Nesi’s Notes: April 20

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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.

1. Ever since last year’s dismal RICAS scores were released, Rhode Island leaders have been devoting more energy to examining how the state can close the K-12 gap with Massachusetts. Now top House and Senate Democrats have confirmed they expect to release a consensus legislative package in the coming weeks aimed at reshaping education policy. The rollout will be telling: if leaders in both chambers are standing side by side, it will show whatever they’ve come up with is on the fast track. Among the options being considered: adding the new position of secretary of education, who would have overarching responsibility for the entire system from pre-K through college, a model that’s used in Massachusetts. Outgoing Ed Commissioner Ken Wagner argues that’s the wrong approach, saying Friday: “Although we applaud legislative efforts to codify features of the Massachusetts system, such as a focus on high expectations, curriculum, professional learning, and empowerment, Rhode Island is a small state. It needs better governance, not more bureaucracy.” But lawmakers are frustrated, and there’s precedent for the move: after the 38 Studios debacle they created the commerce secretariat to spearhead a new approach to economic development, and in the 2000s Governor Carcieri created the health and human services secretariat to oversee those agencies. Whatever the final decision is on a secretary position, it’s clear the legislative package — being crafted by the education chairs, Sen. Hanna Gallo and Rep. Joe McNamara, along with Sen. Ryan Pearson and Rep. Gregg Amore — will be broader than that. (One key question: will it be released early enough for robust hearings, unlike the rushed 2012 merger of the education boards?) Away from Smith Hill, meanwhile, the Rhode Island Foundation’s Long-Term Education Planning Committee continues to hold meetings of 23 stakeholders as it conducts its own search for consensus. “The expectation is that the committee will release a 10-year vision, action steps and priorities after its June meeting,” Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg said Friday.

2. The retirement of Postsecondary Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier, whose office may be eliminated in a potential education overhaul, is not the only higher-ed personnel matter to watch. Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez is approaching the end of his three-year contract on July 1 and has not yet signed a renewal. Asked for an update, the commissioner’s office said Sánchez and the Postsecondary Council “are presently negotiating the terms of his renewal/new employment contract. It is anticipated that this negotiation will be completed shortly.”

3. New Attorney General Peter Neronha made major headlines this week when he added a 1,697-case backlog to the pile of 1,300 unprosecuted felony cases that his predecessor Peter Kilmartin disclosed on his way out the door. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Neronha said he decided the fundamental problem was understaffing of the Intake Unit, which reviews the evidence and files charges in Superior Court in felony criminal cases (other than capital crimes like murder and rape, which go to a grand jury). Neronha said he has nearly doubled the unit’s staffing from six people to 13 plus a part-timer. “I have three people working that backlog full-time, and then the rest of them are working on the new cases,” he said. “We’re making a dent in it, we’re keeping up, and I’m confident we’ve got this thing straightened out.” More broadly, Neronha sought to put in context the sheer scale of work done by the AG’s office. “I had a 50-person organization at the U.S. attorney’s office. We charged 100 to 125 cases a year,” he said. “This is a 237-person organization that’s charging 4,000 to 6,000 cases a year. … The volume is overwhelming. So — that’s no excuse — we can get this right, we’re on the path to getting it right. I am confident we will not lose cases due to the statute of limitations unless there’s a legitimate reason.”

4. Quick hits from AG Neronha on Newsmakers … He’s almost done with his review of the 38 Studios case file, going back over the material with the state police and lead prosecutor. “I’m not optimistic in this sense that when that review is completed that there will be much to talk about, let’s put it that way,” he said. He also made a pitch for his bill to let grand juries issue public reports. … The AG urged lawmakers to approve his proposed reclassification of simple drug possession under 1 ounce from a felony to a misdemeanor. “Let’s make sure treatment is available to them, make sure that they get treatment — use the criminal justice system to drive that,” he said. “But you don’t need a felony to do that. A felony is there for people who deal drugs, and ought to go to jail for doing that.” … Neronha said he’s trying to take a new approach to Access to Public Records and Open Meetings Act appeals under Special Assistant AG Kate Sadeck, head of the Open Government Unit, citing recent violation findings against West Warwick and the Wyatt prison’s oversight board.

5. Lots of commentary out there on the Mueller report. Read it for yourself.

6. Few people think Jack Reed is in any political trouble heading into his 2020 re-election campaign, but he’s still stockpiling money to prepare. The senior senator’s first FEC report for the new campaign cycle shows he’s sitting on $1.8 million, with no opponent on the horizon yet. If Reed wins and serves through 2026, he will hit 30 years in the Senate (and 36 in Congress when his three House terms are added). After that? If Reed went on to win a sixth term and stayed through its conclusion in 2032, he’d tie Claiborne Pell as Rhode Island’s longest-serving U.S. senator. Reed would be 83 at that point.

7. The Globe’s Jon Chesto caused a stir Thursday night when he reported that Massachusetts officials are making an effort to convince Hasbro to move its headquarters over the border. The company has remained mum on its plans since my December interview with CEO Brian Goldner, when he said to expect a decision in three to six months. The basic thinking in the Hasbro C-suite doesn’t appear to have changed: the company is inclined to stay in Rhode Island, but won’t rule out other options. As Chesto noted, one factor in Rhode Island’s favor is the close relationship between Goldner and Governor Raimondo, who has made it a priority to keep the company here. A wild card, though: Goldner is being discussed as a possible new CEO of CBS, which opens up the possibility someone else could be leading Hasbro by the time a final HQ decision is made.

8. The Revenue Estimating Conference kicks off Friday, a festival for wonks but a nail-biter for state leaders since they’ll have to write a 2019-20 budget based on its final numbers. As mentioned in this space before, tax revenue for the current 2018-19 year is running below forecast (though a new report this week lowered the shortfall slightly to $27.7 million). One of the challenges: experts now say sports betting “may not bring the windfall that economic forecasters predicted only a few months ago,” per the NYT. And the hits keep on coming: revised data for education aid shows $1.4 million more will be needed next year than the governor included in her proposal back in January.

9. Get ready for delays: RIDOT is doing $716 million of projects this summer.

10. One expert estimates the strike cost Stop & Shop $20 million in the first week.

11. Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard speaks at Brown on Monday.

12. Speaking of Brown, its economics department just got a $25 million boost.

13. A loyal reader passes along some good news: when it comes to natural disasters, Providence is the safest major metropolitan area in the country.

14. Wisconsin’s bet on Foxconn is looking like a cautionary tale.

15. Amy Walter has a must-read on where the 2020 race really stands.

16. Ferris Jabr on the trouble with American dentistry.

17. ¡Vive Notre Dame!

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Attorney General Peter Neronha. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Seaview Transportation Co. President Eric Moffett; R.I. Mushroom Co. CEO Michael Hallock. 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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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