Nesi’s Notes: May 22

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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes will be taking a one-week break due to the upcoming holiday weekend. Look for the next edition here at WPRI.com on June 5.

1. If you’re not actively searching for a new home, it may be hard to comprehend just how nightmarish the Rhode Island housing market is right now. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors reports the median single-family home sold for $349,000 in April; just six years ago, in April 2015, the median price was only $198,600. And at that time there were nearly 5,000 houses on the market across the state; last month there were barely 1,100. You increasingly hear of houses going for tens of thousands above asking price, sometimes even without an inspection; open houses are no guarantee. These challenges aren’t new — I did a deep-dive on Rhode Island’s housing crunch at about this time three years ago — but they’ve clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic and its ripple effects. What, if anything, will change the dynamic? “More supply is definitely the best solution right now,” Realtors President Leann D’Ettore told PBN this week. Yet the cost of building supplies and lumber have jumped, and most Rhode Island communities keep tight limits on new construction. HousingWorksRI’s Brenda Clement notes only 1,329 building permits for new housing units were issued in 2020, way below the roughly 3,500 units per year that a 2016 study said were needed. And it’s not just buyers: average monthly rent in the Providence metropolitan area was almost $1,600 at the end of 2020, up 4% from 2019. The good news is that there’s plenty of demand to live here. The bad news: without an increase in supply to meet that demand, Rhode Island’s growth potential will be capped — and many young families will struggle to find a firm footing.

2. Of course, the high cost of housing is hardly just an issue in Rhode Island — it’s a national problem. Over in Massachusetts, the median price of a single-family home just topped $500,000 for the first time. Tim Logan has a smart piece in The Boston Globe laying out five reasons why the high cost of housing is hurting the entire region.

3. Once again, the adults who are supposed to look out for the 22,500 kids in the Providence Public School District aren’t passing the test. The state takeover appears adrift after a year and a half, and now the superintendent is heading for the exits. That’s led some — including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten — to suggest the city should move to an elected school board. But the current Providence School Board president, Nick Hemond, doesn’t agree. “I used to run campaigns for a living,” Hemond said on this week’s Newsmakers. “To me that adds another political layer to the system.” Where Hemond does agree is that the post-takeover governance of the school system is vital to its long-term success. He suggests an independent board with diverse appointments made from multiple power centers — the mayor, the City Council, the state — and limited to single six-year terms. “Then you’ve eliminated some of the politics, and you can make it about education,” he said. “I think that’s the way to go. I understand why people want an elected board, but I don’t think it works well, and I don’t think it will solve the problems that got us here.”

4. From Steph Machado: the Friday-night details on Superintendent Peters‘ severance deal.

5. Throw your mask in the air like Mary Tyler Moore — Rhode Island is reopen! (Mostly.) About half of Rhode Islanders are now fully vaccinated, and cases and hospitalizations are plummeting, buoyed by the tailwind of warm weather. (Eli Sherman has all the data here.) Even if it’s too soon to declare coronavirus vanquished, with children unvaccinated and variants a concern, the relief is palpable. For reporters, one sign of the improving situation was Governor McKee’s announcement that he is ending weekly coronavirus briefings at the Vets, a staple of our workweeks since the current schedule was established back at the start of Phase 3 last July. (Remember reopening “phases”?) McKee’s office reports, “COVID-19 press conferences will resume at the State House on Thursday, June 3 and will occur on alternating Thursdays at 1 p.m. unless otherwise advised.”

6. Multiple Nesi’s Notes readers spotted something unusual in their mailboxes last weekend — the smiling face of Governor McKee on a full-color R.I. Department of Health mailer about vaccinations. “An urgent message from Governor Dan McKee” said the headline next to his photo, in English on one side and Spanish on the other. The state has sent a number of mailers during the pandemic, but this was the first time a picture of the governor was on one of them — giving McKee a potential publicity boost ahead of next year’s gubernatorial race. The Health Department confirmed the governor’s office was involved in the decision to put McKee’s picture on the mailer, while noting that a different mailer features a picture of Dr. Philip Chan. The McKee mailer was sent to 446,365 Rhode Island households, at a cost of $213,687, all paid for with federal coronavirus funds. I asked the governor’s communications team whether anyone on McKee’s staff advocated for putting his face on the mailer, and if so who. Their response took nearly 30 hours to arrive, and press secretary Alana O’Hare’s reply was a single sentence: “The governor did not make this request — the decision was made by an interagency team to increase vaccination rates and reduce hesitancy.” But according to the Health Department, that interagency team was made up of just two organizations: the Health Department itself, and the governor’s office. Pressed for more details, O’Hare refused to name names about who put McKee on the mailer, but she did acknowledge the governor’s communications office was involved in the “collaborative” decision. So, I asked, does that confirm the governor’s office did indeed advocate for McKee’s face to go on the mailer? “To reiterate, it was a collaborative decision and the governor’s office was part of it,” O’Hare replied. Once again, no names were offered.

7. The Rhode Island minimum wage will reach $15 in 2025 under a new state law.

8. Jack Reed will be in West Point, New York, this weekend to attend graduation ceremonies at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy. In addition to celebrating the Class of 2021, Reed will be participating in 50th reunion events for his own Class of 1971. This year’s cadets will be hearing from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who himself graduated from West Point just four years after Reed. The senator’s class had an even higher-ranking commencement speaker: President Nixon, who told Reed and his fellow graduates, “Your duty quite simply will be to keep America so ready to defend herself that she is never challenged to do so.”

9. Eye on Congress … Jack Reed pushed back at efforts by Bernie Sanders and his allies to block a weapons sale to Israel; Reed also spoke with President Biden about the ceasefire … 14 activist groups held a protest Friday at Burnside Park pressing Reed and David Cicilline (who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee) to block the weapons sale … Cicilline told me Friday it’s now up to Speaker Pelosi whether to call votes on his resolutions censuring GOP colleagues who downplayed the Jan. 6 attack … Sheldon Whitehouse urged state prosecutors to proceed with caution as they investigate Donald Trump and his company … Jim Langevin discussed next steps on cyber policy at a midweek conference … Jake Auchincloss was elected vice chair of the House Financial Services Committee, and Axios noted he’s voted with his party 100% of the time so far … Bill Keating has already drawn two 2022 challengers in Massachusetts’ 9th District, Mark Littles and Jesse Brown.

10. The official bill text is out for Providence’s pension bond proposal, and the potential price tag is even higher than initially announced: the city would be allowed to borrow as much as $850 million if it could land a 3.5% interest rate. No hearings have been scheduled yet, and with the General Assembly session reaching its final weeks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Finance Committee leaders continued reviewing the legislation throughout the summer. Along with the price tag, one major difference between the Providence proposal and Woonsocket’s now-infamous 2002 pension bond is voters’ involvement. The Providence bill would let the mayor and City Council borrow the money without direct voter sign-off, but as historian Steve Frias points out, Woonsocket allowed voters to decide on the issue in a referendum. The result there wasn’t close; it passed with 91%. (The General Assembly spurned a similar request from then-Cranston Mayor John O’Leary, who nevertheless held a non-binding referendum on a pension bond; 54% of Cranston voters opposed the idea.) One other interesting note on the proposal is the differing reactions to it on the left. While Providence Sen. Sam Bell has been a vocal proponent of the bond, longtime progressive policy analyst Tom Sgouros expressed reservations in an essay for UpriseRI. On Wall Street, meanwhile, there was this summary from Bond Buyer’s Paul Burton: “Providence pension bond a riverboat gamble.”

11. Governor McKee has been holding a series of Facebook forums as part of his Rhode Island 2030 initiative, looking at housing and higher education among other topics. The goal is to discuss where Rhode Island wants to be at the start of the next decade, in part to drive decisions around spending the state’s American Rescue Plan allocation. As part of the effort, the R.I. Commerce Corp. is soliciting bids from consulting firms to draft a formal Rhode Island 2030 strategic plan, slated to be done by Dec. 31. It’s supposed to cover the waterfront — here’s the official summary of the scope of work: “While the state’s economy will be one important focus of this strategy, other key topics will include priorities such as: (1) creating a more accessible and resilient housing market; (2) investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure; (3) building a nation-leading education system that provides opportunity to all Rhode Islanders; (4) developing a transportation system that improves connectivity in all 39 Rhode Island municipalities and within the broader region; (5) enhancing social supports, mental health, and public health statewide — especially to address the public health, mental health, substance use, and other health and socioeconomic challenges that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic; (6) advancing renewable energy for our environment and our economy; (7) bolstering state and municipal fiscal strength over the short- and long-term; (8) making Rhode Island an ever more just, equitable, and inclusive state; and (9) such other priorities as may be added during the development of a comprehensive work plan.”

12. New Bedford remains the highest-grossing commercial fishing port in America, its 20th straight year achieving the title, with a catch worth $451 million in 2019; the boats at Rhode Island’s Point Judith ranked 12th nationally, grossing $66 million. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren celebrated the Whaling City’s achievement but added a word of concern: “This is a testament to the hardworking fishing families of New Bedford, but we cannot forget that some parts of the fishing industry were struggling long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”

13. CommonWealth’s Michael Jonas explains how New Bedford boosted its graduation rate.

14. Massachusetts voters go to the polls this November in municipal elections, and incumbent mayors in Fall River and Attleboro have already drawn challengers.

15. Memorial Day is next weekend, putting a spotlight on the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter, the final resting place of over 25,000 Rhode Island veterans. What you may not know is that it is also one of the busiest veterans cemeteries in the country. The most recent quarterly report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, issued last July, shows the 76 recent interments in Exeter ranked third-highest among the nation’s 110 active state and tribal veteran cemeteries. R.I. Office of Veterans Services spokesperson Meghan Connelly cited several factors that may contribute, including the fact that there were more than 31,000 veterans ages 65 and older living in Rhode Island as of 2019, and that the nearest cemetery to Exeter is the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. Meanwhile, the Exeter cemetery could be in line for more federal funding this year. Senator Reed cosponsored a bipartisan law in January that doubled the VA’s annual grants to state-run cemeteries to $10 million.

16. With the possible exception of Megan Ranney, no Rhode Island doctor has had a higher profile during the pandemic than Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. STAT’s Damian Garde is out with a fascinating profile of Jha and his ubiquity on the airwaves.

17. Condolences to the family of former Warwick Mayor Joe Solomon, who has died at 64.

18. June 1 will mark one year since the overnight riot in Providence, when dozens of vandals smashed their way into the Providence Place mall and lit a police cruiser ablaze. Ahead of the anniversary, my colleague Tim White sat down with the leaders of the Providence Police Department to discuss lessons learned and mistakes made — they admit there were several — as well as the leader of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island to hear his reflections. Tim also looked into what happened to the dozens of people charged that night. His reports will air starting Monday at 5 p.m. on WPRI 12 — tune in.

19. Has history given First Lady Mary Lincoln an unfair reputation?

20. Ed Yong looks at why the post-pandemic period could be challenging for many of us. One expert tells Yong, “As hard as the initial trauma is, it’s the aftermath that destroys people.”

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Providence School Board President Nick Hemond; a deep dive on the latest coronavirus data with Eli Sherman. 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

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