Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. The Rhode Island State House is not generally known as a place where it’s hard to spend money. So far, though, Governor McKee is struggling to get top lawmakers on board with his wish to quickly distribute at least $110 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act windfall. McKee made his case Monday at a restaurant in East Greenwich, arguing hard-hit small businesses need immediate aid and indicating he is lobbying top lawmakers on the issue. Their public response so far: show us your plan. The governor’s office has not yet put out any detailed framework for how that $110 million would be allocated, let alone a full supplemental budget bill with line-by-line appropriations. (McKee’s office says to expect those details “in the coming weeks.”) Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson indicated lawmakers are open to spending some ARPA funds this fall once they see specifics. “I think the biggest X factor related to that is going to be, is there going to be an immediate need that is brought to us, that we are made aware of and there’s a proposal on, that we can actually act on by the end of the year?” he said. It’s not just McKee pushing them, though: dozens of social services agencies are warning of a staffing crisis and pleading for cash. However, Pearson emphasizes that the state is getting roughly $2.6 billion in total under ARPA, not just the much-discussed pot of $1.1 billion, so he wants more details on what the administration has already spent. He’s scheduled a hearing to review the allocation of ARPA education funds outside that $1.1 billion — an examination that will include the controversial $5 million ILO Group consulting contract, which will be tackled at three separate legislative hearings next week. “There is already so much money out on the street,” Pearson said. “That’s why we’re starting with these departmental hearings — to really make sure that the money that’s already out there is being utilized well before we start dipping into the more unrestricted money.”

2. With so much focus on how American Rescue Plan Act money will be spent by the state, it’s easy to overlook how many big decisions also need to be made by local leaders. By my math the law will send over $900 million directly to Rhode Island municipalities and school districts, plus hundreds of millions more to communities in Bristol County, Massachusetts. Coming up Monday at 5 p.m. on 12 News, I’ll have a new report taking a closer look at how the region’s biggest cities are spending their ARPA funds so far. (A preview: they’re all over the map.)

3. Meanwhile, Governor McKee’s team has tapped two familiar faces to assist with management of American Rescue Plan Act funds. One is Allan Fung, who left office in January as Cranston mayor and is now a partner at the law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara. The two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee, who is considering a 2022 bid for general treasurer, has been a consultant at the Department of Administration’s federally funded Pandemic Recovery Office since Aug. 2; his contract is capped at $145,000 through June 30. Administration spokesperson Robert Dulksi says Fung was hired due to his “extensive municipal government experience,” and will be representing the pandemic office as well as providing legal counsel “to ensure that federal funds for municipal and education purposes are utilized in compliance with ARPA and its corresponding regulations.” Also aboard is former South Kingstown Town Manager Robert Zarnetske, who left that job in June after clashing with the Town Council. Zarnetske was hired by the same office on July 18 as its senior economic and policy analyst for $74,400 a year. His duties include regular calls with municipal leaders to discuss the latest spending guidance from the feds.

4. Reviewing the discussion on the left in Rhode Island over the last week or so, The Boston Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick summed it up as “a rapidly intensifying progressive civil war.” Matt Brown and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative have infuriated other progressive leaders and organizations by mounting a primary challenge against Senate Environment Committee Chair Dawn Euer, who engineered passage of the Act on Climate earlier this year. Co-op leaders have brushed off the critics, arguing progressives should embrace a burn-it-all-down approach when it comes to the State House status quo. But the challenge to Euer in particular seems to have backfired on the group. Not only did it push high-profile Euer allies like Aaron Regunberg into full-throated opposition against the Co-op, but on Thursday the Co-op had to cut ties with its recruit in the race — Jennifer Jackson — hours after her off-message Facebook posts began getting attention. “The views in those posts don’t reflect the values of the RI Political Cooperative,” Co-op spokesperson Camilla Pelliccia told me in an email. “We mutually agreed that Jennifer Jackson will no longer be a member of the Co-op.” Asked whether members of the group had voted on the decision, Pelliccia said Jackson “stepped down before a vote could take place.”

5. Candidate watch: R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki tells us the GOP will introduce a “very formidable, electable candidate” for governor by the end of October, although another Republican, Dave Darlington, may force a primary … Democratic gubernatorial candidate Luis Daniel Muñoz tells us he sees flaws in all four of his better-known rivals, and he thinks his campaign can capitalize on them … Paul Rianna Jr., a CNA who has led resistance to Rhode Island’s new vaccine mandate for health workers, has filed to run for governor as an independent.

6. As mentioned in this column two weeks ago, at least five Democrats are actively considering a run for general treasurer in 2022: Stefan Pryor, Liz Beretta-Perik, James Diossa, Marvin Abney, and Ryan Pearson. Since it’s highly unlikely all five will actually run, one thing to watch is who starts taking formal steps to set up a campaign. A sign that Pryor is serious about his potential candidacy: he has already purchased the URL for a campaign website, PryorForRI.com, which was registered Aug. 17. The documentation shows Pryor is working with Erin Heim of Reservoir Strategies, a political consulting firm co-founded in 2019 by Kate Ramstad, who spent seven years as Gina Raimondo’s finance director and is now doing the same job for gubernatorial hopeful Seth Magaziner.

7. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Tuesday is primary day in much of Providence’s East Side, with voters heading to the polls to select the Democratic nominee for the open Senate District 3 seat that was until recently held by Gayle Goldin. The five Democratic candidates are all diverse, credible and experienced in either politics or public service, leaving the race apparently wide open heading into Tuesday. The winner will go on to face Republican Alex Cannon in November, but the race in the heavily left-leaning district has so far been focused on the five Democrats: Bret Jacob, Hilary Levey Friedman, Geena Pham, Ray Rickman and Sam Zurier. The quintet had attracted nearly $200,000 in campaign donations as of the last filing deadline Tuesday. While Levey Friedman has both outraised and outspent her competitors, all five candidates have taken in at least $20,000 so far. A win for Pham could give a boost to the Rhode Island Political Co-op after the progressive group took some heat for its practices in recent days. Nearly 23,000 people are eligible to vote in the District 3 primary; as of Friday evening, 180 early votes and 435 mail ballot votes had been cast. Voters can drop mail ballots off until Tuesday at 8 p.m., or vote in person Tuesday at their assigned polling place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. And if you need to get caught up on the primary candidates, you can watch our recent interviews with all five on Pulse of Providence.

8. The outspoken criticism of Sheldon Whitehouse among others seems to be getting under the skin of the justices on the Supreme Court.

9. TV viewers may have noticed a rare off-year political ad airing in Rhode Island this week — a spot urging Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to #DoublePell, referring to federal Pell Grants for college. The 30-second spot, which name checks Claiborne Pell, doesn’t so much criticize the four Democrats as suggest viewers call them to express support for the idea. “Help these folks give Congress hell — tell them, double Pell!” says the narrator. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island have put over $100,000 behind the spot as Congress continues grappling with the budget reconciliation bill.

10. Speaking of colleges, I’ve always wondered why Brown and other highly selective schools don’t increase their enrollment on basic supply-and-demand grounds. In Brown’s case, the percentage of all applicants admitted has plummeted from 24% in 1987 to less than 9% in 2015. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s wondered: a new paper by Harvard’s Peter Q. Blair and Wharton’s Kent Smetters investigates the question and determines the reason is “prestige” — schools see it as bolstering their reputations if they push their admission rates lower and lower, whereas enrolling more graduates would ding them in the eyes of outlets like U.S. News and World Report.

11. The Rhode Island AFL-CIO held its biennial constitutional convention on Friday night. George Nee, who has led the group since Frank Montanaro Sr. retired in 2009, was re-elected as president, while Patrick Crowley won another tour of duty as secretary-treasurer. Both are four-year terms. While the event was virtual due to the pandemic, the attendees were greeted with video messages from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “I have always admired your ability to get results for working people,” Walsh said in his remarks, highlighting this year’s passage of laws enacting a $15 minimum wage, nursing-home staffing requirements, school bus regulations, and the Act on Climate. Walsh quipped, “Maybe you could come down to Washington this fall and work your magic down here.”

12. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, my colleagues Kayla Fish and Eli Sherman took a look at what the new census data shows about the Latino community in Rhode Island. The state’s Hispanic population grew by 39% between 2010 and 2020, with every city and town seeing an increase. Johnston and North Providence both saw their total number of Hispanic residents more than double, to 3,844 and 4,933, respectively. In raw numbers, the biggest increase was in Providence, with a rise of nearly 16,000. You can see a map with data for each community, as well as Kayla’s interview with Rhode Island Latino Arts executive director Marta Martínez, in this story. Also worth checking out: this interactive data portrait for Hispanic Heritage Month created by the secretary of state’s office.

13. Local politicos, here’s something for your calendar: the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative is holding a New England workshop on Oct. 7 at 1:30 p.m. to discuss the latest in best practices for elected officials, campaign staff and election workers. Jim Langevin and Nellie Gorbea will be among the speakers. The virtual workshop is free and open to all — you can sign up here.

14. David Wallace-Wells on how COVID still discriminates by age, even among the vaccinated.

15. Ted Gioia considers what “My Way” says about the swaggering artistry of Frank Sinatra.

16. If It’s October, it’s time for Kim Kalunian’s annual list of the best Halloween light displays in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts. Here’s the 2021 edition, hot off the presses.

17. Programming Note: There will be no Nesi’s Notes edition next weekend, and for a very good reason — my little sister is getting married! I’ll be back as usual in two weeks.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson. 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 next on Oct. 16.

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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