Nesi’s Notes: June 15

Ted Nesi

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. A few minutes before the clock struck midnight, the House Finance Committee approved a nearly $10 billion state budget plan — a plan that had been made public less than two hours before. You can find my full breakdown of what’s in and what’s out here. (The quick-and-dirty summary: yes to some pre-K, no to free RIC tuition, no to legal pot, no to most tax hikes, yes to a new URI board, yes to state control of 195 zoning, and a tighter leash on Commerce RI.) At the briefing with reporters, Speaker Mattiello went out of his way to say he liked some of Governor Raimondo’s proposals that weren’t included, but insisted the state isn’t in a fiscal position to do them all. “We were very concerned that at a time of good employment, full employment almost, we are still having trouble with our revenues,” the speaker said. “We have a structure where our expenses increase faster than our revenues for the most part. We have structural problems. So we tried not to do the types of things that were going to increase those structural problems in the future.” At the same time, what the governor did get didn’t happen by accident: Raimondo worked a 15-hour day Thursday in a furious final round of budget lobbying, managing to postpone its release an extra day and salvaging more of her pre-K plan than Smith Hill insiders had expected midweek.

2. Legal pot didn’t make it into the budget, but some big changes on medical marijuana policy did — Steph Machado has the details here. And Eli Sherman reports on Senate President Ruggerio’s successful bid to strip Providence’s zoning authority over the 195 land.

3. Almost by definition, a child welfare agency will never be free of problems — its mission is to intervene when families become so troubled that they can no longer be trusted with the care of their own children. As the Projo’s Patrick Anderson noted on this week’s Lively Experiment, that basic reality can desensitize the public to bad news out of DCYF, seeing it as unfortunate but unavoidable. Nevertheless, Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith’s devastating report on the death of Zah-Nae Rothgeb has clearly broken through. The investigation’s findings, detailed here by Kim Kalunian, are a heartbreaking catalogue of mistakes and oversights that resulted in a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy dying in the bathtub of a home unfit for anyone, let alone disabled children. Lawmakers unloaded on DCYF Director Trista Piccola during an emotional House Oversight hearing about the report; it was long on outrage, but short on solutions. “No more policies. No more organizational charts. They are B.S.,” Oversight Chair Patricia Serpa said at one point. (The child advocate’s report does include a series of recommendations for the future.) Governor Raimondo told reporters she continues to have confidence in Piccola, whom she appointed in early 2017. “The department is functioning better today by far than it was when she took over,” Raimondo insisted Wednesday. Two examples cited by Piccola’s defenders: changes to reporting requirements, so that social workers look at entire families when they make home visits, and limits on the number of unrelated children who can be placed in the same home.

4. It wasn’t the smoothest path, but on Thursday night Senate Democrats finally achieved their goal of getting an abortion-rights bill out of committee and onto the floor, where it is expected to win passage next week. Republican leaders Dennis Algiere and Elaine Morgan were thwarted in their attempt to kill the bill due to an 11th-hour transfer to the Health and Human Services Committee, a move that sparked outrage among abortion opponents. It’s fair to describe the action as unusual — Brian Gallogly, a one-time Senate aide, tweeted: “Can’t remember any other bill in Rhode Island Senate that proponents had 3 bites at the apple in one session. Once in Judiciary where it was defeated by a Democrat, once in Judiciary where it was going to be defeated by Republicans, and now in HHS.” (On the committee transfer, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare counters with an example on another high-profile measure: in 2013, the bill adding caregivers to the TDI program was moved from Senate Labor to Senate Finance to ensure passage.) Sen. Gayle Goldin is confident a majority of senators will vote to approve the abortion bill next week, and says if it happens she believes it will mark the first time the Rhode Island Senate has ever voted in favor of abortion rights. The House is expected to quickly follow suit and send the bill to Governor Raimondo for her signature.

5. Influential political analyst Ron Brownstein reports that strategists in both parties are bracing for a potential voter turnout “tsunami” in 2020 as passions run high across the spectrum. That has Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea offering a warning to legislative leaders as they continue to resist her bill to allow in-person early voting in Rhode Island. “I have expressed my concern directly to both the Senate president and the speaker of the House, that if this bill does not happen we are very much opening the doors to somewhere in the next cycle there being massive problems,” Gorbea said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I am hoping they will still take action in the last few days of the session because I am very concerned about the possibility of there being a breakdown in the system come 2020,” she added. Gorbea believes the resistance is rooted in fear of change, “that there might be a change that might upset certain races or ‘my own race’ or things like that. I don’t think those are valid concerns when we are talking about elections functioning properly.”

6. On Newsmakers, Secretary Gorbea acknowledged she’s open to the idea of running for governor in 2022, though like other would-be candidates she insisted it’s not top of mind at the moment. “I think what people really want is not elected officials who are looking at what’s next, but rather what’s in front of them right now,” she said. “I’m thrilled and I’m very humbled by the fact that there are people talking about me in a potential for that run, but right now it’s too early.” … Gorbea was also steadfast in standing by her decision to limit release of birthdays in the state’s voter file to guard against identity theft, despite persistent criticism from The Providence Journal. “I am thanked everywhere I go, and I have the support of the ACLU, I have the support of Common Cause, I have the support of Phil West for that matter. People understand that the world is different, and government needs to adapt and protect Rhode Islanders at the same time as we need to make sure that you can in the media hold government accountable.”

7. Count Senator Whitehouse among the Democrats frustrated that some of his party’s leading lights in competitive states are running for president rather than U.S. Senate, like Montana’s Steve Bullock, Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Texas’s Beto O’Rourke. “The clock is running out for people who have not demonstrated any ability to mount a serious presidential bid to help make a real difference in their country by helping to turn the Senate,” Whitehouse told The Hill this week. “It would be a shame if we elected a new president who faced the same enmity and obstruction in the Senate that Obama had to live through, all because a lot of candidates who had no shot wouldn’t run for winnable Senate seats.”

8. Congressman Cicilline got a lot of ink this week for the kickoff of his House investigation of antitrust concerns about Big Tech, with the initial hearing focused on his bill to make it easier for the news industry to negotiate better terms with Google and Facebook. A Bloomberg headline declared, “Tech’s Biggest Antitrust Problem May Be a Congressman from Rhode Island.” The news industry bill, a bipartisan effort, won praise from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan but a pan from Politico media critic Jack Shafer.

9. Rhode Island will want to keep a close eye on the proposed blockbuster merger of defense contractors Raytheon and United Technologies, for reasons detailed here by my colleague Eli Sherman. The news led one sharp observer of the state’s economy to share a different diagnosis for the state’s economic malaise: Rhode Island isn’t home to the key future business units of some of its major employers, like movies and media for Hasbro or undersea technology for an aerospace-focused Raytheon-United. A prime example is Textron, which has tens of thousands of employees nationwide but just a few hundred here in Rhode Island, even though Providence is home to its corporate headquarters. Some of that is about talent pools, some of it is just a product of history, but the result is the same. All the more reason why the state could use more startups that have the potential to become a future Amazon.

10. Comings and goings … former R.I. Supreme Court Justice and U.S. Senate nominee Robert Flanders is joining the board of Mike Stenhouse’s Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, and intriguingly reports they will be exploring the potential for “strategic litigation” … noted local attorney Marc Crisafulli is the new head of Twin River’s Rhode Island operations as well as a new appointee to the I-195 Commission.

11. Olga Khazan suggests we give up on work-life balance. I fear I already have!

12. I’ll be a guest on this weekend’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” breaking down the latest from the State House along with host Jim Hummel and fellow panelists Patrick Anderson and Maureen Moakley. Tune in Sunday at noon on Rhode Island PBS or watch online here.

13. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSecretary Gorbea. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Delta Dental of Rhode Island President & CEO Joseph Nagle; Rite-Solutions Chairman Jim Lavoie and CEO Joe Marino. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). 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 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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