get him through this challenging time and on the road to recovery. As his family, we feel blessed by the expressions of love and support from friends, colleagues, and the many in Rhode Island and beyond who have reached out to us.” The accident has fueled new calls for a reexamination of pedestrian safety across Providence. Speaking personally, the judge has always been a gentlemen in my years covering him — on stories he liked as well as stories he didn’t — and I wish him a speedy recovery.
5. Democratic strategist Josh Wolf was one of the brains behind Governor McKee’s emphatic re-election victory as a partner at AL Media, the campaign’s media consultant. Wolf is the guest on the latest edition of Zac McCary’s Pro Politics podcast, and the entire conversation is well worth a listen, but Rhode Island politicos will especially enjoy Wolf’s reflections on last year’s race. “It was really just one of the most fun primaries we had ever been part of,” he said. “It just had everything — a crowded primary, a very moveable electorate, our communication mattered. In a lot of these partisan races where 98% of the outcome is locked in and you’re just kind of working for the other 2%, you don’t have the opportunity to tell a story that can move numbers in the way that you can in a race like this.” Wolf also relates the behind-the-scenes story about how the “Motha” ad featuring McKee’s nonagenarian mom, Willa, came together. “We actually showed up to the shoot that day not really knowing if she was sort of the personality we envisioned,” he recalled. “And she was, like, 100 times the personality we envisioned.” Wolf shared the credit for the commercial with the governor’s son, Matt, whom he described as effectively a “co-director” of the spot. “It really changed the race,” Wolf said. “People had not seen Governor McKee smile. They had not really heard about his accomplishments. And this spot broke through in a way — it’s rare to see a spot break through that much — because it just showed a side of him that people hadn’t seen.”
6. Loyal Nesi’s Notes readers will recognize the name of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which has statutory control over the General Assembly’s roughly $50 million annual budget. The bipartisan panel is comprised of three House leaders and two Senate leaders, but it hasn’t actually held a meeting since 2009, and a few years ago that led one of its members — then-GOP House Leader Blake Filippi — to file a lawsuit over its operations. Eli Sherman reports the litigation has now come to an end, and Speaker Shekarchi has pledged to make good on a promise to start holding actual meetings of JCLS. “It doesn’t get more inside baseball than how the JCLS functions, but the power behind the power is incredibly important,” tweeted Common Cause’s John Marion, who’s tracked the topic for years. “Will be interesting to see what issues (contracts? personnel?) come before the body when it starts meeting.”
7. Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Joe Solomon are out with a new bill that would expand Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act.
8. Rhode Island’s voter rolls have grown significantly since the federal Motor Voter Act took effect, from 552,000 in 1994 to over 800,000 last November. The total has now shrunk considerably, however, after the secretary of state’s removed roughly 60,000 inactive voters from the rolls. A voter is identified as inactive if mail sent to them is returned as undeliverable and they then fail to vote in one of the next two federal general elections. Secretary of State Gregg Amore said the pandemic made it easier to clean up the rolls because every registered voter received a mail ballot application in 2020, testing whether their addresses on file were still valid. “Even though the process goes on every two years, this is a significantly higher number,” Amore said Tuesday during a live interview on 12 News at 4. Common Cause’s John Marion applauded the effort, saying, “We shouldn’t unnecessarily remove voters, but we also should thoughtfully update the rolls using reliable information.” He also urged lawmakers to approve same-day voter registration, which would require a state constitutional amendment.
9. Rhode Island’s newly appointed housing secretary, Stefan Pryor, isn’t the only one focused on the issue this year. The Rhode Island Foundation announced Friday it has joined forces with LISC, the Partnership for Rhode Island and the United Way of Rhode Island to commission an analysis of what needs to happen to materially expand the state’s housing supply. They’ve hired the Boston Consulting Group to assist in the research over the next few months, and say the effort is “in collaboration with and in support of” Pryor’s department. There’s no doubt about the urgency. Rhode Island Association of Realtors President Bryant Da Cruz said Friday, “At the beginning of the pandemic, real estate professionals were saying that Rhode Island is open for business. Now we’re saying that Rhode Island is almost sold out.”
10. Time for another public holiday in Rhode Island? State Rep. Enrique Sanchez announced Friday he is introducing a bill that would make the last day of Ramadan a state holiday. “We get Christmas as a state holiday because so many of us celebrate that day,” Sanchez, D-Providence, said in a news release. “Our Muslim neighbors deserve their holy day off, too.”
11. Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has a new idea for generating revenue from the city’s tax-exempt colleges and hospitals: he wants the city to get a cut of the income tax payments they remit to the state out of their employees’ paychecks. Steph Machado has more on that proposal here. The new mayor is also asking Providence residents to take a community satisfaction survey to provide input about what’s working and what’s not when it comes to city services.
12. Tim White and Eli Sherman did a deep dive on felony prosecutions in Rhode Island, and discovered that domestic violence accounts for more than one in five felony charges statewide.
13. A new Center for American Progress report cites AG Neronha’s tough scrutiny of Rhode Island’s big hospital groups as a model for health care oversight nationally.
14. Rhode Island’s Republicans will soon be under new leadership. State GOP Chair Sue Cienki is stepping aside, and at least one candidate has already stepped forward to succeed her: Chas Calenda, who was the party’s nominee for attorney general last fall. “As a former statewide candidate, I understand firsthand the challenges candidates face – especially in states like Rhode Island,” Calenda said in a statement. “I’m running for RIGOP chairman to strengthen our grassroots support across Rhode Island, bring in resources to help candidates in 2024, and hold Democrats accountable for their disastrous policies.” The vote isn’t until next month, and Cienki tells Ian Donnis there could be additional candidates in the race.
15. After a few years of dormancy, the Young Democrats of Rhode Island are back with a new board. The group — a state affiliate of the Young Democrats of America — is now being led by Sam Ackerman, a recent Columbia Law School grad. “Access to the ballot box and providing young people a constructive way to impact the party platform are among our top priorities,” says Ackerman, who is also the son of state Rep. Mia Ackerman. Joining him on the reconstituted executive board are Cecilia Marrinan, Noah Rosenfeld, Robert Craven, Mary-Murphy Walsh, Lloyd Ocean, Lauren Call, Anthony Cherry, and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson.
16. On the road again: Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse, Congressman Cicilline and Congressman Auchincloss are all getting fresh stamps on their passports this weekend. Reed is headed to the Munich Security Conference, the annual high-level gathering of western defense leaders, on a trip led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The group is also going to India and Israel, “to meet with heads of state, high-ranking foreign leaders, and diplomats,” per Reed’s office. Whitehouse is once again joining Lindsey Graham in leading a bipartisan delegation to the Munich conference, a group he previously led with the late John McCain “We are in Munich to express America’s unwavering bipartisan support for Ukrainian victory, and to do our part to uphold the transatlantic institutions that have strongly benefited the United States since World War II,” Whitehouse said Friday. Cicilline is among the members of Whitehouse’s group. Meanwhile, Auchincloss is part of another bipartisan delegation, this one headed to Taiwan and led by California Democrat Ro Khanna. The trip comes soon after Auchincloss was appointed to the high-profile new House committee on U.S.-China relations.
17. Also on the road: Joe Shekarchi is spending the weekend in Washington, where he’ll be a featured speaker (pun intended) at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation’s New Speakers Orientation, being held at the Hay-Adams Hotel. Shekarchi will be speaking alongside his Wisconsin counterpart, Republican Robin Vos, to discuss their respective experiences wielding the gavel.
18. Did you know there is a Congressional Boating Caucus? It’s the brainchild of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and it’s been around for more than 30 years. As you’d expect, the membership roster includes most of this region’s congressional delegation: Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline and Bill Keating are all on the list. Missing are Seth Magaziner and Jake Auchincloss — who knew they hated boating? (I kid, comms directors, I kid.)
19. The audible goodwill between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick was the big headline after Belichick called into Brady’s weekly podcast last week. But Rhode Islanders might have also gotten a chuckle when Brady reminisced about his arrival after being drafted by the Patriots in 2000. “I always joke, you know, I had no [expletive] idea where New England was when I get drafted,” Brady said. “I mean, I flew into Providence, which really confuses you when you’re coming from the West Coast. Because I’m like, ‘Boston? Oh, Providence?'” (Brady technically flew into Warwick, of course, not Providence.)
20. Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Station nightclub tragedy, the deadliest fire in Rhode Island history. 12 News will have extended coverage of the anniversary during that evening’s newscasts, including a new report by Tim White examining the effectiveness of the fire code overhaul that lawmakers passed in the wake of the disaster.
21. Boston Magazine has a wild story about a local newspaper targeting its city’s mayor.
22. Are the Amelia Bedelia books actually a subversive critique of domestic work?
23. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson. 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). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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 and Facebook
An earlier version of this column misstated the year Dominick Ruggerio was first elected to the Senate.