Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 20

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.

1. There may be no story in Rhode Island right now with a bigger gap between the potential consequences and the amount of public attention it’s getting than the Lifespan-Care New England hospital merger. To some extent that’s understandable, with the pandemic and its aftereffects still dominating daily life. But this week’s announcement that state regulators will decide whether to approve the merger by March 16 should focus minds. Will Rhode Island and its residents be better off with roughly 80% of hospital services controlled by a single powerful entity? The hospitals and Brown University say yes, arguing a single integrated academic medical center will improve health outcomes, spur economic development, and help Rhode Island compete with Boston. Others disagree, warning an institution so large would be effectively uncontrollable, or citing studies that question the payoffs from big medical mergers elsewhere. The Rhode Island Foundation convened a 25-member committee that has now offered some ideas for managing those risks in a new report which will likely help shape the debate over the coming months. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Governor McKee was circumspect. “We’re going to let the process go forward and we’ll follow that very closely, and as that unfolds we’ll take the appropriate position that is in the best interest of the people of the state of Rhode Island,” he said. One of the candidates hoping to replace McKee as governor, Seth Magaziner, gave a blunter assessment during this week’s taping of Newsmakers: “This is maybe the biggest question that the next governor is going to face.” Magaziner indicated he sees the potential benefits of the merger, but only thinks it’s a good idea if the state establishes clear “guardrails” to control the new organization. “If we are going to move forward with this and create a virtual monopoly, then we have to regulate it like a monopoly,” he said.

2. One thing that’s changed since early in the pandemic: Lifespan and Care New England are in much better financial shape. Neither hospital group has reported its full-year earnings for fiscal 2022 yet — they follow the federal fiscal year, closing out on Sept. 30, and it takes a few months after that for the numbers to arrive. But through the first nine months of the fiscal year, Lifespan’s operating income stood at $71 million and Care New England’s stood at $41 million. The improved cash flow is due in part to the significant taxpayer support that has been directed the hospitals’ way amid the public health crisis: Lifespan booked $93 million in relief money during the first nine months of the fiscal year, and Care New England booked $77 million. As for Brown University, its endowment just hit a record $6.9 billion.

3. Hot off the presses: Nellie Gorbea’s campaign is out with a polling memo that summarizes an internal survey of 500 likely Democratic primary voters conducted from Nov. 7 to 9. The poll puts the secretary of state neck and neck with the incumbent governor: Dan McKee leads at 26%, followed closely by Gorbea at 24%, then Seth Magaziner at 16%, Matt Brown at 6% and Helena Foulkes at 4%; one in five voters is undecided. The memo, co-authored by Gorbea pollster Celinda Lake, says that was the initial result before testing positive messages about each candidate. Once voters heard those messages, Gorbea rose to 29%, followed by McKee at 21%, Magaziner at 19%, Brown at 9% and Foulkes at 6%. Also interesting are the poll’s approval ratings for the three statewide officeholders: Gorbea’s job performance is rated excellent/good by 58% of primary voters, with Magaziner at 55% and McKee at 45%. Personal ratings: Gorbea is at 53% favorable, with Magaziner and McKee tied at 50%. The memo concludes, “The data shows Gorbea strongly positioned to win this primary and become Rhode Island’s next governor.” Clearly, a campaign-commissioned poll gets an asterisk next to it — the person paying the tab has a vested interest in the results. Nor is a polling memo the same as seeing the entire survey; the campaign declined to provide the full results. But Lake is a well-respected pro, and Gorbea’s campaign manager says this was a full (read: expensive) landline and cell-phone survey, not a quickie one to generate a headline. If it’s on the mark, this race is wide open.

4. Back in 1976, when he was running for a full term, Gerald Ford spent months eschewing the campaign trail and instead holding official White House events that kept him in the news as an apolitical leader rather than a candidate — to the frustration of rival Jimmy Carter. The tactic was dubbed a “Rose Garden Strategy,” and in the years since it’s been used many times, not just by presidents. Right now Dan McKee is employing his own Rose Garden Strategy, holding plenty of official gubernatorial events while working to remain above the fray as his challengers launch their campaigns. Evidence emerged this week that the strategy is working: a new Morning Consult poll pegs McKee’s job approval rating at 59%, making him the second most popular Democratic governor in the country, behind only next-door neighbor Ned Lamont at 64%. While there have always been quibbles about Morning Consult’s methodology, an apples-to-apples comparison shows McKee is currently polling 24 points better than Gina Raimondo’s final pre-pandemic number from the same firm. McKee spokesperson Mike Trainor tells me the governor plans to kick off his campaign in late January, and is planning a fundraiser for the same day that he expects to bring in about $300,000.

5. Meantime, Dan McKee isn’t the only incumbent holding off campaign season as long as possible: Charlie Baker is still keeping the Massachusetts political class guessing about whether he’ll seek a third term next year. “I don’t understand why you’re in such a big hurry for me to make a decision about this,” Baker told reporters recently as they pressed him on his plans. It’s no surprise Baker thinks he can afford to wait: Morning Consult puts his approval rating at 72%. Then again, a new UMass/WCVB poll shows Baker only leading AG Maura Healey 33% to 27% in a hypothetical 2022 matchup.

6. Seth Magaziner kicked off a fresh debate among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates this week by proposing they sign a so-called “People’s Pledge” designed to neutralize outside money that might otherwise come into the race. The model would be a pledge agreed to in 2014 by Gina Raimondo, Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, which Common Cause’s John Marion says largely succeeded in its goal. “I think that we, as Democrats, should be honest about the fact that we are not powerless to do something about dark money and its corrupting influence on elections,” Magaziner said on this week’s Newsmakers. Matt Brown quickly ridiculed the idea, calling it “an empty, ineffective, and unenforceable gimmick,” and suggesting the other candidates should adopt his policy of refusing donations from corporate PACs, corporations lobbyists,and fossil-fuel interests. (Magaziner said he was open to such bans as part of a negotiated People’s Pledge.) Nellie Gorbea responded in her own letter, expressing openness to negotiations but using the opportunity to highlight the fact Magaziner loaned his campaign account $700,000 back when he was first running for treasurer and has never paid it back — a frequently talking point from Magaziner’s critics. Asked on Newsmakers where he’d found so much money to loan his campaign when he was barely 30 years old, Magaziner said, “I’m very fortunate — it’s no secret — to come from a well-off family. … And the fact that I come from a well-off family allowed me to put personal money into my race for treasurer in 2014, just like many of my opponents have done at various stages of their political careers.” He also indicated he would be open to a ban on self-funding as part of People’s Pledge negotiations — though it’s unclear if he would agree to Gorbea’s ask, which is that he repay the entire $700,000 by Jan. 1, an act that would drain his campaign account by over 40%.

7. A few months before the pandemic, in November 2019, the state’s first-quarter budget report showed Rhode Island on track to run a $4 million deficit for the year. That wasn’t unusual: it was the fourth November out of the previous five when the quarterly budget report showed a projected deficit, the biggest being a $60 million shortfall in 2017. That context is crucial to understand why the $618 million surplus forecast this week is such an eye-popping number to close observers of the budget — it’s not just a lot of money, period, it’s also an enormous swing compared with what lawmakers expected when they wrote the budget in June. That means state leaders have $618 million to spend on top of unspent American Rescue Plan Act funding — not only the much-discussed $1.1 billion ARPA pot, but also hundreds of millions more from ARPA allocated to specific agencies and purposes. Then there’s the new infrastructure bill, with over $3 billion coming to Rhode Island, and potentially the Build Back Better Act, as well. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, state lawmakers face a huge test in allocating such an enormous one-time windfall wisely. Yet RIPEC’s Mike DiBiase warns against presuming the current situation shows Rhode Island has escaped its pre-pandemic cycle of perennial deficits. “The challenge for the Assembly and the governor is that there is abundant one-time money but most of the spending demands are for continuing program expansions,” DiBiase tweeted Thursday. “And the outlook for state revenues for next year is not that bullish.”

8. One place some of that money could be going: $3,000 vaccination bonuses for state workers, under a tentative agreement between the McKee administration and Council 94. No word yet on whether the benefit will be offered to all state employees.

9. More federal funds on the way to Rhode Island: U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and his congressional colleagues announced this week they’ve secured an $81.7 million grant from the CDC to pay for the new state health lab. That project has been on the drawing board for a while, but the expectation had been the state would need to use its own resources to fund it. (In practice that might have just meant using other federal money, but that cash is now freed up for other projects.) Reed’s office reports there was only $175 million available nationwide from the CDC funding program that will pay for the health lab — supplemental Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grants — so Rhode Island got about half the money available. Meanwhile, discussion continues publicly and privately over whether to build the health lab on the old 195 land, potentially in some sort of partnership with Brown University (somewhat like South Street Landing). The Health Department is currently awaiting proposals from developers for the project, with responses due Dec. 10.

10. “It’s 10 p.m. – do you know where your congressman is?” If you’re asking about David Cicilline, Politico suggests the answer may be a $2.8 million D.C. townhouse owned by tech giant Oracle. (Cicilline’s office didn’t comment for the Politico piece.)

11. So much for Jack Reed finishing the National Defense Authorization Act before Thanksgiving: Reed had to punt the debate until after Thanksgiving as Republican senators clashed with him Thursday night over what amendments should be allowed onto the $768 billion bill. By not passing the measure right away, Reed argued to his colleagues, “We will send a very powerful message to the men and women in the armed forces that we don’t have your back.”

12. Sheldon Whitehouse was one of multiple Rhode Island Democrats at the White House on Monday to celebrate the infrastructure bill. But Whitehouse returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for another, lower-profile ceremony on Thursday: President Biden’s signing of three bipartisan bills supporting first responders and law enforcement. Whitehouse co-sponsored two of the bills: the Protecting America’s First Responders Act (boosting death and disability benefits) and the Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila Federal Law Enforcement Protection Act (“extending federal criminal liability to individuals convicted of killing or attempting to kill federal officers and employees extraterritorially,” per the senator’s office).

13. Jim Langevin wants diplomats to boycott the Beijing Olympics to protest China.

14. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Don’t sleep on COVID-19. Along with most other states in the country, Rhode Island is seeing infections rise yet again heading into the Thanksgiving holiday. The good news is that the state is reporting only about half as many cases – 441 on average per day – compared to the same time last year. The bad news is that health experts, including former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, have taken to calling COVID-19 an ‘endemic’ similar to the flu, meaning the cyclical ups and downs of infections are likely sticking around for the foreseeable future. What’s clear, however, is that infections are less prevalent among Rhode Islanders who are vaccinated. My latest analysis – which can be found here – shows weekly case rates are consistently three to 14 times higher among people who are unvaccinated. But rates are also creeping up among people who have gotten their shots, which is part of why health officials are urging everyone 18 years and older to get a booster. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is calling on Rhode Islanders to ‘keep your guards up’ heading into the colder weather and holiday season.”

15. AG Neronha has launched a new initiative to combat the surge in urban violence in 2021.

16. There’s been plenty of discussion about the procurement process that led up to the ILO contract, but what about the key project ILO is working on — setting up Municipal Learning Centers around Rhode Island? Check out our deep dive here on that initiative, what’s behind it and where it stands. Meanwhile, AG Neronha was asked on Dan Yorke’s TV show this week about when his investigation into the ILO contract will wrap up. “Until you start looking at something — until you start looking at records and following up on records and start talking to people — you don’t know where it’s going to land. You just don’t know,” Neronha replied. “And that, I think, describes that particular review perfectly.”

17. How many Rhode Island teachers have internal “alerts” attached to their certifications like the one we now know was placed on North Kingstown ex-coach Aaron Thomas? The R.I. Department of Education is refusing to release that number.

18. The pushback from many South Coast leaders to new congressional maps splitting Fall River off from New Bedford failed to sway Beacon Hill leaders, who pushed through the redistricting plan this week on their last day of formal session for the year. But the opposition made itself heard, with an unusually divided Senate approving the maps on a 26-13 vote. Among the nays was state Sen. Becca Rausch, whose district stretches south into Attleboro. “We cannot change this map again for an entire decade,” Rausch said in her prepared remarks before the vote. “This is not like other legislation that we can tweak, if necessary, in subsequent sessions as we see the implementation of the law unfold.” (Along with the South Coast split, she also castigated top lawmakers for dividing the MetroWest region into five different congressional districts.) The top senator on the redistricting panel, William Brownsberger, expressed “regret” that so many of his colleagues were unhappy with the outcome.

19. What gives life meaning? According to a recent Pew poll, Americans’ top answers were family, friends, material well-being, occupation, and faith.

20. Why the Mac Jones signing is working for the Patriots.

21. Programming note: no Nesi’s Notes next weekend due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Seth Magaziner. 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. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here Dec. 4.

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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