Nesi’s Notes: June 19

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. Now that Speaker Shekarchi has unveiled the all-but-final state budget, the end of the General Assembly’s regular session is in sight. The $13.1 billion spending plan makes an attempt to address the very broad ideological spectrum among House and Senate Democrats, placating moderate lawmakers by mostly avoiding tax increases while giving funding boosts to a variety of progressive priorities. The budget’s arrival typically leads to a shift of attention toward the pile of thorny issues that haven’t been tackled yet. But there are fewer of those than usual this year, because Shekarchi and his Senate counterpart Dominick Ruggerio have passed a number of significant — and hotly debated — bills into law earlier in the session. Those include the Act on Climate, the $15 minimum wage, the IGT/Bally’s deal, the nursing-homes staffing standards, the Rhode Island Promise program, and the ban on housing discrimination by source of income. “This has been an incredibly productive year,” Shekarchi told reporters Thursday. “Last year because of the pandemic we had a very, very short session and we did not accomplish a great deal. … There were a lot of issues left over.” That said, plenty of debates remain to be had as legislators wrap things up. One is over the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Assembly leaders appear certain to make changes to the law, but it’s still unclear where they will land. They also seem poised to pass new gun legislation, potentially tackling so-called “straw” gun purchases and guns on school grounds. Shekarchi and Ruggerio are planning a special session for later in the year, though, giving them the option of punting some issues to the fall — most notably marijuana legalization.

2. The growth of Rhode Island’s budget over the last two years has been staggering, if explainable. In 2018-19, the last pre-pandemic fiscal year, Rhode Island’s state government spent $9.4 billion; when all is said and done with the current fiscal year on June 30, spending will total $14.3 billion. Washington has footed most of the bill for that 52% jump, with the amount of federal money in the budget soaring from $3.1 billion in 2018-19 to $7.5 billion today. But the state-funded side is now going up, too: General Fund spending is projected at $4.5 billion in 2021-22, up from $3.9 billion in 2018-19. One risk is that with so much federal money coming in — and some of it covering regular recurring expenses, like correctional officers’ salaries — lawmakers will wind up boosting the state’s base-level spending without identifying how to pay for it in normal times. Governor McKee’s March budget plan had already projected annual deficits of over $300 million a year once temporary federal funding runs out; Speaker Shekarchi insisted Thursday that the final House budget improves that outlook rather than worsening it. Nevertheless, progressives will surely continue pushing to raise income taxes on higher-earning Rhode Islanders to help cover those future deficits, while centrists and progressives will argue for spending restraint. Shekarchi remains skeptical: “We don’t have the same supercharged economy as Massachusetts, and if we raise our taxes too high we will lose out on people and businesses,” he said.

3. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 on Friday to start drafting a document that is expected to make the case against letting Catholic politicians who support abortion rights — like President Biden — receive Holy Communion. While the Vatican had urged American bishops to think twice before taking such a step, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin was among those who publicly supported doing so. If such a document is drafted and approved, it could reverberate in Rhode Island, home to a long list of pro-choice Catholic Democrats like Jack Reed, Gina Raimondo and Dan McKee. Then again, it’s not clear how much a new document would shift the current dynamic, other than raising the temperature. Tobin has never shied away from making his voice heard on abortion during his 16-year tenure, famously feuding with Patrick Kennedy over the issue, something Tobin himself brought up proactively on Twitter as recently as 2019. Yet when Tobin did urge Kennedy to stop taking Communion in 2007, he did so privately — Kennedy was the one who made the exchange public. Asked Friday about Tobin’s current views on whether to formally restrict pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion, diocesan spokesperson Michael Kieloch told me, “Matters regarding the reception of Holy Communion, even for public figures who are Catholic and openly oppose teachings of the Church, are generally themselves private matters between that individual Catholic and his or her ordinary (bishop). Because of that, I couldn’t comment on whether or not Bishop Tobin has had those private conversations or private correspondence with individual Catholic politicians or other public figures.”

4. Eli Sherman has a look at where things stand with the Eleanor Slater Hospital mess.

5. Seth Magaziner may not be ready to say he’s running for governor in 2022, but he’s clearly gearing up. That includes locking in a new team of consultants. Magaziner’s campaign team confirmed Friday he has hired Rhode Island native Tad Devine, who worked on his two treasurer campaigns and helped elect Sheldon Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee, to do his media and advertising. Devine will handle that portfolio along with his partner Julian Mulvey, who made TV ads for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and is currently at work on Andrew Yang’s mayoral bid. Magaziner’s pollster will be prominent Democratic survey-taker Mark Mellman, whose previous local clients included Jim Langevin and Bruce Sundlun. Central Falls native Karen Petel is doing the Magaziner campaign’s direct mail, just as she did for both of Gina Raimondo’s gubernatorial bids. And Andy Roos, a former Treasury chief of staff to both Magaziner and Raimondo who later worked for Google, will be handling digital. “This team loves Rhode Island, cares about the leaders we elect here, and truly understands the nuances of how Rhode Island voters choose their elected officials,” Magaziner campaign coordinator Katie Nee said in an email. As the best-funded candidate in the race, sitting on $1.3 million, Magaziner has the money to afford a first-rate consulting team — and he’ll need all the help he can get in a multi-way primary against an incumbent governor, a sitting secretary of state, a sitting Providence mayor, and potentially others.

6. Two late-Friday news flashes: Rose Amoros Jones is out at the Office of Health Aging, and Governor McKee has selected U.S. Treasury official Guillermo Tello as his nominee to lead the Department of Revenue.

7. Janet Coit just wrapped up her 10-year tour of duty leading the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, making her the agency’s longest-serving director since it was founded in 1977. Coit is one of many prominent Rhode Islanders whose foundation public-service experience was working for the late John Chafee, and she told me she still thinks of him frequently when she is deciding how to make difficult decisions. Coit is known to be headed to Washington to work for Secretary Raimondo, though her exact position there has yet to be revealed. I caught up with Coit for an exit interview on this week’s Newsmakers. “I think the big success story — way bigger than my tenure at DEM — in Rhode Island in terms of the environment is cleaning up Narragansett Bay and our urban rivers,” she said. “We have made amazing progress. A Bay that in the ’70s might sometimes have looked like a toilet, sorry to say, with floating objects and a stench is now a place that is attracting fishing, kayaking.” Coit also said she’s pleased with how climate change has become central to DEM’s work compared with when she was first appointed by Governor Chafee. Her biggest regret won’t surprise longtime State House observers: year after year DEM has unsuccessfully asked the General Assembly for more funding to beef up its enforcement and regulatory activities. “We could make sure to both for the sake of the business community, to turn around permitting reviews in a timely way — time is money — but also monitor compliance, increase enforcement, more eyes on the field, more enforcement actions,” Coit said. Seemingly in response to the vacuum left by DEM’s budget situation, the attorney general has been intervening more frequently in environmental matters under Peter Neronha — including just this week regarding an LPG project in Providence.

8. Only in Rhode Island? A property owned by the state’s DMV administrator and the House of Representatives’ policy director just got raided in a prostitution sting — for the second time in four years.

9. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors put a stark headline on its latest monthly update about the real-estate market: “R.I. Housing Inventory Vanishing.” Less than a month’s supply of single-family homes were on the market in May, and the median sales price was $365,000 — up by over $100,000 in just four years. The situation has moved housing from the backburner to a top-tier issue at the State House, in part due to Speaker Shekarchi’s keen interest in the topic, which he knows well after years as a lawyer specializing in real estate. “Everybody wants housing but nobody wants it in their backyard,” Shekarchi told reporters on Thursday, calling it “an economic-development issue.” The House budget doubles the real-estate conveyance tax on homes over $800,000 to help subsidize affordable housing and adds a new housing-focused undersecretary at the Executive Office of Commerce. Shekarchi noted that Massachusetts has a similar position — though considering Massachusetts’ own struggles to build enough homes, that may not be the best endorsement of how effective such a position can be. In the end, much of the supply constraint is driven by local resistance toward new housing construction. “There’s opportunities to look at this in a way that we can hopefully incentivize it or mitigate the cost of new houses,” Shekarchi said, citing municipal leaders’ complaints about adding sewer lines or educating more schoolchildren. But if that doesn’t work, the speaker warned, the General Assembly may have to consider more punitive options, like restricting the amount of state aid that goes to communities which limit housing development. He also said flatly that the Rhode Island Zoning Enabling Act of 1991 “needs to be revisited,” noting that multiple commissions are looking at housing issues now. “I wish there was one magic bullet that would solve the problem,” Shekarchi said. “It’s a case-by-case, city-and-town issue.”

10. New data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows Rhode Island’s federal judges ranked No. 2 in the country for granting compassionate release requests during the pandemic, second only to Oregon. Tim White sat down with U.S. District Judge William Smith to discuss how he and his colleagues made those decisions.

11. David Cicilline’s bipartisan campaign to rein in Big Tech continues to be fascinating to watch. Cicilline is working closely with the top Republican on his antitrust panel, Colorado’s Ken Buck, who is one of multiple Republicans co-sponsoring the package of bills released last week. The full House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up the bills next week, a step that Punchbowl News argued “dramatically raises the political stakes for both parties and the Silicon Valley giants.” On Fox News, host Tucker Carlson used an interview with one of the House GOP’s top conservatives, Jim Jordan, to harangue Jordan for accepting donations from Google, putting Carlson on the Cicilline side of the argument. A new Data for Progress shows a majority of voters support breaking up tech companies, including 57% of Republicans. And Ben Thompson, one of the most influential analysts on the tech industry, filed an extended piece about the Cicilline approach on Tuesday. Thompson writes, “It seems to me that Chairman Cicilline has played his cards very deftly here: start with the fact that while every bill was authored by a Democrat, they all have a Republican co-sponsor; if some combination of these regulations pass they will likely be with overwhelmingly Democratic support, but the fact they are starting out as nominally bipartisan efforts is savvy.” Yet other outlets, like Axios, have made the case that Cicilline is being too “backward-looking.”

12. U.S. Senate odd-couple Sheldon Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham spent plenty of time together this week, filing a Time magazine op-ed on moving away from fossil fuels and reintroducing their proposed International Cybercrime Prevention Act.

13. Brave new world for Pawtucket’s favorite toy company: “Niantic is teaming with Hasbro and toy company TOMY to publish a real-world augmented reality mobile game in the Transformers universe.”

14. America’s newest federal holiday, Juneteenth, is formally observed nationwide for the first time today. While there were some Rhode Islanders who played a positive role in Black Americans’ struggle for freedom — during the Revolutionary War, for instance, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the country’s first integrated military unit — much of the state’s history during the slavery era is very dark indeed. As The Boston Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick reported last year, “some of the state’s most prominent memorials and well-known names and places honor men deeply involved in that history of slavery.”

15. Noah Smith argues for a reassessment of how we all use Twitter.

16. Is the traditional Cape Cod vacation gone for good?

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — U.S. District Judge William Smith; R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit. 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

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