Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 26

Ted Nesi
Nesi Notes saturday coffee iPad

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.

1. When lawmakers voted in June to triple the number of licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island, they wrote golden tickets for whichever lucky companies wind up winning the six licenses. We’re talking about big money: the three existing compassion centers took in an estimated $53 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year, up 40% from a year earlier. And that goes a long way toward explaining why the awarding of those licenses has become a political battle royale. On Tuesday, Governor Raimondo made good on her threat to sue General Assembly leaders for giving themselves what Common Cause says is an unconstitutional “legislative veto” over the new pot regulations; by the time she went to court, Speaker Mattiello had already publicly abandoned the policy. And Thursday night we revealed that Green Reservoir, a new cannabis business with high-level State House connections, has threatened to sue the administration if license applications aren’t accepted immediately. While no complaint had been filed as of Friday night, it sounds like Green Reservoir has good reason to be impatient: one of the company’s investors told me they have already fitted out much of their location in Warwick even before obtaining a license, suggesting a high degree of confidence they would get one of the six. Raimondo, however, says she wants the decision to be random — she is proposing a lottery system that her staff argues would take political influence out of the process. As a cautionary tale, she points to the bribery allegations that got Fall River’s mayor indicted. “The medical marijuana business is a new industry, it’s a growing industry, it’s an opportunity for Rhode Island — it’s an opportunity to create revenue and create jobs,” the governor said Tuesday. “But it’s also an opportunity for corruption. Anytime the state is passing out licenses, this state or any other state, it’s an opportunity for corruption.”

2. Green Reservoir’s sister company, Growth Industries of New England, is paying $9,000 a month for the services of State House lobbyist Mark Ryan. It’s a reminder of how Ryan has quickly emerged as one of Smith Hill’s most influential figures, helped by his close ties to House leadership. Ryan, who was a top Providence Journal executive until his departure in 2009, has rapidly amassed a blue-chip list of clients: Lifespan, National Grid, Twin River, Hasbro, Growth Industries, and The Journal itself (under the auspices of the Rhode Island Daily Newspaper Group). Ryan is on pace to make a cool $313,000 in lobbying fees this year, according to filings with the secretary of state’s office — seven times more than the $43,000 he earned last year, when the only client he listed was Grid.

3. Few issues are higher on the radars of average families but lower on the political agenda than the cost of housing. As Eli Sherman reported Friday, not one but two reports out this week demonstrated just how difficult it is for the typical Rhode Island family to buy or rent a home in 2019. There is not a single Rhode Island community where a house is affordable for a family with a $50,000 income, and only four that are affordable for families making $70,000. Those are among the striking numbers in HousingWorks RI’s annual Housing Fact Book, released Friday. Other numbers that stand out in the 80-page report: residents are spending $733 million more a year on housing than they would if they weren’t cost-burdened, and it now takes a median household income of $176,000 to affordably buy on the East Side, $147,000 in East Greenwich, and $143,000 in Barrington. To put that in perspective, Rhode Island’s median household income is only $61,000.

4. Joe Biden is set to visit Rhode Island on Nov. 25 for a fundraiser at the East Side home of Sally Lapides and Art Solomon, and the former VP may not be the only top-tier presidential contender to make a stop here in the coming weeks. Pete Buttigieg supporters tell me they’re hopeful they can bring in the South Bend mayor or his husband for an event, too.

5. The Senate Finance Committee has now spent 17 hours holding hearings on the Lottery contract, and committee members Ryan Pearson and Lou DiPalma say they’ve gained valuable information from the process. “I think both sides have valid issues,” Pearson said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I think IGT certainly brings employment and they bring stability to the system. I think Twin River has brought some very legitimate concerns around the VLT machines. I think there is a way to get to an end compromise on the issue.” DiPalma said Twin River’s announcement this week that Scientific Games has joined its consortium “made their deal more credible,” making him more open to options other than IGT. At this point, neither one believes there will be a floor vote on the IGT proposal this year. “I don’t believe we’re going back until 2020,” DiPalma said.

6. A dispatch from Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “The newly released RICAS results paint a dreary picture of education in Rhode Island. Beyond the fact that more than two-thirds of all students failed to meet expectations in math, the scores offered stark evidence that Rhode Island students don’t test as well as Massachusetts students, who take the similar MCAS standardized test. Roughly half of Bay State students met expectations in math, and 52% met expectations in English language arts; in Rhode Island, only 30% of students met expectations in math and just 38% met expectations in English. To put the interstate comparison in context, look at a border community. In Burrillville, Rhode Island’s northernmost town, about 17% of students met expectations in math; in its neighbors across the border, Douglas and Uxbridge, the totals were 46% and 48%, respectively. Is that a fair comparison? The three towns are similar in many ways, but Douglas and Uxbridge are slightly more affluent than Burrillville — much like Rhode Island compared to Massachusetts at-large.”

7. Attorney General Neronha’s announcement that no charges will be filed over the Wyatt protest incident involving protestors and a pickup truck does not mean the quasi-public prison will be out of the news anytime soon. Never Again Action, the group that organized the protest, has made clear it plans to push legislation next year which would outlaw the Wyatt and other non-public prisons. Meanwhile, in the past month U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan has scheduled four conferences with lawyers for Wyatt and its bondholders to see if they can settle the lawsuit a financial firm filed in April after Wyatt sought to end its agreement to accept ICE detainees.

8. Mayoral campaign watch … New Bedford incumbent Jon Mitchell’s challenger, Tyson Moultrie (who was put on the ballot after Brian Gomes switched back to running for City Council) got some not-so-positive ink in the Standard-Times … Fall River frontrunner Paul Coogan, the only active candidate on the Nov. 5 ballot after Mayor Correia suspended his campaign, will get a boost from U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and other notables at a roundtable this afternoon … Governor Baker will be in Attleboro today to endorse City Councilor Heather Porreca, three days after she tangled with incumbent Paul Heroux in a heated debate … Taunton mayoral hopeful Estele Borges accused Baker’s administration of slow-walking incumbent Thomas Hoye’s swearing-in as register of probate to boost the GOP’s preferred mayoral candidate, Shaunna O’Connell.

9. Late Roger Williams University President Donald Farish was perhaps best known for enacting a policy that froze tuition for freshmen, an effort to rein in ever-rising college costs and stand out from the higher ed crowd. So it’s noteworthy that his recently named successor, Ioannis Miaoulis, is now discarding the policy. “We froze tuition for a number of years while they kept giving raises to faculty and staff, so the income pretty much stayed the same and the expenses increased,” Miaoulis said on this week’s Newsmakers. “Now we have reversed that, so we’re back on track to be financially sound.” He added, “It’s not sustainable. I think it’s far more important that we deliver quality programs and a great experience with the students than just save a few hundred dollars over the four years.”

10. Is Rhode Island wise to levy an estate tax? Two views, both based on the same new study: the NYT’s Eduardo Porter says yes; Cato’s Chris Edwards says no.

11. Comings and goings … Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase will succeed John Simmons as head of RIPEC, one of the most influential jobs in Rhode Island government that isn’t on the public payroll … Kelly Rogers, a RIPEC alum herself, is leaving Treasurer Magaziner’s office Thursday to join Accenture’s Boston office as a public sector management consultant.

12. How seriously are Rhode Island elections officials taking potential technology risks surrounding next year’s vote? Seriously enough that Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea had 140 people show up Friday to her cybersecurity summit at Salve, where they spent five hours listening to experts about how to ensure an accurate and uncompromised count in 2020. Spokesperson Nick Domings reports the event was so well-attended that they’ll probably need to move it to a larger venue next time.

13. The Rhode Island Foundation’s Chris Barnett passes this along: “Beginning now, nonprofits can apply for up to $25,000 to encourage hard-to-count communities to participate in the Census. The goal is to protect the roughly $3.8 billion a year that Rhode Island receives in federal funding for education, health care, housing and more based on Census data. We plan to award a total of $425,000 in grants for Census outreach. Who’s eligible? Rhode Island-based nonprofit organizations, municipal governments, public agencies like libraries or schools, houses of worship and community-based groups. Grants must focus on a specific demographic community or geographic area in Rhode Island at risk of being undercounted. With Rhode Island’s population barely holding its own compared to most other states, increasing the number of residents who are counted will be crucial. While hard-to-count communities are concentrated in Greater Providence, you can find them everywhere from South County to the East Bay and from Kent County to northern Rhode Island. Here’s a map. The deadline to apply is Nov. 25.”

14. It was 30 years ago this month that the FBI managed to wiretap a Mafia induction ceremony outside Boston, dealing a devastating blow to La Cosa Nostra in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. For our next 12 on 12 digital documentary, Tim White has spent weeks putting together an authoritative look at “The Mafia Tapes” and their significance, featuring The Boston Globe’s Shelley Murphy and an FBI agent involved who’s never told his story before. The program drops Tuesday at 5 p.m. on our website, and you won’t want to miss it — here’s the trailer.

15. Kim Kalunian and I are looking forward to emceeing the Meals on Wheels Festival of Meals gala on Nov. 2 at the Pawtucket Armory. The event, celebrating Meals on Wheels’ 50th anniversary, will feature food from 18 of Rhode Island’s best eateries, from the Capital Grille to Xaco Taco. You can buy tickets here.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Roger Williams University President Ioannis Miaoulis; state Sens. Ryan Pearson and Lou DiPalma discuss the IGT deal. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive SuiteSteve Lewinstein, real estate investor;  Stu Benton, president/CEO, and John Howland, executive chairman, Bradford Soap Works. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). 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) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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