1. Gina Raimondo’s legacy as Rhode Island governor took a major hit Wednesday when U.S. District Judge William Smith ruled that her signature truck-tolling program was unconstitutional. Raimondo’s advisers had championed truck tolls as a crafty solution to the state’s perennial transportation funding shortfalls — slap a levy on tractor-trailers, mostly from out of state, while leaving the average driver unaffected. But Smith says they were too clever by half. Governor McKee, who like most Democratic officeholders supported the tolls in 2016, now has 30 days to decide whether to pursue a potentially costly appeal, as Speaker Shekarchi and others want him to do. After spending $69 million to build out the truck tolls, and over $8 million defending them in court, it’s not surprising state leaders would hesitate to abandon the program. Yet Rhode Island’s transportation funding situation has changed markedly since Raimondo first proposed tolling in May 2015. First off, while her original plan called for a $900 million bond backed by toll revenue, the final law included no toll-backed bonds. More importantly, Congress has showered Rhode Island with federal transportation dollars in the years since, through bills such as last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. Jack Reed also continues to use his prized Appropriations Committee seat to steer more federal funding back to Rhode Island, like the just-announced $82.5 million to rehab the Newport Pell Bridge. Bottom line: federal money is covering 57% of RIDOT’s $797 million budget this fiscal year, while toll revenue is covering less than 4%. So are the truck tolls really necessary? Supporters say yes: they argue that with gas tax revenue in potentially permanent decline, and state matching funds required to secure all that federal money, toll revenue is still a crucial piece of the transportation funding puzzle. But opponents say it’s time for state leaders to move on from the truck tolling experiment.
2. Not that a lack of state revenue looks like it’s going to be a concern anytime soon. The final budget surplus for the 2021-22 fiscal year just came in $206 million higher than lawmakers had expected when they put together the current state budget. And surprisingly robust tax collections in July led RIPEC’s Mike DiBiase to observe, “While only one month, if this trend holds there could be as much as $200 million in extra revenues for the current year.” Here’s the advice DiBiase gives in a new RIPEC report on Rhode Island’s financial outlook: “Despite recent strong revenues and excess funds, now is the time for the governor and General Assembly to develop sustainable long-term plans for our largest areas of spending — health and human services and K-12 education — and commit greater resources to the oversight and execution of the dozens of new projects and programs funded in the FY 2023 budget.”
3. While much of Judge Smith’s 91-page decision in the truck tolls case involves a rather technical analysis of interstate commerce, he clearly had a little fun writing the introduction. Here’s an excerpt: “In the early 1980s, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal that described the State of Rhode Island as ‘little more than a smudge on the fast lane to Cape Cod.’ … The remark struck a nerve: Rhode Islanders have always been a little sensitive that their state’s diminutive size garners it less respect than it deserves for its history, culture, beautiful beaches, and diversity. That lack of respect is exacerbated by the fact that the busiest highway in the United States – the I-95 North/South corridor – effectively bisects the state. More than 250,000 cars and trucks speed through the state on I-95 every day, many never stopping to appreciate the charms of the Ocean State. While governors and business owners and tourism officials have grumbled for decades about this reality, in 2015 then-governor Gina Raimondo and her compatriots in the General Assembly figured out a way finally to monetize the ‘fast lane to Cape Cod’ – by tolling the bridges along the major interstate and state highway corridors that connect ‘little Rhody’ to its larger neighbors and states beyond.”
4. Mark your calendars: WPRI 12 has set our debate schedule for this fall. Tim White and I will kick things off on Oct. 11, when the gubernatorial candidates will debate at 7 p.m., followed a week later on Oct. 18 by the 2nd Congressional District candidates, also at 7 p.m. The candidates for Bristol County sheriff will square off on Newsmakers on Oct. 28, and then the candidates for general treasurer will close things out on the Nov. 4 taping of Newsmakers. Tune in!
5. The first poll has been released in the race for governor, and it shows a big lead for Democratic incumbent Dan McKee over GOP challenger Ashley Kalus. The online Echelon Insights survey of 373 voters found McKee at 51% and Kalus at 28%, with 21% of voters undecided. (Thanks to an eagle-eyed Nesi’s Notes reader who spotted the poll, which was commissioned by NetChoice, a tech trade group.) Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Kalus argued she is being underestimated, saying, “Helena Foulkes showed that Dan McKee is deeply unpopular. We can win. We know that we can win. We are showing a lot of progress, and it is getting very, very close.” Kalus continues to hammer McKee on a range of issues, from proposed pay raises for his cabinet and the FBI’s ILO investigation to the newly approved hike in energy rates. But McKee’s team remains skeptical that Kalus can take off, considering she just arrived in the state last year. They also think basic partisanship will assert itself in a state that went for Joe Biden by double-digits, happily pointing out her refusal to say if she voted for Donald Trump and her admiration of Ron DeSantis.
6. From the desk of Steve Frias, local historian and RNC member, comes this striking statistic: Dan McKee won last week’s primary with the lowest share of the vote received by a winning candidate for statewide or federal office since Rhode Island’s current primary system was established in 1948. McKee’s 33% support beat the previous record-holder, David Carlin, who back in 1992 won the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District with just 35% of the vote. Frias also reports that McKee is one of only six candidates who have ever won a major Rhode Island primary with under 40% of the vote. Only two of those six went on to win the November election: David Cicilline and Peter Kilmartin, both in 2010. Pop quiz: can you name the three sub-40% nominees who lost? Answer at the end of the column.
7. For the true political junkies — check out these precinct-by-precinct Providence primary maps created by Steph Machado and Eli Sherman, showing who won where in the gubernatorial and mayoral races.
8. The 2nd Congressional District race is giving Rhode Island TV viewers a taste of what it’s like to live in a swing state. On Friday morning, a top Democratic super PAC released a TV ad attacking Allan Fung on abortion, with $280,000 in advertising time purchased for it through Oct. 3; almost simultaneously, a top Republican super PAC released its second TV ad criticizing Seth Magaziner over his family wealth, continuing a $1 million campaign. The two candidates are also airing their own spots, including a new Magaziner ad touting his support for a ban on congressional stock trading and support for term limits. Off screen, the pair spent much of the week touting who supports them. Magaziner kicked off the week formally accepting the support of the congressional delegation and his defeated primary rivals. (Sheldon Whitehouse: “People say Allan Fung is a good guy? Great – send him a Christmas card. But don’t send him to Congress.”) Fung countered a day later with an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bestowed by Democratic Warwick City Councilor Steve McAllister, who works for the group. The next day Magaziner showed off his backing from various disaffected ex-Republicans, including Bobby Nardolillo and Claudine Schneider. The truck toll decision then gave the two a chance to show their differences, with Fung lauding the ruling while Magaziner urged an appeal. Fung also used the exchange over tolls to take a swipe at Magaziner’s father, Ira Magaziner, for riding on Jeffrey Epstein’s plane.
9. Top House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are making no secret of their frustration with caucus members like Jim Langevin who aren’t ponying up to help the DCCC, the party’s campaign arm. Recapping a meeting Tuesday of House Democrats, Punchbowl’s Heather Caygle reported: “Pelosi says it’s ‘mystifying’ that so many people have money just sitting in their account. And Hoyer also hitting them hard, saying people don’t need to be sitting on cash just to run for Senate or something else — they’re much better doing that in majority.” The Rhode Island delegation is a study in contrasts: David Cicilline had paid 96% of his DCCC dues as of June 30; Langevin had only paid 29% and wouldn’t commit to reaching even 50%, despite having over $700,000 on hand and his own seat in jeopardy. Pressed by The Globe’s Brian Amaral and me about whether he will pay his full dues, Langevin said, “I’m determining that right now, how close we’ll get. I can’t raise funds anymore — I’m not campaigning — so my fundraising has stopped, unlike other candidates that are running. But I’m going to do my part and make sure that this seat stays blue.” Langevin’s comments drew this retort from a DCCC official: “Dues help ensure we are able to fund our candidates and programs to protect our House majority across the country. We hope and expect all of our members would support that effort.”
10. The Brown Daily Herald’s Will Kubzansky looks at why Brown quit polling Rhode Islanders.
11. The White House put its bully pulpit into service on behalf of Sheldon Whitehouse this week, sending President Biden out to give remarks urging the Senate to approve Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act, which would create stricter regulations for campaign spending in response to the Citizens United decision. As before, Senate Republicans filibustered the bill to prevent it from getting a vote. “So why is a campaign finance disclosure bill getting precious floor time before the Nov. 8 election while other legislative proposals — antitrust, Electoral Count Act reform and same-sex marriage protections — wait their turn?” asked the authors of a HuffPost article. “The answer is rather simple: It’s good politics.”
13. Rhode Island’s wealthy Chace family is battling over control of an eight-figure trust.
14. Our Alexandria Leslie looks at the stalled plans to redevelop the old Newport Grand site.
15. Great news if you grew up on Vince Guaraldi: not only did they finally find the original “Great Pumpkin” session tapes, but now they’re planning to release a four-CD version of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” full of outtakes.
16. Answer to the pop quiz in item 6: the three candidates who won statewide or federal primaries with under 40% but went on to lose the general election were U.S. Senate nominee Richard Lorber in 1976, congressional nominee David Carlin in 1992, and gubernatorial nominee Myrth York in 2002.
17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Republican candidates Ashley Kalus, Aaron Guckian and Pat Cortellessa. 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 (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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 and Facebook