Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 21

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.

Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes is going to take a break for Thanksgiving, so the next edition after this will be on Dec. 5. Enjoy the holiday, and stay safe.

1. When it comes to the state budget, the focus has generally been on the fact Rhode Island leaders have yet to pass one for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, which began back on July 1. Believe it or not, though, even the ledger for the last fiscal year (2019-20) may not be totally final yet — because it’s still possible some of the coronavirus-related costs the state had last spring could be retrospectively paid for with federal money. That in turn would free up more state revenue to carry forward and help with this year’s deficit. While all this may sound like arcane accounting, it gives you a flavor of just how fluid and unusual the entire budget picture is right now. The State House’s most influential fiscal expert, Sharon Reynolds Ferland, now pegs the current-year deficit at $275 million — a number she acknowledged could further improve by potentially tens of millions of dollars. “A lot of these numbers in some sense are moving targets,” House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney said at this week’s hearing. “Who knows what will happen in the next week or the next two weeks or the next three weeks?” That $275 million shortfall is the one the General Assembly will need to tackle when they return, likely early next month, to pass what’s expected to be a “skinny” budget for 2020-21. (Skinny means, according to leadership, one “that contains no new policy initiatives.”) But as Abney emphasized at the hearing, bigger problems loom just over the horizon when lawmakers receive the governor’s proposed 2021-22 budget in January; while Ferland declined to forecast next year’s deficit due to the present uncertainty, she did offer a warning. “If you’re using a lot of one-time money to balance one problem and sustain current spending — surplus money, the expiring CRF [Coronavirus Relief Fund] funds — it’s all one-time money,” she said. “That’s great to get you over a hump. But you will be facing some steep budget deficits and budget gaps in the coming years.”

2. Meanwhile, Senate President Ruggerio and his leadership team have settled on a location to hold floor sessions for the duration of the pandemic: Rhode Island College’s Sapinsley Hall, per a Zoom briefing he gave his committee chairs Friday and a follow-up email sent to the rest of the Senate. “There is ample room to socially distance, it can be set up with a separate dedicated entrance and exit, and there is a quality ventilation and air filtration system,” Ruggerio explained. (Sapinsley Hall was also the site of some memorable debates Tim White and I have moderated over the years, including Buddy Cianci’s in 2014.) The Senate president also revealed plans to hold committee hearings remotely in 2021, including letting members of the public offer testimony virtually. In the short term, meanwhile, Ruggerio indicated Assembly leaders are looking at the week of Dec. 14 for the potential special session on the budget. No decision yet from the House on where to meet, but incoming leaders Joe Shekarchi and Chris Blazejewski are holding a virtual caucus with fellow Democrats on Monday afternoon to take their temperatures. (Not literally, I should specify.)

3. One new source of state revenue for the 2021-22 budget that looks increasingly likely: taxes and fees from recreational marijuana. Steph Machado has a must-read on how legalization suddenly seems to be on a fast track in Rhode Island.

4. Ever since Jack Reed emerged from the CARES Act negotiations and triumphantly announced he’d helped secure a $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation for Rhode Island, there has been much interest in that pile of cash. And understandably so: suddenly the state had the equivalent of over 10% of an annual budget deposited in its bank account, and Governor Raimondo had unusually broad authority over its use. The status of the $1.25 billion has been shrouded in less mystery than some have suggested, and this week we gained some further insight. At the House Finance hearing, Sharon Reynolds Ferland said her team’s current estimate is that only $184.9 million of the $1.25 billion remains available — an amount that is set to fall further when the governor announces another program for small businesses. That means over $1 billion has been spent (or at least allocated). Of that amount, about two-thirds has gone to three places: hospitals and nursing homes ($228 million); assistance programs for employers and workers ($225 million); and testing and contact tracing ($217 million), according to House Fiscal. And while the public discussion has centered on the Coronavirus Relief Fund money, the famous $1.25 billion is far from the sum total of Rhode Island’s coronavirus-related spending. In a memo to Assembly leaders this week, OMB Director Jonathan Womer said the Raimondo administration has now budgeted nearly $1.7 billion to address the crisis, for everything from surge hospitals ($83 million) to operating the ReopeningRI.com website ($300,000). While much of that is expected to be covered by the feds — remember, the $1.25 billion is just some of the COVID funding the state has gotten from Washington, albeit the largest part — it is possible some of it will need to be covered by the state if Congress doesn’t pass another relief bill of some sort. And if you want to dig into who is getting the money, check out the state’s COVID-19 spending transparency portal.

5. We have two dispatches from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman this week. Here’s the first: “It’s time for a pause. Well, not quite yet. Thanksgiving first, then pause. That’s what Governor Raimondo decided on Thursday when she ordered a two-week shutdown beginning the Monday after Thanksgiving on specific in-person activities, including gyms, colleges, bars, casinos and organized sports. Additionally, in-person high school, indoor dining and religious gatherings must scale back, while social gatherings will be limited to the size of each Rhode Islander’s household. The targeted restrictions have received praise from national health experts, including former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who praised Raimondo in a tweet, saying, ‘We face hard choices now, and Governors are leading.’ But the governor shouldn’t expect too many holiday cards next month from gym owners. They were left scratching their heads, wondering why workout spaces must shutter while restaurants, retail operations and churches remain open within limits. Raimondo argued the targeted shutdowns are anchored on ‘what is true, what is science, what is fact, what is data and what the health experts are telling me.’ But that didn’t do much for many business owners, including Crossfit Providence owner Tanner Baldauf, who argues they’ve followed all the rules and have been safe. He also worries the two-week pause will turn into another two weeks and then another. ‘Then it just turns into this never-ending two more weeks,’ Baldauf told 12 News.’”

6. More from Eli Sherman: “The governor’s partial shutdown comes amid a fast-growing second wave of the pandemic, with average daily cases topping 900 on Friday and hospitalizations at levels not seen since May. Rhode Island medical director Dr. James McDonald told my colleague Kim Kalunian this week the Care New England-run field hospital in Cranston could see its first patients within a few weeks, as emergency rooms and in-patient services in regular hospitals become increasingly strained. The virus has become so widespread at this point that health officials tell me it’s almost impossible to identify where transmission is happening. To try and shed some light on the issue, IBM offered a new analysis last week indicating 42% of transmissions over the last couple months have happened within families and households, while the remaining 58% have happened at work, restaurants and bars, churches, parks and sports sites. (A full breakdown can be found here.) The data painted a slightly different picture than the one Governor Raimondo has offered in recent months, that the virus was spreading most at social gatherings. And she partly acknowledged that during her weekly news conference Thursday, saying, ‘I’m not going to pretend that we know with great specificity exactly how everyone in Rhode Island has contracted COVID. So I have to make decisions in the face of a lot of uncertainty and I’m going to do my best.’”

7. Speaking of Dr. M, he’s become a bit of a local folk hero during the pandemic, so like every other social media star he’s getting a podcast. McDonald and his colleague Dr. Philip Chan, a consultant medical director at the Health Department, are teaming up on a weekly show called “Public Health Out Loud.” New episodes are scheduled Fridays at 5 p.m. — the first one is here.

8. Tim White looks at why there isn’t surveillance testing of local doctors and nurses.

9. It’s unclear when the Census Bureau will actually deliver its official population counts to the states, but at some point in the coming months Rhode Island will kick off its decennial redistricting process in earnest. House leaders plan to introduce legislation in January to create a joint commission to handle the process, similar to what was done in 2011. The one step they’ve taken so far is to again retain the services of Kimball Brace, who has redrawn the state’s maps for decades now. Brace tells me while it’s too early to say anything definitive, some of the trends are already apparent. “We’ve had in previous decades people heading south to the coast,” Brace said this week. “That happened one decade, and so a seat moved down south to South County. What we’re seeing so far this decade is it’s coming back up into Providence County. Now, where within Providence County is still an open question. And certainly, how well was the Census done in the African American community, the Hispanic community — all of that kind of circumstance will dictate that. But so far it’s showing it kind of coming back up into Providence.”

10. David Cicilline won’t be the new assistant House speaker, after Massachusetts’ Katherine Clark easily defeated him in this week’s leadership contest. Will Speaker Pelosi find something else for him? A small consolation prize for now: Cicilline is the subject of a lengthy cover story in the latest Brown Alumni Magazine.

11. The war of words between Senator Whitehouse and the U.S. Supreme Court continues. Justice Samuel Alito used a speech before the Federalist Society last week to frontally attack Whitehouse over his controversial amicus brief warning the justices of potential consequences depending on how they handled a gun case. Calling it “a crude threat,” Alito said, “This little episode, I am afraid, may provide a foretaste of what the Supreme Court will face in the future. And therefore, I don’t think it can simply be brushed aside. The senators’ brief was extraordinary. I could say something about standards of professional conduct, but the brief involved something even more important. It was an affront to the Constitution and the rule of law.” The Federalist Society itself is of course often in Whitehouse’s crosshairs as the leading legal group in the conservative world, and Alito’s choice of venue for the remarks sparked outrage on the left. “Supreme Court Justices aren’t supposed to be political hacks,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted in response, labeling Alito’s speech “right-wing” and “nakedly partisan.” Even The Washington Post’s longtime Supreme Court reporter, Robert Barnes, called it a “rock-ribbed and unusual speech.” Whitehouse’s ongoing analysis and criticism of the high court’s conservative bloc consistently draws strong reactions; whatever your opinion, he’s certainly making waves.

12. There’s been much discussion of the fact that Providence native Mike Donilon helped pilot Joe Biden’s successful presidential campaign, having advised the former Delaware senator for decades. But Donilon won’t be the only member of his clan joining the White House come January. Friend of Nesi’s Notes Scott MacKay flags that Donilon’s sister-in-law, former Ambassador Catherine Russell, has been named director of the White House personnel office, too. Russell is the wife of Tom Donilon, who was President Obama’s national security adviser. As longtime Democratic strategist Tad Devine told Scott in a recent interview, “The only family closer to the Bidens than the Donilons have the last name Biden.”

13. Eye on Massachusetts … longtime Democratic strategist John Walsh, who helped make Deval Patrick governor in 2006 and save Ed Markey’s career in 2020, will become the new chief of staff in Markey’s Senate office (a job previously held by Rhode Island’s own Paul Tencher) … Republican Julie Hall has already filed paperwork for a 4th District rematch against Democratic Congressman-elect Jake Auchincloss after her 21-point defeat on Nov. 3. … With final data in from Secretary Galvin’s office, voter turnout across the Bay State was a record 76% this year. Among the four Bristol County cities, turnout was highest in Attleboro (73%), followed by Taunton (72%), Fall River (60%) and New Bedford (55%).

14. How should Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s replacement be picked if he becomes governor?

15. Other than Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, no newly elected state rep will start out with a higher profile come January than Providence Democrat Jose Batista, who was fired by Providence’s police oversight board this week for unilaterally releasing the Sergeant Hanley video. Voters in House District 12 elected Batista earlier this month to succeed retiring Democrat Joe Almeida.

16. The Fane Tower gets another extension from the I-195 Commission.

17. It seems like every time I open my inbox, Bally’s (née Twin River) is announcing a new business deal. The Providence-based casino company’s latest moves, disclosed this week, include a partnership with Sinclair Broadcasting. The stock market loves its trajectory: Bally’s shares soared 64% over the last five days, hitting a record high of $48.40 when the New York Stock Exchange closed Friday.

18. Become a smarter citizen from the comfort of your own home: Common Cause Rhode Island is holding two free online events that will take a closer look at the lessons learned from the pandemic for the future of open government. Both will be held on Sundays at 7 p.m. The first, on Nov. 29, will tackle the topic “Reimagining Public Meetings” and feature a panel that includes WPRI 12’s own Steph Machado. The second, on Dec. 13, will tackle “Reimagining Elections.” You can sign up to virtually attend either event on this webpage.

19. My colleague Chelsea Jones spotlights the growing number of Rhode Island communities that are declaring racism to be a public health threat.

20. Martin Wolf warns inflation could actually become an issue again post-pandemic.

21. Matt Yglesias has an interesting take on what’s happening in some national news outlets.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Dr. James Fanale, president and CEO of Care New England, and Dr. Otis Warren, Rhode Island president of the American College of Emergency Physicians; the latest on coronavirus in Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. 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) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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