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Nesi’s Notes: March 19

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. The University of Rhode Island looked far from Kingston in picking a new president, finding Marc Parlange at Australia’s Monash University. But the school can still boast that it has a native Rhode Islander at its helm — Parlange was born in Providence, the son of students from France and Ireland. Now, following a career in academia that’s taken him to multiple continents, Parlange says he’s elated to be back in his birthplace. “The best job in the world is actually to be president of URI,” he said on this week’s Newsmakers. Parlange takes over after a decade that saw some significant changes at URI. Higher-paying out-of-state students now make up nearly half of URI enrollment, up from about 40% a decade ago, helping boost gross tuition revenue from $237 million to $338 million. And while many in higher ed are concerned about a looming “demographic cliff,” as the number of college-aged students declines, Parlange says URI is among roughly 30% of schools where applications are on the rise. But that could mean a further increase in out-of-staters’ share of the student body. “The number of K-12 graduates from Rhode Island and New England, the Northeast, is actually going down, and there’s other parts of the country like the South and parts of the West that are growing,” he said. There has also been a major change in the school’s governance, with lawmakers giving URI an independent board of trustees starting in 2020. Still, state government remains an important source of funding for URI, particularly when it comes to capital costs. Governor McKee has proposed a $50 million bond question for this year’s ballot to fund improvements at URI’s Narragansett Bay campus; Parlange says the full cost of the project is $157.5 million, and he is hoping lawmakers will back a bigger bond. “An investment in the University of Rhode Island is really going to be an investment in the future of the state,” he said. A major part of his pitch is that URI can lead Rhode Island’s efforts to build the “blue economy,” a buzzy term for industries that have ties to the ocean and coastline, from defense to energy to aquaculture. School officials are hopeful the state will win a federal Build Back Better grant for up to $100 million to fund a blue economy initiative after getting its application through to the second round; as it happens, those awards are under the purview of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

2. The Democratic primary for governor is now less than six months away, and one of the unanswered questions is how much money (if any) outside groups will spend to influence the outcome. That potential was spotlighted this week when a newly established super PAC — the “4RI PAC” — registered with the Federal Election Commission to raise unlimited funds in support of Helena Foulkes‘ candidacy. The Foulkes campaign is legally barred from coordinating with the super PAC, but it’s easy to imagine that such an entity could raise quite a bit of cash considering the network she has built over her years in business. Foulkes herself had little to say about 4RI during an interview on 12 News at 4 this week. “The first I learned about it was in that news reporting, so it just shows you how completely removed I am,” she told Kim Kalunian. Pressed about whether she shares other Democrats’ discomfort with super PACs, Foulkes said, “I wish there were not big money in all these races. … I think it is a problem I’d love to be able to solve for long-term for Rhode Islanders and the rest of the nation.” Later in the week Nellie Gorbea’s campaign took direct aim at Foulkes in an email to supporters, warning the secretary of state “is facing off against numerous well-financed opponents” including one with “deep corporate ties from her days as a Big Pharma executive” (a reference to CVS). Yet it’s not inconceivable Gorbea could potentially benefit from outside money down the line, too — she has the support of Emily’s List, which two years ago spent over $700,000 on independent expenditures to help one of the women running in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. Incumbent Dan McKee could also get a boost from outside money, whether from the Democratic Governors Association or the supporters who came to his aid during his 2014 and 2018 runs for lieutenant governor.

3. Republican Jessica de la Cruz’s campaign kickoff speech Wednesday gave an indication of how she and her advisers see the opportunity her opportunity in the 2nd Congressional District. She focused attention on rising inflation and its effect on family budgets, arguing Joe Biden and other leaders “have no plans to fix” the problem. She also emphasized her biography as a daughter of Portuguese immigrants, a mother of three, and a parent who got into politics due to her frustration with the quality of local public schools. And she contrasted her background with the “bunch of millionaires and other career politicians” she argued are seeking the 2nd District seat. While de la Cruz is viewed as more conservative than rival Allan Fung, she didn’t deliver a speech full of red meat for the GOP base, eschewing social issues or Donald Trump and emphasizing how she has “worked across the aisle with Democrats.” Her challenge now will be raising enough money to compete with Fung — who has been focused on fundraising ahead of this month’s quarterly deadline — and showing she can generate enough support to offset his longtime base in Cranston. In that respect, it was probably no accident that she kicked off her campaign at a restaurant in the city, just as Democrat Seth Magaziner did when he announced in January. (Bob Lancia is also running in the GOP primary.)

4. The hiring of Dr. Ashish Jha to lead Brown University’s School of Public Health continues to pay reputational dividends for the school. Jha’s appointment was announced in February 2020, just before the pandemic upended American life and turned the dean into something like a household name. Now his résumé will include a high-profile gig in Washington, with news that he will succeed Jeff Zients next month as the White House COVID-19 czar. Brown President Christina Paxson made clear she expects to see Jha back in Providence when he finishes his D.C. tour of duty, saying in a statement, “Ashish will bring to President Biden and our nation what he has brought — and will bring back — to Brown.”

5. You can be forgiven if you were caught off guard by Tuesday’s news that the U.S. Senate had just voted to make Daylight Saving Time permanent — BuzzFeed reports many senators were, too. The chamber is not usually known for rapid action, but in this case nobody showed up to object to the bill, and that was all it took to send the measure on to the House. Florida Republican Marco Rubio is the legislation’s champion, but two Southern New England Democrats have both tried to position themselves as their party’s top proponent of permanent DST — Sheldon Whitehouse and Ed Markey. Whitehouse’s office described him as “the lead Democrat on the bipartisan bill,” while Markey’s staff called their boss “the original co-sponsor of this legislation.” So who gets the bragging rights? Whitehouse has a case to make. While both senators signed on as co-sponsors the day Rubio introduced the bill (March 9, 2021), Congress.gov lists Whitehouse first, as did Rubio’s news release. Moreover, Whitehouse also co-sponsored Rubio’s bill in the last Congress, while Markey did not. But Markey can point out he was Rubio’s co-author on a CNN op-ed about the bill published Wednesday.

6. Senatorial pride aside, should Americans actually want to spend all year on Daylight Saving Time? There’s no lack of opinions. The Washington Post’s Helaine Olen makes the case that it’s time “to #locktheclock,” citing the benefits of afternoon sunlight and problems caused by clock-changing. CATO’s Scott Lincicome counters that the best option based on nature and biology is actually to stay on Standard Time all year long. And Josh Barro at Very Serious insists Daylight Saving Time was and remains the right policy (while employing a few words we can’t say on television).

7. It’s not every day you see a major company pick a public fight with a state lawmaker, but this week Cox Communications went multiple rounds with state Rep. Deb Ruggiero over state broadband policy. It started Tuesday, when Cox held a big news conference on Aquidneck Island — Ruggiero’s territory — to announce a $120 million investment over the next three years in high-speed broadband infrastructure. That included $20 million specifically for Aquidneck Island, where residents have long complained about internet access and speeds. Governor McKee, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio were all on the guest list for Cox’s event. But a day later, Ruggiero and two fellow Aquidneck Island Democrats issued a scathing news release that accused Cox of a “PR stunt” after years of underinvestment in the region. Cox responded in kind, saying Ruggiero is too focused “on municipal-owned networks that create great risk and vulnerability for taxpayers.” Ruggiero hit back, saying she supports “public-private broadband development” that would lead to more competition among providers. The exchange suggests all sides think the stakes are high as big decisions loom about broadband policy. Rhode Island is slated to receive over $100 million for broadband from the federal infrastructure law, and one of the conditions is sending the feds a five-year state plan — a plan that could have a significant effect on Cox and other providers. McKee has proposed allocating $500,000 in the next state budget for an office to develop that plan, plus $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for “investment in last-mile projects to provide high-speed, reliable internet to all Rhode Islanders.”

8. The Rhode Island House caused a stir on social media by seeming to take sides in a dispute over Kashmir with a citation praising a new documentary. And it turns out the chamber wasn’t alone. Governor McKee’s office confirmed late Friday he issued a “Certificate of Special Recognition” on Dec. 9 to the same individuals, reading in part: “As award winning professionals you are pioneers to create a real-issue documentary movie to prevail the social reform.” McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said the document was requested by 2nd District candidate Bob Lancia.

9. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Governor McKee is once again at odds with General Assembly leaders over marijuana, as the legislature appears closer than ever to legalizing cannabis this year. McKee had been mum on the new House-Senate compromise bill that came out March 1, but weighed in this week via a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee from his chief legal counsel Claire Richards, who argued the bill violates separation of powers under the state constitution. The argument is based on the bill’s procedure for appointing members to the new Cannabis Control Commission, which would require that McKee give ‘due consideration’ to picks from House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, even though the commission will be taking over executive branch functions. (The Senate would also need to confirm the picks and approve any removals.) Spokespersons for Shekarchi and Ruggerio disagreed with McKee’s interpretation, pointing out that other state commissions are appointed similarly. McKee, who supports legalization, continues to prefer that oversight of cannabis businesses remains in the Department of Business Regulation. The issue of who gets to regulate the lucrative new industry has been a sticking point in negotiations since last summer, but it’s not yet clear whether McKee feels strongly enough about it to veto the whole cannabis bill if that part doesn’t change. (His office wouldn’t directly answer that question.) The proposal will be vetted again at a House Finance Committee hearing Tuesday.”

10. More from the State House … Governor McKee reversed course on the stated rationale for another round of $3,000 employee bonuses … Tim White reports lawmakers are considering whether more judges should be able to authorize wiretaps … top Senate Democrats want universal pre-K by 2028.

11. Rhode Island will remain in a state of emergency into April — and possibly longer.

12. “Record revenues pour into states” was the headline this week from The Hill’s Reid Wilson, who reported a boom for governments coast to coast “as both higher wages and higher prices increase tax collections far beyond expectations.” That’s certainly true in Rhode Island, where general revenue was running 3% above forecast — an extra $78 million — as of January. Keep in mind, that number is beating a forecast which was already revised upward by $274 million back in November. The numbers mean Governor McKee and lawmakers should have even more money to work with when they head into final budget negotiations following the release of revised revenue estimates in May. Yet officials also have reason to be nervous about the outlook, with the Fed set to raise interest rates six more times this year and growing concerns about a potential recession.

13. Hear from Providence School Board member Ty’Relle Stephens on Steph Machado’s latest episode of Pulse of Providence. (You can also subscribe to Pulse wherever you get your podcasts.)

14. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “The North Kingstown public schools are seeing seismic shifts in leadership as fallout from the naked ‘fat test’ scandal continues to rock the community of roughly 28,000. The abrupt resignation of Superintendent Phil Auger was followed this week by Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri, who unexpectedly moved up her planned departure from June. The exits come amid a firestorm caused by an internal investigation released Monday by outside counsel Matthew Oliverio, who slammed the administrators for failing to heed warnings about former boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas. Thomas is accused of getting student-athletes to strip naked while alone with him behind closed doors since the mid-1990s so he could test their body fat; he has denied wrongdoing. Oliverio’s report is unlikely to be the last shoe to drop. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha says he’ll wrap up his criminal investigation in the next two months, U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office continues its civil rights investigation, and private attorney Tim Conlon is preparing a civil lawsuit on behalf of multiple former students. Whether Thomas will be charged criminally depends on what Neronha finds. But Oliverio mentioned at least one former student who said he was fat tested within the past five years and that the incident turned sexual, with Thomas becoming ‘visibly aroused.’ How important is that detail to prosecutors? The AG’s office barred Oliverio from interviewing the former student because they ‘did not want multiple accounts or interviews of potentially key witnesses.’”

15. It’s Sunshine Week — and not just because of that U.S. Senate vote. The New England First Amendment Coalition’s Justin Silverman laid out why transparency matters in this op-ed: “Every American should be waving the banner for government transparency. The consequences of secrecy affect not just our ability to have good-faith debates about the issues that matter most, but they also limit our ability to oversee government and the work it does on our behalf. When it comes to transparency, we’re all stakeholders.” Silverman will also be moderating a virtual forum on Wednesday about the future of online public meetings in Rhode Island, featuring John Marion, Scott Pickering, Liz Tanner and Jordan Day.

16. Bryan Curtis looks at why NFL announcers are suddenly making so, so much money.

17. These photos from last week’s 1990s TV stars convention are quite a nostalgia trip.

18. Happy 100th to Jack Kerouac. Here he is reading from “On the Road.”

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — URI President Marc Parlange; reporter roundtable. 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. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. 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 and Facebook