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Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes is going to take a break for Memorial Day Weekend, so the next edition after this will be on May 30. Enjoy your time off, and remember the fallen.
1. As challenging as it was for Governor Raimondo and her counterparts to manage the first phase of the coronavirus crisis, there was also a clarity early on — cases were rising quickly, hospitals and supply stockpiles weren’t ready, and there was widespread support for shutdowns until the situation got under control. Now, though, they’re grappling with how to execute a gradual reopening and the many individual decisions that requires — all made by executive authority, and increasingly open to questions from skeptical members of the public. Why, for instance, is a social gathering of 10 people banned in East Providence this weekend but allowed in Seekonk? Why will Rhode Island beaches be closed Memorial Day Weekend when Connecticut’s will be open? “Listen, I’m just trying to do the best that I can,” Raimondo told reporters Friday as she got peppered with questions about graduation ceremonies. The governor can point to Rhode Island’s falling test positivity rate and stable hospitalizations as signs her approach has been working, and she emphasizes all the experts she consults are urging her to go slow. Dissent is bubbling up, though, just as it is everywhere in the country. Former R.I. Supreme Court Justice Bob Flanders has co-authored a legal analysis questioning Raimondo’s actions, and Narragansett Town Council President Matthew Mannix has put forward a resolution directing the town’s police not to enforce her executive orders, allowing the town to reopen more quickly. Raimondo called that “reckless,” urging other councilors to vote no. “I get people are frustrated,” she said. “I do. I really do. It’s my job to protect people. No one wants to have my job right now. These are tough calls, none of which are perfect.”
2. My colleague Eli Sherman has done a fantastic job putting together a collection of easy-to-read maps, charts and graphics displaying the latest coronavirus data in Rhode Island and Massachusetts — if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t checked it out in awhile, spend some time on the page this weekend. I always notice something new.
3. The House Finance Committee’s first post-coronavirus budget hearing Thursday was a solemn affair, as masked reps listened to fiscal adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland lay out the unprecedented hole Rhode Island is in. “They’re terrible numbers,” Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We’re going to look at everything to see where we can tighten our belts and what we have to do to try to balance this budget as best we can.” (The one policy move McCaffrey ruled out: extending tolls to passenger cars.) House Finance and its Senate counterpart are both expected to meet again next week to continue exploring what to do, as lawmakers weigh how long they can afford to wait to find out if Congress will be sending more cash.
4. An even more pressing issue facing both chambers is how, exactly, to continue legislating at a time when public health directives call for limited gatherings and social distancing. On Newsmakers, Leader McCaffrey indicated the Senate’s legal counsel is researching all options, including remote or proxy voting. “At some point in time we’re going to have to get together at least to amend our rules or suspend our rules in one form or another, so that we could maybe potentially go to some other form of meeting if we have to do that,” McCaffrey said. In Washington, the U.S. House took a major step in that direction on Friday, adopting a rules change that lets an individual House member cast proxy votes for up to 10 colleagues, while also clearing the way for remote committee hearings.
5. That wasn’t the only big vote the U.S. House took Friday, with lawmakers also passing the $3 trillion HEROES Act that represents Democrats’ opening bid in negotiations over a fourth emergency spending bill. Congressman Cicilline’s office reports the bill would provide $1.9 billion for the state budget this year and another $1.7 billion in 2021, along with nearly $1.7 billion for municipal governments over the two years. While Senate Republican leaders have indicated the HEROES Act is a nonstarter for them, their caucus appears divided over increased aid to states. “My state just reported a billion-dollar shortfall. That’s the state, not including the cities,” U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, told Politico on Wednesday. “One of my cities is laying off 10% of their essential workers. The more that comes on board the more folks will realize we need to do something.”
6. It’s not often you see Senator Reed and Senator Whitehouse voting opposite ways, but that’s what happened this week when Reed supported and Whitehouse opposed an amendment offered by Democrat Ron Wyden that would have restricted the government’s ability to collect Internet browser histories. Whitehouse was the only one of Southern New England’s six senators, all Democrats, who voted against Wyden’s amendment — and it failed by one vote. In a statement, Whitehouse noted that the underlying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorization bill had passed the House with “broad bipartisan support,” saying, “Though not perfect, the legislation establishes additional protections for civil liberties while giving law enforcement effective tools to protect national security.” (His office also noted that he voted in favor of a different amendment offered by Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Mike Lee which bolstered FISA oversight.) Reed took a different view on Wyden’s proposal. “I thought the amendment offered a reasonable approach to sharpening privacy safeguards, but I also see how reasonable people can disagree,” he said. “There was broad consensus on the need for key reforms and we were able to improve the bill.” Reed added, “This isn’t a partisan issue, it is about striking the right balance to ensure privacy while effectively combating challenging national security threats.”
7. Tune in Tuesday at 7 p.m. when Tim White and I will host a live WPRI 12 coronavirus town hall with all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation — Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline and Jim Langevin. We’ll get the latest from Capitol Hill on prospects for another emergency spending bill, as well as answers to questions from viewers. Join us!
8. Even as Governor Baker prepares to release his reopening plan for Massachusetts on Monday, New Bedford has been seeing a notable uptick in COVID-19 cases.
9. It’s a big birthday weekend in Rhode Island politics: Speaker Mattiello celebrates his 58th today, while Governor Raimondo turns 49 on Sunday. Poor Senate President Ruggerio must have had a lot of shopping to do leading up to this weekend.
10. Don’t forget: Tuesday is the deadline to apply for a mail ballot if you want to vote in next month’s delayed Rhode Island presidential primary.
12. A few thought-provoking reads on the path forward … Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Marty Makary on how to safely reopen the country … in New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells argues for prioritizing the elderly … The New York Times’ Mara Gay on what the virus did to her as a healthy young person … in the FT, Lawrence Summers suggests COVID-19 could be “a hinge in history” … and in a Providence Business News op-ed, Rhode Island Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg makes the case that the state ought to use the pandemic to build a better future.
13. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey. 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.
An earlier version of this column misstated Council President Mannix’s first name.