Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 23

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. Debate intensified this week over how Rhode Island should spend its $1.1 billion allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act’s State Fiscal Recovery Fund, with a Rhode Island Foundation panel releasing its long-awaited recommendations and lawmakers hearing testimony on Governor McKee’s plan to spend an initial $113 million. Yet it’s worth zooming out from that discussion to ponder the almost unfathomable amount of federal money entrusted to Rhode Island policymakers over the last year and a half. The House Fiscal Office estimates Congress has provided Rhode Island government with $6.7 billion in pandemic relief funds since March 2020 through six different laws; for perspective, before the pandemic the entire annual state budget was only $10 billion, and just $3.3 billion of that was federal funds. So this is a truly massive influx of cash, and large portions of it remain unspent, even beyond the much-discussed $1.1 billion. That presents a huge opportunity — and major risks. The Rhode Island Foundation report stresses the need to build institutional muscle in and out of government to ensure there is competent management and oversight of the money. “In general, state government — and probably local government as well — is not set up for large changes in spending,” said RIPEC CEO Mike DiBiase, who helped write the report. “And as a small state, a relatively small community, we have limited capacity to deal with these things. That goes from the decision-making to the execution to the actual agencies that do the implementation, including the nonprofits.” A decade from now, will Rhode Islanders look around and see evidence of the far-sighted ways all this money was used? Or will they scratch their heads wondering where it all went?

2. All that federal money costs, well, money. The federal budget deficit totaled $2.8 trillion in 2020-21, equal to 12% of the U.S. economy; prior to the pandemic that level of red ink hadn’t been seen since World War II.

3. Federal money isn’t the only thing to watch these days when it comes to state coffers. State general revenue ran 12% above forecast during the first two months of this fiscal year (July and August), with robust income and sales tax receipts helping to yield an extra $67 million. In addition to that, the surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30 came in $51 million higher than lawmakers had expected — that’s more undesignated money which can be applied toward the next budget. Some of it will need to go toward significant and hard-to-forecast state expenses, like Eleanor Slater Hospital Medicaid backfill or the federal consent decree on services for the developmentally disabled. But having extra money around is a change from pre-pandemic years, and will present its own set of challenges for the governor’s newly appointed OMB director, Brian Daniels, and state budget officer, Joe Codega. A clearer picture of Rhode Island’s state finances should come into focus in the coming weeks, as the twice-a-year Revenue Estimating Conference takes place.

4. Tackling Rhode Island’s housing shortage is a key component of both the Rhode Island Foundation report and the governor’s American Rescue Plan proposal. Steph Machado saw fresh evidence of the problem at this week’s 195 Commission meeting, where consultants reported the vacancy rates at multiple big apartment buildings in Providence are down to between 0% and 2%. This is a national problem, not just a Rhode Island one — a fascinating recent essay in the online magazine Works in Progress argues that expanding housing supply would alleviate a host of other challenges across the world. “Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home,” the authors argue. “They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.” That said, Rhode Island Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg warns against simply plowing the new federal money into existing state programs for affordable housing. “What we’ve done hasn’t worked,” he said this week. “We do 150 to 200 new units of low- to moderate-income housing a year.” Meanwhile, on Thursday the progressive advocacy group Reclaim RI kicked off a “Homes for All” campaign that proposes using state ARPA funds to build new public housing.

5. Two big updates from Steph Machado on the State House tug-of-war over marijuana policy: negotiations between the governor, House and Senate are getting closer to a deal on legalizing for recreational use, and the long-delayed lottery for new medical marijuana dispensaries will finally take place next Friday.

6. House Republican Leader Blake Filippi is seen as a likely candidate for governor next year, with GOP Chair Sue Cienki talking up his prospects to anyone who asks. But if you listen to Filippi himself, the 41-year-old Block Islander still sounds ambivalent. “I don’t know, Tim. I’m not playing a game,” Filippi told Tim White this week. “I’m flattered. We are looking at it. But there’s no imminent decision. I’ll be honest, it’s really hard to decide whether to do this or not. If it doesn’t weigh on someone’s conscience, this decision, they probably aren’t the type of person who should be running.” Asked about timing, Filippi said he expects to make a decision before the end of the year, perhaps by mid- to late November. “But who knows?” he said. “It’s a crazy world. You technically don’t need to put your name in until June of next year.” Filippi could face a primary opponent in former RITBA Chairman Dave Darlington. Where would Darlington fall ideologically in the post-Trump GOP? “I am not a MAGA candidate,” Darlington told The Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick this week. “Some of the former president’s policies regarding business and taxes are worth looking at and supporting. … [But] when the president is talking about grabbing women by their private parts, there’s not any room for that, and I’m not a believer in stolen elections.”

7. Rhode Island seems to have gotten through a whole week without anybody new jumping into the Democratic primary for governor. That keeps the field at six: Dan McKee, Seth Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea, Matt Brown, Helena Foulkes and Luis Daniel Muñoz. Gorbea announced her campaign back in June, so she’s been less in the spotlight over recent weeks. Is she being underestimated? The secretary of state proved she knows how to win as an underdog in 2014 when she defeated Guillaume de Ramel in the primary for her current job. Outspent nearly three-to-one in that race and mostly starved of voter attention with so much else going on, Gorbea maximized free media opportunities, outshining De Ramel in debates. She benefited in part from the hiring of a smart young campaign manager, Rico Vota, who went on to work in the governor’s office for both Gina Raimondo and now McKee. Gorbea has gone for the same type of hire this time, picking as her gubernatorial campaign manager Dana Walton, who previously worked for Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and at the DCCC. (Rhode Island connection: Walton’s first boss in politics, back in her home state of Wyoming, was Eric Hyers, who went on to run successful campaigns for Raimondo and David Cicilline.) Gorbea was the top vote-getter among all Democrats on the primary ballot in her 2018 re-election campaign, edging Magaziner by a little over 1,000 votes as both ran unopposed. So while her campaign team is under no illusions about the challenge she faces, given her experience in 2014, Gorbea has reason to stay in for the long haul.

8. Dan McKee is not yet an official candidate for re-election, remaining above the fray by sticking to his official duties in the governor’s office as long as possible. That’s the benefit of incumbency: you’re a regular presence in the news as a leader rather than just as a candidate. (True, some of that coverage is negative — but you have a bully pulpit to try and change the narrative.) McKee spent Thursday and Friday in Washington, where his office reports he met with congressional leaders and White House officials as well as staffers at the Democratic Governors Association. He was joined on the trip by chief of staff Tony Afonso, policy advisor Cheyenne Cazeault, and two members of his Rhode Island State Police detail. McKee’s office reports the Democratic Governors Association paid for McKee and Afonso, while the cost of travel for Cazeault and the two troopers will be split between taxpayers and the McKee campaign based on the share of their time spent on official versus campaign duties. The governor was scheduled to return to Rhode Island on Friday night.

9. Seth Magaziner won’t be doing a lot of campaigning in the short term — he’s a new father. The treasurer and his wife, Julia McDowell, welcomed a baby boy on Wednesday who they’ve named Max. Mom and son are both reported to be doing well. Prior to the blessed event, Magaziner’s gubernatorial campaign released its first policy proposal since he held his kickoff, an education plan touching on pre-K through higher ed. One of the plan’s notable planks is Magaziner’s support for expanding Rhode Island Promise, the free-tuition program at CCRI created by Gina Raimondo. Magaziner proposes expanding the program to cover two years at URI or RIC, as well as students older than age 26 — both ideas that Raimondo unsuccessfully tried to get through the General Assembly during her time as governor.

10. If you missed it during the week, catch up with my colleague Tolly Taylor’s disturbing report about how more than 1,000 indigent Rhode Islanders wound up buried either under Route 37 or in a mass grave created to clear land for an industrial park.

11. Attleboro is the ninth-largest city in the Providence metropolitan area, with about 46,000 residents and a prime location along both I-95 and the MBTA commuter-rail line. For the last four years its been led by Mayor Paul Heroux, a former Democratic state rep, who ousted predecessor Kevin Dumas in 2017. Heroux is seeking re-election next month to what he says will be a third and final two-year term, and he’s made no secret that he has an eye on seeking higher office in the future. Heroux faces a challenge from political newcomer Todd McGhee, a retired Massachusetts state trooper who’d never voted in a city election until this year. Heroux bested McGhee by a roughly two-to-one margin in the September preliminary round, making him the favorite ahead of Nov. 2. But McGhee is seeking to capitalize on the rising cost of living, questions about Heroux’s leadership style, and a rat infestation problem. The pair debated the issues on this week’s taping of Newsmakers, in their second and final clash before voters go cast their ballots. Next week’s Newsmakers will feature another Massachusetts mayoral joust, this time between Fall River incumbent Paul Coogan and challenger Cliff Ponte. That contest has gotten heated.

12. Longtime readers know my affection for Attleboro’s daily paper, The Sun Chronicle, where I got my start in professional journalism as a college student. Even aside from any loyalty to my old newsroom, though, I was struck as we prepared for the mayoral debate just how vital a local newspaper is to its city. Is The Sun Chronicle perfect? No — nor is any other news outlet. But the paper has an institutional commitment to the impartial gathering and verifying of facts which can inform the public conversation. Community Facebook groups are nice, but they’re simply no replacement for trained journalists acting independently. (If you don’t believe me, read this illuminating and disheartening Atlantic piece about how the decline of the town daily is hurting one Iowa community.) The Sun Chronicle is one of the only local papers that hasn’t been bought by the Gannett/GateHouse chain, and it shows — the paper still has editorials, a lively stable of local columnists, and consistent beat coverage of Attleboro City Hall. That’s a credit to Steven Malkowich, who surprised observers by leading a group which bought the paper in 2018, keeping it out of the hands of Gannett. Malkowich also operates in Rhode Island, where he is part of the team that owns papers like the Pawtucket Times, Woonsocket Call and Westerly Sun.

13. Jack Spillane on how the sausage got made with redistricting in New Bedford.

14. The late Ray Sullivan will be remembered at a Celebration of Life event Friday, Nov. 12, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Roger Williams Park Casino, organized by his friends and family. A short speaking program will start at 4. Guests are asked to RSVP at this link to ensure an accurate headcount.

15. Can you guess the five most-often performed symphonies at Carnegie Hall?

16. Don’t forget Kim Kalunian’s list of Halloween light displays for some fun this weekend.

17. Until a few days ago I’d never read this lovely Robert Frost poem about October.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — a debate between the two candidates for Attleboro mayor, incumbent Paul Heroux and challenger Todd McGhee. 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 next Saturday.

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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