Nesi’s Notes: June 20

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. There was understandable sticker shock Monday when legislative leaders released their revised budget plan for 2019-20, with this year’s spending jumping from $9.8 billion to $11.8 billion. On closer inspection, though, the numbers looked less dramatic — nearly $1.4 billion of the increase was for unemployment benefit payments, mostly federally funded. Still, critics argued there was no reason to skip the customary one-week waiting period between release of a budget bill and floor votes; leadership countered that it wasn’t a brand-new budget bill, only a supplemental. Regardless, the debate over the soon-to-end fiscal year offered a taste of what could be a brutal fight later this summer over closing an estimated $618 million budget deficit for 2020-21. Speaker Mattiello suggested Friday that lawmakers could be called back next month to tackle the budget, depending on whether Congress takes action between now and then to provides states with a new infusion of federal budget relief. If the Assembly does return in July, it likely won’t be until later in the month: the U.S. Senate doesn’t even return from its own recess until July 17, and presumably Rhode Island leaders will need time after Congress acts to incorporate Washington’s decisions into their own plan. How much of the gap will Capitol Hill actually fill? And with the state still sitting on a significant portion of its $1.25 billion CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund money — which has to be spent by Dec. 31 or lost — will Congress provide more flexibility in how that money could be used?

2. The budget is driven by the economy, and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren offered a sobering outlook in remarks Friday to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, my colleague Eli Sherman reports. Rosengren said, “I expect the unemployment rate to still be at double-digit levels at the end of the year, given what are likely to be persistent economic headwinds from the pandemic over the second half of the year.”

3. It’s unclear how many other bills beyond the budget will be taken up when the General Assembly returns over the summer, but one topic that’s rising fast on the agenda is reforming the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Tim White has the story here.

4. As another week draws to a close, Rhode Islanders can feel hopeful about the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic in the state, as our WPRI.com data page illustrates. The 7-day average for daily new cases was just 58 on Friday, down from 75 a week earlier, roughly 200 a month ago, and a peak of 376 in late April. The daily test positivity rate is holding around 2%. Average daily hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients is down to single-digits. All that being said, Rhode Islanders with COVID-19 are still dying every day — nearly 100 have succumbed so far in the month of June. “I cannot wait for the day that I can get up here and report no deaths,” Governor Raimondo said at Friday’s press briefing. “We aren’t there yet.”

5. If you’re wondering why some days the number of deaths announced by the R.I. Department of Health is different from the number listed on our data page, Eli Sherman explains here.

6. In mid-April, Governor Raimondo shared a state projection forecasting about 2,250 Rhode Islanders would be hospitalized with COVID-19 when the pandemic peaked in Rhode Island. That proved to be wildly off the mark: coronavirus hospitalizations peaked at 376 on April 28, as the stay-at-home order and other social distancing directives flattened the curve. Rhode Island was not unique in this — New York and other states also came nowhere near experts’ dire warnings for hospital utilization, as ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein explains in this smart examination of what transpired. “Initially what was happening and probably what we saw in the CDC data is doctors were admitting anybody they thought had COVID,” Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray of the University of Washington told Ornstein. “With time they started admitting only very sick people who needed oxygen or more aggressive care like mechanical ventilation.”

7. If Speaker Mattiello needed a lesson in the significance of Juneteenth, he only had to walk across the State House to the Senate, where for years Providence Democrat Harold Metts has been introducing an annual resolution commemorating the occasion. Metts began the practice after a professor emailed him requesting he do so. “I hate to admit it, but I knew very little about it myself, because it was traditionally known more in the south as opposed to here in the north,” Metts told Tim White on this week’s Newsmakers. The senator said he’s inspired by the way his enslaved ancestors persevered and kept hope that things would be better for future generations. “I don’t want to get stuck in the past with past inequities,” Metts said. “I’m certainly mindful of it, but we have to keep moving forward so we match our creed. Here’s reality, and then here’s the ideals of the country, that all people are created equal — and so now the goal is to keep working so that the reality kind of meets our ideals. And we have to keep working towards that.”

8. For more on the African American experience in Rhode Island, don’t miss my colleague Courtney Carter’s excellent “Hidden History” feature from February. A striking statistic from local historian (and former state official) Keith Stokes: in the 17th century Africans made up nearly 20% of Newport’s population, with one in three families owning at least one slave.

9. Changes coming to Governor Raimondo’s press shop: Jennifer Bogdan, communications director since Mike Raia’s departure, is leaving to take a newly created job at Brown University as director of presidential communications for Christina Paxson. “Key responsibilities in the role include developing constituency-based strategic communications and messaging, serving as the president’s speechwriter, and managing key communications channels for the office,” per a Brown spokesperson. Stepping into Bogdan’s shoes at the State House will be Josh Block, currently Raimondo’s press secretary; deputy communications director Audrey Lucas will be taking over for Block. (Lucas’s current post has yet to be filled.)

10. Next week is a big one for Rhode Island’s 2020 election season: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the candidate declaration days, so a week from now we’ll know for sure who’s running in General Assembly, mayoral and other races.

11. Former Providence mayoral candidate Lorne Adrain is hosting a virtual fundraiser Wednesday afternoon to raise money for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The headliner is former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who will participate in a conversation moderated by Adrain.

12. Congressman Cicilline’s House Judiciary antitrust investigation into Big Tech doesn’t get a lot of attention back home in Rhode Island, but it’s arguably his highest-profile project down in Washington, as evidenced by this Politico piece and this Verge writeup.

13. The Rhode Island Democratic Party has a new national committeewoman: Liz Beretta-Perik, who ran unopposed to succeed the late Edna O’Neill Mattson. A Jamestown native, Beretta-Perik first got involved in high-level politics in 1999 when her friend Patrick Kennedy became DCCC chairman, and has since become a leading Democratic fundraiser. She currently serves on the finance committees for Congressmen Jim Langevin and Joe Kennedy, and was also AG Neronha’s campaign finance chair in 2018. Beretta-Perik joins former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino, who won a second term as the state’s national committeeman. (Paolino succeeded the late Frank Montanaro Sr. back in 2017.)

14. We’re getting a new Thelonious Monk album — and it’s all because a 16-year-old high school student was too young to see him play a local jazz club. Andrew Gilbert has the story here.

15. Adam Grant explains how you can give – and get – better advice.

16. Good news: summer officially starts at 5:43 p.m. No virus can take that from us.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Sen. Harold Metts. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend 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 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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