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Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 27

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. Rhode Island is days away from getting a new governor. The state is ramping up a vaccination campaign to end the pandemic. The state budget is in unusual flux. Yet the story this week with the most long-term implications for Rhode Island is likely the announcement of the hospital mega-deal between Lifespan, Care New England and Brown University. Whatever your position, the creation of an Ivy-affiliated academic health system that would care for a majority of Rhode Island hospital patients and be the state’s largest employer is a big deal. Of course, there’s reason for skepticism: Rhode Islanders have watched multiple Lifespan-CNE deals fall apart over the last three decades. But circumstances have changed. Hospital consolidation is a fact of life, making CNE’s options now look more like which suitor to pick, not whether to pick one. Leaders of both organizations collaborated to an unprecedented degree during the pandemic, creating trust and goodwill. Governor Raimondo has been pushing for it. And perhaps most importantly, Brown is all in: Christina Paxson is committing $125 million to the new system over five years, seeing it as a linchpin of the medical school’s future. Paxson has already been putting the pieces in place with moves like the 2017 creation of Brown Physicians, and as a health economist she knows the sector. Now attention will turn to the regulators that have to sign off: AG Neronha, the Department of Health (under Governor McKee) and the Federal Trade Commission. Neronha said Wednesday he won’t “be a cheerleader” for the deal, knowing the outcome will be a big part of his legacy, too. Some other things to watch: Will the FTC require the merged entity to spin off one of the hospitals to reduce monopolization concerns? Does the new hospital group get a Bruno-branded name like Brown University Health System? Who will serve as its CEO? As one observer told me this week, the new system’s top executive could wind up as the most important economic leader in Rhode Island.

2. Lawmakers could have plenty to say about the Lifespan-Brown-CNE deal, too. That’s especially true since Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey and Speaker Shekarchi both represent Warwick, home of CNE’s Kent Hospital, which might be considered for divestiture if antitrust regulators don’t want the new system owning so many hospitals. McCaffrey announced a bill Friday that would mandate a more thorough review of the transaction under the Hospital Conversion Act. “[T]his proposed merger impacts every part of our state,” McCaffrey said in a statement. “We need to ensure we fully understand the impacts on health care, quality of staffing, whether services will be outsourced and impacts on employees at Kent and throughout the hospital network.”

3. When I talked on Tuesday with Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau, Care New England CEO Jim Fanale and Brown’s Christina Paxson, a topic that came up once again was the possibility that a new Lifespan-CNE-Brown health system could be home to a federally designated National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive cancer center. “We want to be a leader in cancer care in Rhode Island — we don’t want people to have to go to Boston or New York if, God forbid, they get cancer,” Paxson said in a video statement. “So we can develop a world-class cancer center that conducts research, that lets us treat patients better, and that provides Rhode Islanders with an option, an alternative, to going elsewhere.” The backstory: Rhode Island has had no NCI cancer center since federal regulators yanked the endorsement from Roger Williams Cancer Center in 1994, dealing a blow to health care and medical research in the state. The NCI designation brings prestige and money with it; there are currently 71 centers nationwide, including Dana-Farber in Boston. Brown already began to lay the groundwork for a new effort last September, when the school recruited Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry to lead the newly created Cancer Center at Brown University.

4. Nearly two months after she walked on stage in Wilmington as President Biden’s pick for commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo looks set to win Senate confirmation early next week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set a preliminary procedural vote for Monday evening, teeing up a final vote the next day; she’d likely take the oath of office within hours. If the timing stays on track, Raimondo is likely to send a letter designating an hour when her resignation takes effect, rather than letting her time in office expire automatically when she’s sworn in. On Friday, the Biden administration announced that three of her most trusted aides during her time as governor — policy director Nell Abernathy, former director of the governor’s office Matt Bucci, and senior deputy chief of staff Kevin Gallagher — will be joining her in Washington when she starts the job. All three have sterling reputations among their State House colleagues. One question that’s come up: will Raimondo be moving to Washington, or will she commute back and forth to Providence like a senator does? “They’re still working through this as a family,” reports Raimondo spokesperson Audrey Lucas.

5. If that timing holds, Dan McKee will take over as Rhode Island’s 76th governor at some point on Tuesday. McKee spokesperson Mike Trainor says he will hold a private swearing-in on the day he takes office, then a socially distanced public inaugural ceremony the following Sunday at noon on the south steps of the State House. (The oath will be administered by none other than Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is expected to try and wrest the same office away from McKee next year.) One of the big State House guessing games right now involves who will fill out McKee’s team, since the governor’s office has a significantly larger staff than the LG’s; Trainor says a list of senior staff appointees will be put out the day of the swearing-in. We do know Tony Silva is continuing as chief of staff, and the rest of McKee’s current staff is moving over as well; Ian Donnis reports Kevin Horan will be legislative director. Whoever is in the mix, McKee will have to make some of his policy priorities clear quickly — his budget proposal is due to the General Assembly barely a week after his expected swearing-in. “I can tell you that it is a crisis in terms of where we are, and then the anticipation of not knowing exactly what’s coming in from the federal stimulus,” McKee told reporters Friday, saying he was headed next to a three-hour budget meeting. “We want to have as little pain as possible, and hopefully there’ll be no pain.”

6. Here’s what you need to know about Rhode Island’s $329 million budget gap.

7. March 2 is an election day in Rhode Island, but you could be forgiven if you forgot. Between the pandemic and the gubernatorial transition, the special bond election has gotten even less attention than it might have, despite the seven ballot questions carrying a sticker price of $400 million. According to the secretary of state’s turnout tracker, about 64,000 of the 90,000 mail ballots sent out have been returned and scanned in so far, with another 6,700 voters casting an early in-person ballot. While it’s true that bond questions nearly always pass overwhelmingly in Rhode Island, there have been exceptions: a 2006 question seeking $4 million for Fort Adams was rejected by 50.5% of voters, and a 2002 question seeking $14 million for the Heritage Harbor Museum only passed with 56%. (Thanks to Greg Facincani in the secretary of state’s office for the details on those.)

8. State House roundup … on taxes, the group Revenue for Rhode Island began its push for an 8.99% rate on income above $475,000, while the Rhode Island Public Health Institute lobbied for a 1.5-cent tax on sugary drinks … Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey passed a bill to end the General Assembly’s involvement in marriage solemnizations; Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian is the House sponsor … Speaker Shekarchi is rolling out a set of seven bills on Monday aimed at addressing Rhode Island’s housing supply crunch … former Cranston mayor and GOP gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung was announced as a new partner at the law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara.

9. Capitol Hill roundup … David Cicilline won another round of national headlines after the House passed his Equality Act for a second time, though its Senate prospects worsened when Susan Collins announced she won’t cosponsor it this time … Jack Reed had his first hearing as Senate Armed Services chairman, tackling the topic of national security and emerging technologies … Jim Langevin chaired the first hearing of his newly created House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems … Sheldon Whitehouse announced he will chair two subcommittees this Congress, both on topics close to his heart: the Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, and the Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight … Jake Auchincloss threw his support behind starting full-time in-person classes in Massachusetts elementary schools by April (and also dipped his toe into Clubhouse with Dr. Ashish Jha).

10. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski has a heartbreaking new essay about losing his infant daughter to pediatric cancer, and offers some painfully learned lessons on how to fight the disease. As it happens Senator Reed has been active on this issue over the years, most recently enacting the 2018 Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access, and Research (STAR) Act that authorized up to $30 million a year in new research funding.

11. No member of the Rhode Island or Southeastern Massachusetts congressional delegation has uttered a word of concern about the size of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, arguing a huge stimulus is what’s called for at the moment. “Every economist I know has said we have to do a big package, and if we don’t do a big package it will delay our recovery even longer,” Congressman Cicilline said on last week’s Newsmakers. There are other viewpoints, however. The FT’s longtime economics commentator Martin Wolf — no foe of stimulus in principle — offered this warning in his column this week: “[I]t is vital to recognise what makes a pandemic different from a financial crisis or a war. Unlike a financial crisis, COVID-19 will not necessarily create an overhang of bad private debt likely to suppress demand indefinitely. Instead, the balance sheets of people who have earned well and spent little have actually improved. Again unlike a war, the pandemic does not destroy physical capital. There is a good chance therefore that economies will recover really strongly, once fear of the disease has waned. … Some analysts seem to view a big upsurge in inflation as inconceivable, because it has not happened for a long time. This is a bad argument. Many once thought a global financial crisis was inconceivable because it had not happened for a long time. In the 1960s many thought the inflationary upsurge of the 1970s similarly inconceivable.”

12. Monday will mark one year since Rhode Island leaders announced the state’s first presumptive case of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that would soon upend all our lives. As our Eli Sherman reported this week, COVID-19 made 2020 the deadliest year in Rhode Island since the 1918 flu pandemic in raw numbers, and per capita it was the worst since World War II. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is among those reflecting on what we’ve all been through. “Having lost my father at a young age already taught me to have a sense of appreciation just for what you have and for life and not taking things for granted,” Alexander-Scott told Kim Kalunian in a one-on-one interview airing on this week’s Newsmakers. “So I already had an element of that, and certainly the pandemic really strengthened that understanding.” At the moment, things are looking up in Rhode Island: vaccinations are picking up pace, infections have plummeted, hospitalizations are down and the daily death toll has eased. Hopefully those trends continue on into spring and summer. Still, the virus is a wily adversary, and public health officials continue to express concern about contagious new variants. One cause for caution: the seven-day average for new cases in Rhode Island has ticked up in recent days after falling for more than a month.

13. Eli Sherman has a great video timeline of Rhode Island’s year with COVID-19.

14. Deputy directors of state agencies are not usually household names. But Matt Weldon, who was named acting director of the Department of Labor and Training last week after serving as Scott Jensen’s No. 2, may come close. Weldon, an Attleboro native who joined DLT in 2011, has won a notable amount of praise during the pandemic from State House leaders — including some who aren’t big fans of Governor Raimondo herself — as well as members of the public. Mike Raia, who got to know Weldon while serving as Raimondo’s communications director, passed along this anecdote from when Raia went for his first haircut after last spring’s lockdown: “In making small talk, I asked the staff in the shop how things were going and if business was coming back. They know I worked in government in prior life and asked if I knew a guy at DLT named Matt Weldon. I hesitated before I said yes in case they were unhappy about something or hadn’t gotten their UI. (At that point, I was a year-and-a-half removed from State House comms and I wasn’t looking to jump back into spin mode after working at home for 60 days with a 3-year-old and 9-year-old.) As I started to say something totally neutral and polite, the owner of the shop yelled out, ‘I [expletive] love Matt Weldon! This process sucks, but he actually seems to care. He’s been so helpful.’ It was the first time I ever heard of someone knowing a government employee by name.”

15. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “It almost looked like nobody was going to mention race at the trial of Providence Police Sgt. Joseph Hanley, who’s accused of punching, kicking and kneeling on a Black man during an arrest last year. But then this week, on the fourth day of the trial, we finally heard from the alleged victim — Rishod Gore — who plainly said he took Hanley’s taunts to be racial slurs, and said he feared for his life during the alleged assault after seeing how other Black men have not survived similar police encounters. Hanley’s defense attorney, in turn, accused Gore of anti-police bias because he wore a Black Lives Matter mask on the stand. So went the most riveting and emotionally charged two days of the trial thus far, with the central figures in the case — Hanley and Gore — telling diametrically opposed stories about what happened on Federal Hill the night of April 19, 2020. To Gore, this was an unprovoked attack for which he’s never received an explanation — just some dropped charges and a $50,000 check  — that hardly even requires his testimony because the video so clearly shows what happened. But to Hanley, this was just one of more than 2,000 arrests he’s made successfully for the city of Providence, following guidelines that allow him to use reasonable physical force to overcome a resisting subject. Hanley told that story in court on Friday using multiple props and an attorney who laid on the floor pretending to be Gore while Hanley kneeled on and struck him. Officially, the Providence Police Department is not on Hanley’s side; its internal investigation determined he used excessive force, and he’s been suspended since shortly after the incident occurred. But it will be up to Judge Brian Goldman to weigh the evidence and testimony in the bench trial and decide whether the 17-year police officer committed a crime.”

16. More from Steph Machado: the state-controlled Providence schools are asking for $5 million more from the city budget.

17. Charlie Baker got unusually rough treatment from state lawmakers this week, as a COVID-19 oversight panel grilled the durably popular governor over Massachusetts’ glitchy vaccine website. When you look through the committee’s membership, though, you’ll find that not one lawmaker on the panel is from Bristol County. That led to grumbling in the region, which frequently feels overlooked on Beacon Hill. But not everyone agrees: Rep. Carole Fiola, a Fall River Democrat, told my colleague Kait Walsh on Friday that she doesn’t see the South Coast as an afterthought in Boston, particularly when it comes to getting the Baker administration’s attention. Fiola also said she was confident members of the subcommittee knew her concerns and brought them up at the hearing.

18. Fall River is the subject of another documentary, this time on a 1979-80 murder spree.

19. Tim White will be a guest on this weekend’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” breaking down the latest on local and national politics along with host Jim Hummel and fellow panelists Sue Cienki and Dave Layman. Tune in Sunday at noon on Rhode Island PBS or watch online here.

20. Arthur Brooks writes that checking boxes is not the path to happiness.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. 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. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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

An earlier version of this column incorrectly said 2020 was Rhode Island’s deadliest year since 1918 both in raw numbers and per capita; while it was the deadliest since 1918 in raw numbers, per capita it was the deadliest since World War II. It also misstated the outcome of the 2002 Heritage Harbor bond question.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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