Nesi’s Notes: March 23

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. With barely a month to go before the biannual meeting where experts will determine how much money there’ll be for the 2019-20 state budget, concern is growing on Smith Hill. The Department of Revenue revealed Friday that receipts for this fiscal year are running $33 million below forecast, squeezing the current budget and raising doubts about next year’s. That news followed Thursday’s disappointing jobs report, which showed fewer Rhode Islanders working, fewer Rhode Islanders in the labor force, and fewer people on Rhode Island employers’ payrolls. The chairmen of the two budget-writing committees already fired a warning shot in a letter to the Raimondo administration a month ago. But Senate Finance Chairman William Conley told me Friday they have yet to get a response, so he has a meeting planned next week to obtain more information. Their own revenue reports show a growing budget gap, and I believe we are all focused on moving forward together in a way that addresses those concerns responsibly. By this time next week I expect to have a clearer picture of what that entails,” Conley said. Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe pushed back, saying officials have touched base with Conley as well as House counterpart Marvin Abney. “We recognize there are many complexities around the current revenue picture, which is why we need to discuss these issues in person,” she said. Not that lawmakers are necessarily paragons of fiscal rectitude themselves: this year’s budget wound up $195 million bigger than the governor initially proposed by the time the Assembly was done with it.

2. Rhode Island will soon have a new education commissioner: Angélica Infante-Green, a veteran of the New York education world. Dan McGowan has a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know here. Here’s more from McGowan on the pick: “Infante-Green made it clear this week she intends to stick with the RICAS exam and the state’s existing standards, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be coming in with an ambitious agenda. She said she intends to be ‘very hands-on’ in Providence, where only 14% of students in grades three through eight met proficiency in English language arts last year and 10% were proficient in math. If she follows through on her promise, Infante-Green will be taking a different approach than outgoing Commissioner Ken Wagner, whose attempts at making significant changes in the capital city were often met with resistance from municipal leaders. It’s not going to be as easy for folks to yell ‘you just don’t understand Providence’ to Infante-Green, a daughter of Dominican immigrants who has risen the education ladder by becoming an expert working with English learners. Of course, she’s not a miracle worker. The commissioner has limited authority when it comes to intervening in districts, and overstepping can lead to legislative interference. But if she plays her cards right, Infante-Green may be able to build enough support among parents and community leaders that Providence won’t be able to brush her off when she comes knocking.”

3. Governor Raimondo spent Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, mostly on personal business: her young son, Tommy, wanted to see the nation’s capital during his school break. Her office reports she also attended a roundtable on economic and business development at a CEO Caucus hosted by the Yale School of Management’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute. (Raimondo is a Yale Law grad and member of the Ivy League school’s Board of Trustees.)

4. Former state Rep. Vin Mesolella has been a Rhode Island powerbroker for decades now, and as chairman of the Narragansett Bay Commission he’s currently a pivotal figure in two major debates: how to pay for the $779-million sewer-tunnel project to clean up the Bay, and whether Providence should be able to monetize its water supply to cover its pension liability. Mesolella is our guest on this week’s Newsmakers, tackling both topics. On the tunnel project, he argues concerns about harm to low-income ratepayers may be overblown because he expects the agency to get a large low-interest federal loan. “So we’re not even really sure at this point what kind of impact it’s going to have on the rates,” he said. Mesolella also revealed that Treasurer Magaziner, who has taken an active role in the debate, recently told Mesolella he is asking Governor Raimondo to propose a general obligation bond of $50 million to $100 million so the rest of the state can share in the cost. (Magaziner’s spokesperson said Friday night the treasurer’s office is “looking at a number of options” but hasn’t “finalized a plan yet.”) As for the potential Providence transaction, Mesolella made one point crystal clear: the Narragansett Bay Commission is only interested in buying Providence’s water supply, not leasing it as Mayor Elorza sometimes suggests. “This is either going to be an acquisition or it’s not going to be a transaction,” he said. Mesolella agreed that the city could get between $300 million and $400 million from the commission in such a transaction, while insisting such a payout would not lead to an increase in bills. “What we’re suggesting is, through economies of scale, we can recognize enough savings to make a cash injection into the city and not raise rates for ratepayers,” he said.

5. The debate over whether Rhode Island should legalize marijuana continued this week, with legislative hearings that brought out disagreements among law enforcement leaders. My colleague Steph Machado also interviewed the former Colorado pot regulator who is now advising Rhode Island on what to do next.

6. The next two weekends are big ones for Rhode Island’s two major political parties, both of which will hold leadership elections. Sunday’s sleepy Rhode Island Democratic Party race got a jolt when vocal Rep. Moira Walsh announced she will challenge the current chairman, fellow Rep. Joe McNamara. Two other members of the House Reform Caucus are also mounting challenges: Rep. Lauren Carson is running against Rep. Grace Diaz for 1st vice-chair, and Rep. Teresa Tanzi is running against Rep. Doc Corvese for secretary. (McNamara, Diaz and Corvese are all backed by Speaker Mattiello, who controls the state party apparatus.) On the Republican side, the field to succeed GOP Chairman Brandon Bell got smaller when former Rep. Ken Mendonça dropped out of the race, even though he was one of three candidates endorsed by his former colleagues in the legislature. The 14 Assembly Republicans’ other two picks: Mike Veri and Sue Cienki — snubbing Bob Lancia, their former colleague, and Rebecca Schiff, who is backed by two-time gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung. The Republicans vote next Saturday.

7. Congressman Cicilline escalated his war with Facebook in a Times op-ed this week.

8. The North Kingstown Republican Town Committee has good timing: the featured speaker at the group’s April 6 Lincoln Dinner is scheduled to be Stephen Moore, who was picked Friday by President Trump for a seat on the Federal Reserve.

9. Big news for Butler: the Care New England psychiatric hospital has landed a five-year, $12-million COBRE grant from the National Institutes of Health, the largest single grant ever awarded to Butler. The funding will pay for a Center for Neuromodulation that will explore new treatments for OCD, PTSD and related illnesses. “Importantly, it also provides the infrastructure that will allow younger researchers the opportunity to literally make important discoveries sooner and transform them into treatments sooner,” CNE’s Jeremy Milner reports.

10. Lynn Arditi of The Public’s Radio is partnering with national investigative outlet ProPublica on an examination of Rhode Island’s 911 system, and their first big story is a must-read.

11. Kendall Baker of Axios offers a great primer here on sports betting.

12. Exciting news here in TV land — thank you for watching WPRI 12!

13. You may not know the name Nick Domings, but you know his work. Ever watched an episode of Newsmakers or Executive Suite? Nick produced it. Our televised debate for governor (or any other office)? Nick produced it. Tim White’s recent investigation of Rhode Island sheriffs? Nick produced it. My special reports on the CSO sewer project, the Partners-CNE deal or the Superman building? Yup — Nick produced those, too. You get the idea: as WPRI’s executive producer of investigations and special projects, Nick has had a hand in just about all the big-impact work we’ve done here in the last decade. Friday was Nick’s last day at WPRI, and we are really going to miss him. Don’t take my word for it: just take a look at the four Emmy awards on his mantle for investigative reporting. In my case I owe a personal debt of gratitude: if this former newspaper reporter has ever demonstrated any aptitude as a broadcaster, it’s thanks to the patient tutoring of two people, Nick and Tim. It won’t be the same without hearing Nick in our ear during shows, but I think I speak for everyone at WPRI when I say we wish him all the best.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Narragansett Bay Commission Chairman Vincent Mesolella. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Gordon School Head of School Noni Thomas López; Medley Genomics President/CEO Patrice Milos. 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

An earlier version of this column attributed the Republican chair endorsements solely to the House GOP caucus; the endorsements were made jointly by the House and Senate GOP caucuses.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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