Nesi’s Notes: June 5

Ted Nesi
Nesi's Notes logo

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. Twenty-five years ago this month, Roger Williams Medical Center announced it would be acquired by Columbia/HCA, the country’s largest for-profit hospital company, for $51 million. The deal proved highly controversial. “This ongoing debate about nonprofit vs. for-profit hospitals is the hot button issue of 1997,” then-state Sen. Daniel Connors declared the following year. Lawmakers responded by enacting the Hospital Conversions Act, a sweeping state law giving the AG and Department of Health broad powers over such transactions. Columbia/HCA abandoned its plans soon after; its then-CEO, future U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, was ousted around the same time amid a criminal probe of the firm. Fast-forward to today, and the headlines are once again about Roger Williams’ fate in the hands of a for-profit owner, this time Prospect Medical Holdings. While Attorney General Peter Neronha did allow private-equity firm Leonard Green & Co. to offload its stake in Prospect, he imposed tough conditions on the transaction and paired it with a blistering report that painted the executives involved as greedy and irresponsible. “Let’s be clear: what happened here is they took on debt, took out loans, and put the proceeds of those loans in their pockets,” Neronha said on this week’s Newsmakers. The Private Equity Stakeholder Project notes Rhode Island is unusual compared with other states in how strictly it polices hospital transactions, due in no small part to the Hospital Conversions Act. But Neronha argues just having the statute on the books is not enough. “It’s great to have the tools, but they’re only effective if you’re prepared to use them, if you’re prepared to stand up when you think you need to,” he said. “I think as regulators in this state, my office and regulators elsewhere need to be prepared to take those tough stands and withstand the criticism.” He added, “I feel limited only by my imagination in terms of what the office can do.”

2. AG Neronha’s willingness to use the full weight of the attorney general’s office against Prospect should give pause to anyone at Lifespan, Care New England or Brown who thinks he’s about to rubber-stamp their massive merger proposal. “Obviously, were those two parties to merge along with Brown there’d be a significant market share that they would have in Rhode Island in health care,” Neronha said on Newsmakers. Warning that the review process is “not a quick one,” he said, “Prospect wasn’t a quick one, and while that was a very serious issue for those two hospitals — very concerning — this is frankly a much broader issue, which raises potential antitrust issues that are going to take some time to sort out, fully understand, and then reach a conclusion about.” Lifespan and CNE have said little publicly since they formally filed for approval — the HealthierRI.com news page hasn’t been updated since April 26 — so on Friday I asked for an update. “Things remain on track and we are working our way through both the state and federal regulatory filings and their requests for additional information,” spokespersons for the two hospital groups said in a joint statement. “We remain optimistic that we will bring this to a successful conclusion.”

3. The starting gun on the 2022 governor’s race has been sounded, with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea announcing last month she will challenge Dan McKee for the Democratic nomination. Her rollout was managed by media consultant Jen Burton, founder of the Bethesda-based firm Sway, who also worked with Gorbea on her 2014 and 2018 campaigns. (Small world — Sway’s website highlights a TV ad that Sway produced for a different Rhode Islander who sought re-election that year, Dan McKee.) McKee himself hasn’t officially kicked off his own campaign for a full term, but his political advisers continue to put the pieces in place, this week announcing he has retained the firm Rising Tide Interactive “to implement comprehensive digital fundraising and persuasion programs.” Rising Tide was also used by Gina Raimondo, pulling in $725,000 for its work on her 2014 and 2018 campaigns. As for Seth Magaziner, no word yet on when he’ll join the fray. (Magaziner’s communications director at Treasury, Rosie Hilmer, told reporters Friday night she is leaving after less than a year in the job.)

4. The Westerly Sun ran a photo of Governor McKee enjoying a meal with former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, as well as McKee chief of staff Tony Silva and Westerly Town Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. (a longtime Chafee pal). McKee spokesperson Alana O’Hare reports the quartet met for lunch at Avvio in Cranston on May 17. “The governor asked for the meeting and his chief of staff helped set it up,” O’Hare said. “It was a touch-base meeting between a current governor and former governor to discuss the job.” McKee and Chafee are contemporaries, born less than two years apart in 1951 and 1953, respectively. Aside from Gina Raimondo, so far McKee hasn’t met with any of his other living predecessors in the governor’s office — Don Carcieri, Linc Almond, Ed DiPrete and Phil Noel.

5. Jack Reed generally strives to avoid controversy, in Washington and Rhode Island alike. That makes it all the more striking to see him emerge as the lead roadblock against his New York colleague Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which would remove military commanders from the court-martial process for sexual assault cases. The bill has 64 bipartisan cosponsors, running the ideological gamut from Bernie Sanders to Josh Hawley. Reed announced his support for the principle of Gillibrand’s legislation on May 23, though he did so in a news release that included a quote from his Republican counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, opposing the proposal. The following day Reed blocked Gillibrand’s attempt to call an immediate Senate floor vote on her measure — and kept doing so over subsequent days. He is adamant that any changes to the sexual-assault rules must be decided through his committee, not go straight to a floor vote. “The best way to move forward on this issue is to ensure that all 26 members of the Armed Services Committee have their voices heard and to consider this legislation in the course of the markup of the fiscal year 2022 Defense bill scheduled for July,” Reed said during a floor debate. Gillibrand replied, “We deserve a floor vote, and we deserve a process that cannot be undermined by the committee. I have served on this committee for 10 years, and the chairman well understands that in conference, bills that have passed both sides have been taken out. … I do not think this is a moment to defer to the committee. The committee has failed survivors over the last 10 years.” Friday’s New York Times summed up Reed’s actions under this headline: “Old-Guard Senators Defy Changes in How Military Treats Sex Assault Cases.”

6. Evidence of how much Sheldon Whitehouse defers to Jack Reed on issues under the latter’s purview: Whitehouse is the only New England senator other than Reed who has declined to sign on as a co-sponsor of the military sexual-assault bill.

7. With the General Assembly heading into its final stretch and serious negotiations now under way over the new state budget, supporters and opponents of raising the income tax are battling for lawmakers’ hearts and minds. Additional revenue might seem unneeded, considering the House Finance Committee was told on Thursday that reduced expenses and higher revenue means the state has $427 million more available than Governor McKee had estimated when he released his budget plan in March — and that’s before a dime of the state’s $1.1 billion American Rescue Plan Act funding is allocated. But supporters of a tax increase note that Rhode Island’s longer-term fiscal trajectory is still problematic, with deficits of over $350 million a year projected once various one-time sources of money are used up. Multiple bills have been introduced this year: one would create a new 6.99% bracket on income over $500,000 earmarked for education, while others would add a new bracket of either 8.99% or 10.99% on income over $475,000. (Rhode Island’s current top bracket is 5.99% on income over $150,550.) The 21-member Rhode Island Business Coalition is holding a news conference Monday at Dean Warehouse in Cranston to lobby against all those bills, as well as McKee’s proposal to tax forgiven PPP loan proceeds over $150,000. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio are keeping their cards close to the vest; asked Friday if a tax increase is still on the table for them, they sent a one-sentence joint statement: “The bills are still under review and will be considered as part of the budget process.”

8. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, leaders on Beacon Hill are poised to put a question on the November 2022 ballot asking voters to add a 4% surtax on income over $1 million.

9. Another State House tax fight featuring well-organized adversaries is over imposing a 1.5-cent tax per ounce on sugary drinks. A coalition called Nourish Rhode Island has been marshaling support for the proposal, saying it would raise about $45 million a year. The group wants to put that money toward a new program which would give food-stamp recipients a 50% discount on purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables. Opposing the drink tax is another coalition, Stop the RI Beverage Tax, which points out that Rhode Island staples like Del’s and coffee milk syrup would be among the items taxed. Its advocacy efforts include a new video featuring the manager of Santoro’s Pizza — which perhaps not coincidentally just happens to be located in Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s district in North Providence.

10. PBN’s Cassius Shuman has a great look at the occupations of Rhode Island General Assembly members through the decades. (Spoiler: lawyers are the only constant.)

11. Two recent news items regarding Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss could have wider implications for his re-election race in 2022. One was the announcement that Auchincloss has been elected vice-chair of the House Financial Services Committee; the other was his lead role in pushing back at a Nancy Pelosi drug-pricing bill also opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. Both of those positions could give Auchincloss a boost when it comes to fundraising, helping him build up a moat around himself against potential progressive challengers.

12. Get smart fast on the Eleanor Slater Hospital mess with Eli Sherman’s recap of this week’s five-plus-hour legislative hearing on the topic.

13. Here’s a dispatch out of Providence from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Voters in the Providence neighborhoods of Olneyville, Valley and part of Silver Lake will go to the polls Tuesday to replace Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos on the City Council, selecting between four Democrats in a special primary election. Doris De Los Santos, Casandra Inez, Santos Javier and Oscar Vargas are all on the ballot, and with no Republicans or independents running, the primary winner is all but guaranteed to win the Ward 15 seat. De Los Santos, a council staffer who took a leave of absence to run, has raised the most money in the race and has the endorsements of Matos, the R.I. Democratic Women’s Caucus and state Sen. Sam Bell, who represents part of the ward. But the ward’s other senator, Frank Ciccone, and Rep. Ramon Perez have both endorsed Vargas, who also received donations from the top two leaders in the Senate, where he works as a legislative aide. Inez, a Providence school teacher and first-time candidate, raised the second-most funds and is endorsed by the progressive Working Families Party, while longtime Olneyville resident Javier has also been campaigning but did not fundraise. (He still got one donation, from Councilwoman Carmen Castillo.) You can watch my interviews with all the candidates here. Turnout in special elections can be unpredictable, but we do know that 808 voters requested either a regular or ’emergency’ mail ballot, 331 of which have thus far been received back at the Board of Elections, and six voters have voted early in person at City Hall. Early voters can still go to City Hall until Monday at 4 p.m., and two polling places will be open Tuesday, at the Steel Yard and William D’Abate Elementary School. Still have a mail ballot at home? Drop it off in person at City Hall (there’s a box out back) between now and 8 p.m. Tuesday, or at one of those two polling locations on Tuesday.”

14. Under CEO Mike DiBiase, RIPEC has been churning out reports full of data and statistics that are useful no matter what your position is on various policy debates. One example is this week’s report on charter schools, which my colleague Steph Machado ably summarizes here. Another was last month’s deep dive on the finances of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns — the colorful charts offer a good way to see how your city or town compares with its neighbors. A few statistics that stood out to me: median family income ranges from $153,000 in East Greenwich to $35,000 in Central Falls … the median owner-occupied home is worth $656,800 in Jamestown versus $159,100 in Central Falls … and municipal revenue (including state aid) ranges from $5,214 per capita in East Greenwich to $2,963 in Exeter.

15. Rhode Island’s independent local pension plans have a $2.8 billion shortfall.

16. With Rhode Island’s pace of vaccinations slowing markedly in recent weeks, state leaders are looking at new ways to get the unvaccinated to go for a shot. That includes a first-ever drive-through vaccination clinic being held this morning at Fidelity Investments’ campus in Smithfield, where Pfizer doses will be offered from 9 a.m. to noon. Sign up at vaccinateri.org.

17. Under CEO Karen Lynch, CVS Health is now the highest-ranked Fortune 500 company ever to be led by a female chief executive. (Lynch took charge in February.)

18. My colleague Kayla Fish got a behind-the-scenes look at newly expanded Port of Davisville.

19. From the Nesi’s Notes bookshelf … “Vanishing Neighbor” author Marc Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute, has inked a deal to write a new book titled “Caging Goliath: Why America Can’t Do Great Things” … Joe Paolino Jr. will moderate a virtual discussion with former TV host Chris Matthews about his new memoir, “This Country,” for Barrington Books next Friday at 7 p.m.

20. Jill Lepore asks, is burnout a modern affliction — or just the human condition?

21. Uh oh, Millennials: Bloomberg News reports we are running out of time to build wealth.

22. Bob Dylan turned 80 last month — and this Twitter thread offers a great course in Dylan 101.

23. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Attorney General Peter Neronha. 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

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

Providence

PINPOINT WEATHER // Quick Links:

Dan Yorke State of Mind

DYSOM 6/11/21: Taxing PPP Loans

More Dan Yorke State of Mind

Don't Miss

Viewer Pa on WPRI.com

LIVE CAMS on WPRI.com

More Live Cams

Community Events & Happenings

More Community