Nesi's Notes on WPRI.com

Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 18

Ted Nesi

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. The governor’s budget never survives first contact with the legislature, and that’s certainly true of the $10.2 billion tax-and-spending plan that Governor Raimondo rolled out Thursday. Senate President Ruggerio is not legalizing recreational marijuana this year, period, so there goes $21 million. And Speaker Mattiello is not willing to tweak the car tax phaseout, period, so another $10 million is needed for that. The governor’s aides argue all this isn’t her problem — she proposed the policies she thinks are best, and if legislative leaders don’t like them, they can come up with their own. The problem for Raimondo is, that’s just what they’ll do — and the first step they’ll consider is paring back her requests to create or expand programs. That’s the risk you take when you submit a budget with major political vulnerabilities. There’s a long way to go between now and the final budget negotiations in June, though, and cards to be played on all sides. Nor is Raimondo dead set on everything – she’s not going to go to the mat for, say, imposing the sales tax on wine. So what will she really fight for in the coming months? Her State of the State was a good guide: the policies in Tuesday’s speech are the ones she’s most invested in. Think education (pre-K and K-12 funding, R.I. Promise), job training (Real Jobs), income supports (minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit) and housing production, as well as her $269 million in proposed bond issuances. At least some of it could get a warm reception. “I like the governor’s priorities — education, job training, pre-K — those are all very, very important priorities, and I share those with the governor,” Mattiello said on this week’s Newsmakers. “Where we part ways a little bit is how you accomplish that.”

2. One of the wonkier measures in the budget, but one close to Governor Raimondo’s heart, is her newest attempt to deal with employers who have large numbers of workers on Medicaid. Last year she offered a proposal, similar to one in Massachusetts, to levy a per-employee penalty on them. “That was not warmly received by the business community,” Raimondo told me Friday. “This is a whole new approach.” Her new idea is to expand RIte Share, a program that dates back to the Almond administration. It allows Medicaid-eligible workers to enroll in their employers’ health plans, but have the state cover their premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Supporters see RIte Share as a win-win: the employees get commercial insurance (which is accepted by more providers than traditional Medicaid), but the state’s costs are lower because the employer is contributing money through the workplace plan. Raimondo’s budget seeks to roughly quadruple participation in RIte Share, from under 4,000 workers now to over 14,000. To get there, she wants for-profit employers with over 50 workers to submit their health insurance plans to the state, then have the state see if they qualify to become part of RIte Share. (The current sign-up process is apparently more haphazard.) The governor says the idea comes from months of discussions with CEOs and HR executives after last year’s proposal failed. “This is a major issue in America right now — this is not a Rhode Island problem,” Raimondo said. “A third of the budget is Medicaid, it’s fast-growing, and we need to find a solution for that because long-term it’s hard to sustain. So you’ve got to come up with a creative solution that doesn’t cause people to lose their health insurance but that saves money, and that’s why I’ve been working so hard on this. If Rhode Island could be a leader in finding a solution, that would be great.”

3. An interesting trend (for policy nerds, anyway) is the declining share of the state budget that comes out of the General Fund. When you remove federal dollars from the budget and just look at the three categories of state-sourced money (General Revenue, Restricted Receipts, Other Funds) you see that only 62% of the money in the 2020-21 budget proposal is General Revenue, down from 72% two decades ago. Restricted Receipts’ share is roughly steady, but Other Funds has climbed from 24% to 33%. That category includes revenue from items like the gas tax, the unemployment insurance tax, tuition at the three public colleges and truck tolls.

4. Governor Raimondo’s new proposal to legalize recreational marijuana is a left turn from last year’s. As my colleague Steph Machado reports, Raimondo is eyeing the creation of state-owned pot shops, à la liquor stores in New Hampshire. And while cannabis coverage often links Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggerio in opposition, that may be a slight misreading of the situation. Ruggerio appears to be dug in against legalization, Mattiello is clearly keeping an open mind in the future. “This is not the year for it,” he said on Newsmakers. “I don’t have a strong opinion on marijuana one way or another. The Senate president set the tone for that — I tend to agree with him. I know that we have workforce issues, I know that we have law enforcement issues, I know that they’re having problems in Massachusetts. All I’ve suggested is, a study is appropriate. … The Senate president’s pretty committed to not doing it. I don’t believe my caucus is enthusiastic about doing that. So that’s the perspective that I come from.” (During the taping Mattiello also defended the two leaders’ controversial medical marijuana legislation, up for a House Judiciary hearing next week.)

5. If you want a full breakdown of what’s in the governor’s budget plan, check out my list of 12 things to know about the proposal here. Also on WPRI.com, Tim White and Eli Sherman have details on an immediate backlash against the governor’s proposals for the Veterans Home (whose director resigned Friday), and Steph Machado has mayors speaking out against cuts in local aid.

6. Across the border, Massachusetts is facing a $900 million budget gap.

7. On its face, auditing a quasi-public agency to make sure it’s being well-run sounds uncontroversial. What raises eyebrows is when Speaker Mattiello’s team orders an audit of the Convention Center just as one of his friends, James Demers, is embroiled in a personnel investigation there. (Demers and another executive are now on administrative leave.) On Newsmakers, Mattiello acknowledged he spoke to one unidentified individual affiliated with the Convention Center about Demers’ situation, but argued the decision to call for an audit came from a mix of new information and his reflections on former GOP Leader Patricia Morgan’s longstanding criticisms of the agency. But did he have the authority to do so? The letter announcing the audit says it was ordered by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS), the General Assembly’s administrative arm. Problem is, a majority of the committee — Dominick Ruggerio, Blake Filippi and Dennis Algiere — tell us they weren’t consulted. That might seem unremarkable, since JCLS’s powers are generally exercised by the speaker (as chairman) and his inner circle. But the statute empowering the auditor general to conduct performance audits explicitly says it must be requested by “a majority” of JCLS members. So how does Mattiello square that? “We always operate through the chairman, like every board across the country,” he said on Newsmakers, adding, “The majority is the commission. … When you say ‘majority of JCLS,’ that means JCLS. Every decision is a majority decision.” That won’t satisfy Filippi, who told Tim White, “I think if the auditor general goes into state departments to perform an audit, there should be an affirmative vote.” Added Common Cause’s John Marion, “It appears that this audit wasn’t properly authorized under the law.”

8. Don’t miss Brian Amaral’s look at Senator Ciccone’s side hustle as a gun dealer.

9. Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became the face of gun control advocacy after she survived an assassination attempt in 2011, will be in Rhode Island on Jan. 30 to headline a fundraiser on behalf of the newly created Campaign for Gun Violence Prevention RI. (The group is seeking to replicate last year’s successful use of a single-issue coalition to help pass the new abortion law; it’s even led by the same organizer, Erich Haslehurst.) The fundraiser’s 10-member host committee boasts all nine of Rhode Island’s federal and statewide officials — Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline, Jim Langevin, Gina Raimondo, Dan McKee, Seth Magaziner, Peter Neronha and Nellie Gorbea — along with Providence City Councilor Helen Anthony.

10. The Democratic Governors Association announced Friday it raised a record $43.5 million during Gina Raimondo’s 2019 stint as chair, about 44% more than it raised during the comparable election cycle four years earlier. “This year’s record-breaking fundraising under Governor Raimondo’s leadership put the DGA in a great position to build on this momentum in 2020 under Governor Phil Murphy,” DGA executive director Noam Lee said in a news release. Asked for her reaction Friday, Raimondo said, “The money enabled us to win in Kentucky and Louisiana, and my view is that Democratic governors are more important than ever in the age of President Trump because we can do things and stop bad things from happening. So I feel really great about it, and I was happy to play a role.” (The Republican Governors Association has not yet announced how much it raised in 2019, but it was already at $30 million halfway through the year.)

11. The Cranston mayoral race has officially begun, with Republican City Council President Mike Farina kicking off his campaign at Twin Oaks on Tuesday night. (Tough timing, with the attention of Rhode Island’s political class on the State of the State at the same time.) Rhode Island’s second-largest city is picking a new mayor for the first time in over a decade, as term limits end Allan Fung’s tenure after 12 years. Farina’s entry was well telegraphed, as is the candidacy of former Democratic City Councilor Maria Bucci, who is drawing buzz for her early fundraising prowess. Others to keep an eye on include Democrats Steve Stycos and Charlene Lima, and Republicans Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung and Chris Paplauskas.

12. The special election to replace Providence City Councilor Seth Yurdin will be April 7, with a potentially decisive Democratic primary March 3.

13. Bill Fazioli makes a bullish case for the future of East Providence.

14. And then there were two. Labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan’s decision to end her campaign Friday means Massachusetts’ Democratic primary for U.S. Senate is now a two-man race between incumbent Ed Markey and challenger Joe Kennedy III, making it a binary choice for voters. That means, among other things, there will only be two people fighting for time in next month’s initial televised debate rather than three. The news came days after Kennedy’s campaign trumpeted endorsements from 18 House Democrats, some of whom served with Markey — including David Cicilline. That leaves Jim Langevin as the only member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation who hasn’t taken a side, since the two senators are sticking with Markey. “Congressman Langevin respects the work and leadership of them both,” spokesperson Victor Morente told me. “He is not making an endorsement at this time.”

15. Not something you see every day: a divide between the two halves of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin both voted in favor of the USMCA trade agreement — President Trump’s revised version of NAFTA, supported by various labor unions — when it came up for a vote in the House last month. But Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed both voted against USMCA in the Senate this week, a notably minority position considering it passed on a bipartisan vote of 89-10. Whitehouse singled out its lack of detail on climate change, something Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer also highlighted. Massachusetts’ two senators split on the measure, with Elizabeth Warren favoring it but Ed Markey opposed. (Joe Kennedy opposed it in the House, too.)

16. Senator Whitehouse’s Save Our Seas 2.0 Act cleared the Senate this week, praised by The Washington Post as “far-reaching legislation that targets the global challenge of marine debris.”

17. Twin River Worldwide Holdings just extended CEO George Papainer’s employment contract through the end of 2021, a vote of confidence in the longtime executive, who’s been with the company since 2004. The moves follows last month’s news that Twin River Executive Chairman John Taylor had stepped down.

18. Helen Lewis argues Twitter “is distorting our sense of mainstream opinion.”

19. The 10 most checked-out books ever at the New York Public Library.

20. Amanda Darrach on the legacy of “Life” magazine.

21. Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of legendary Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun, who served two turbulent terms from 1991 to 1995. I asked former Sundlun aide David Preston for his thoughts on his mentor’s centennial. Here’s what he sent:

Bruce Sundlun was the product of exceptional native ability and the 20th Century American experiences that shaped him. All of this prepared him to lead Rhode Island at a challenging time in our history. His intelligence, sharpened by his experience in the law, quite often made him – literally – the smartest person in the room. His military service, the law and his business success made him an extraordinary judge of human nature, and a leader who created a culture of deep loyalty and achievement. This, in turn, positioned him to make bold decisions – including many unpopular ones.

Sundlun’s athleticism made him competitive – with high expectations of himself and those around him. (He had hoped to compete in the 1944 Olympics which was cancelled due to the war). His demanding father, his Jewish heritage and the war made him tough and resilient. Later, he would say that the war, and the Boy Scouts, gave him “a serious case of red-white-and-blue fever” and an appreciation that we’re all in this together. He understood that as Americans, we owe each other our best, which can sometimes require sacrifices, big and small.

Sundlun’s childhood hero Franklin Roosevelt taught him to be daring, to be clearheaded in a crisis and to see it as an opportunity. At the same time, he learned compassion from FDR – that we are all our brother’s keeper, and that he, wealthy and blessed, had an obligation to the struggling and less fortunate. Roosevelt, and his friend President Kennedy, both taught Sundlun that with the right leadership, government can be a powerful force for good. Sundlun shared these values with his colleagues and lifelong friends John Chafee and Claiborne Pell.

Those who had the honor to serve with him, and those who knew him, continue to be inspired by his big, ambitious, determined, caring vision of what is possible for the state and the nation he loved – and what is required from each of us to achieve it.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSpeaker Mattiello. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend 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 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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