Nesi’s Notes: May 2

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. Our understanding of coronavirus in Rhode Island, and our judgment of what measures are necessary to deal with it, can only be as good as the data we get. That’s why many reporters were alarmed this week when we learned, first, that the Health Department had been counting hospital fatalities as hospital discharges, and then that COVID-19 hospitalizations had been undercounted all along. While the department offered reasonable explanations in both cases, it illustrated how quickly the picture of current conditions can shift. “Still linear rise, but NOT yet plateau of hospitalizations,” Dr. Jay Schuur, chair of emergency medicine at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, wrote Friday on Twitter. “We can handle this but we need to load balance across RI as non-COVID patients are returning to hospitals and are sick.” Nevertheless, the revised data has not changed Governor Raimondo’s determination to try and begin lifting restrictions one week from today. She’s not committing to it, saying the final decision will depend on next week’s numbers, but at this point many Rhode Islanders will be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, one of the country’s most influential experts on the pandemic, says it’s a difficult moment for Raimondo and her counterparts. “I’d like to see the states take a little longer, the states where the cases are going up,” Gottlieb said Thursday on CNBC. But, he continued, “I think politically, it’s going to be very hard for these governors, because you’re starting to see the fraying, you’re starting to see people get restless, and rightly so — people are being badly hurt by this economy. So this is a very tough decision that these governors are going to have to face through May.”

2. Economist Michael Lynch delivered his twice-a-year economic forecast to Rhode Island’s Revenue Estimating Conference this week, and it’s a grim read. Lynch predicts the state’s unemployment rate will average 16% during the fiscal year that begins July 1, easily beating the worst level seen during the Great Recession. He doesn’t expect the economy or employment to return to pre-COVID levels until 2023. The picture will become clearer when official revenue estimates are adopted Friday; RIPEC thinks the state will need to use its $204 million rainy day fund — one of the smallest in the country as a share of annual spending — to balance the budget. Look for the General Assembly to ramp up its activity the following week, as Finance Committees in both chambers begin to huddle with the administration over how to solve the problem. Legislators already began to stir on Thursday, when the joint task force on emergency coronavirus spending held its first meeting. That came one day after Governor Raimondo, with backing from Senator Reed, made the audacious claim that she has unilateral authority to allocate Rhode Island’s entire $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund payment — an argument that’s sure to be contested by the legislative branch.

3. At some point, the General Assembly will have to figure out how to resume legislative work while respecting public health guidelines. But how? More than a dozen states currently allow for some form of remote participating or voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Connecticut. Yet getting there isn’t always pretty — check out this Eagle-Tribune report from Beacon Hill on Thursday: “A bitter partisan fight has erupted in the state House of Representatives over proposed rules for passing legislation during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Democrats and Republicans accusing each other of using the health crisis for political gain.”

4. Not all the news at the State House this week had to do with coronavirus. Speaker Mattiello’s team got in trouble with the AG for violating public records law after a challenge from my colleague Eli Sherman … a longtime House staffer was abruptly fired after getting busted in a drug sting … and the GOP’s ethics complaint against Governor Raimondo was dismissed.

5. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata’s decision to retire and pursue the soon-to-be-vacant R.I. Supreme Court seat will set off all sorts of domino effects. The Warwick Democrat is an instant contender for the plum appointment, being one of the few members of the legislature who has a real bond with Governor Raimondo. And she’d obviously have no trouble winning support in the upper chamber (though one of her colleagues, Sen. Harold Metts, on Friday joined those urging Raimondo to nominate a person of color). Whatever happens with the high court, Lynch Prata’s departure means one of the most important gavels will be up for grabs in January, and there’ll be no lack of takers. The fun doesn’t stop there: if Billy Conley decides he wants Judiciary, for example, that would open up a behind-the-scenes contest for his current post as Finance Committee chairman. Down in Warwick, meanwhile, Ian Donnis reports Democrats Steve Merolla and Kendra Anderson are both in the mix to run for Lynch Prata’s District 31 seat.

6. Reminder: Sunday is the deadline to register for Rhode Island’s presidential primary.

7. Senator Whitehouse won a round Monday in his ongoing back-and-forth with the Wall Street Journal’s powerful editorial page, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the NRA in a case that Whitehouse had characterized as a test of the court’s conservative majority. The paper’s editorial board responded by attacking Chief Justice John Roberts for “an enormous abdication,” alleging Roberts just “wanted to avoid becoming a target of vengeful Senate Democrats” led by Whitehouse. The senator and three colleagues pushed back in a letter to the editor, which was accompanied by a new editorial labeling Roberts’ decision a result of “the Whitehouse effect.” While even some liberal legal scholars have questioned Whitehouse’s frontal assaults on the conservative majority, it’s clear the right sees him as a notable adversary.

8. Joe Biden gave his first interview Friday about the Tara Reade sexual assault accusation, emphatically denying her allegations, but the story has created a conundrum for Democrats in light of the party’s positioning during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Asked about the issue on this week’s NewsmakersCongressman Cicilline told Tim White, “Joe Biden has a lifelong career of public service in which he’s been an advocate for women. He was the author of the Violence Against Women Act and a number of other pieces of legislation. He was vetted by President Obama to become his vice-president. … Obviously the media has covered this, and this woman has a right to have her claim heard, and the media should cover it carefully. I think he has denied it emphatically through his spokesperson. But, you know, that’s the purpose of a free media and they’re going to cover it, and I think there have been efforts by all the independent media to determine whether or not there’s any supporting evidence of this claim and so far none has been found.” Cicilline added, “I know Joe Biden. I certainly take him at his word. But obviously this woman has a right to be heard respectfully.” Pressed by Tim on whether he has different standards for accused Republicans and accused Democrats, Cicilline insisted otherwise. “A person who makes an allegation like this has a right to be heard and heard respectfully,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to make a judgment as to whether or not this is a true allegation. The vice president has denied it. There’s several public statements that are different.”

9. Dennis Riley passes along sad news of the passing of Janice Helen Demers, who spent nearly a quarter-century as the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell’s executive assistant, from 1972 to 1996, and continued to work for Pell until his death in 2009. Her obituary notes, “She was tragically predeceased by her fiancé and love of her life Terry Walle, who was killed in the Vietnam War.”

10. It was another challenging week at The Providence Journal, where Gannett-wide furloughs are now being accompanied by more job cuts, including popular sportswriter Kevin McNamara and newsroom legend Janet Butler. (The paper’s publisher did not respond to messages Thursday and Friday about other layoffs.) One of those who spent the past week on furlough was veteran education reporter Linda Borg, a gifted writer. She chronicled the experience in a series of daily reflections for the education website Phi Delta Kappan — you can find her “furlough journal” here.

11. The Journal isn’t the only local Gannett paper being harmed by the sudden coronavirus recession. Multiple staffers at the New Bedford Standard-Times and Fall River Herald News reported on Twitter in recent days that they, too, have been laid off. I’ve beaten this drum for years, but it’s simply the truth: the hollowing out of our nation’s newspapers is an absolute civic catastrophe.

12. Motif Magazine did a great interview with my better half, Kim Kalunian, on what day-to-day life is like for a reporter during coronavirus.

13. Here’s a unique way to wait out your COVID quarantine: “A Florida man is facing trespassing charges after security found him camping on Walt Disney World’s Discovery Island, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.”

14. Ted Gioia examines the downsides of music being given away for free.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Congressman David Cicilline. 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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