Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 19

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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. Governor Raimondo doesn’t hesitate when you ask which of her budget proposals she’ll go to the mat for come June: “Job training. Pre-K. Promise expansion,” she said on this week’s Newsmakers. The second-term Democrat says all three proposals are aimed at bolstering the skills of Rhode Islanders. “The most important thing we can do is invest in job training and education, starting at the littlest grades,” she said. Few members of the heavily Democratic Assembly will disagree with that. But with the state budget now closing in on $10 billion, and Raimondo offering unpalatable options to tackle the deficit like revenue hikes and “scoops,” she has her work cut out for her. House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney gave the plan a cold reception, saying he saw “a lot of new fees and taxes.” His Senate counterpart Bill Conley was more receptive, but warned, “Even as we think boldly … we also must be cognizant of the short-term revenue fixes and long-term structural deficit. There will come a time when the economy is not firing on all cylinders, and we need to ensure Rhode Island is positioned for resiliency.” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell was more direct: “Isn’t it sad? We are near full employment, and Raimondo can’t put together a budget without millions in new taxes, fees and gimmicks, and a reduction in promised [car] tax relief.” The question raised by all three: if Rhode Island can’t close its structural budget gap at 3.9% unemployment, what’s the fiscal picture going to look like when the next economic downturn hits? Raimondo insists she’s budgeting with that in mind. “You have to make those investments if you’re not going to be the first in and last out of a recession,” she said. “I’ll tell you this: states that have invested in infrastructure do much better in recessions. The bottom didn’t fall out of Massachusetts in the last recession for two reasons: one, they kept rebuilding schools and roads and bridges, and two, they had a highly skilled workforce, and so they bounced back. The investments we’re making in rebuilding roads, bridges and schools, and in training our workforce, are going to help us get through that recession.” Still, she acknowledged that when a recession finally happens, “that’ll be a tougher budget. No doubt about it.”

2. WPRI.com is stocked with budget coverage to get you up to speed. First off, don’t miss my breakdown of 12 things you should know about the budget. … Dan McGowan tackles the budget’s education policies and potential effect on Providence. … Steph Machado covers recreational marijuana legalization, medical marijuana changes and legislative reaction. … Tim White tackles an attempt to reform sheriffs’ injury-on-duty pay. … Kim Kalunian flags a possible increase in beach fees. … Susan Campbell summarizes the proposals on health insurance. … And if you missed the State of the State address Tuesday, here’s a recap and here’s the speech.

3. Education Commissioner Ken Wagner has been seen as on the way out, and a report by Ian Donnis that an announcement is coming within weeks brought the speculation to the forefront. Asked on Newsmakers about Wagner’s future, Governor Raimondo said, “He has said to me it might be time for him to leave, and so we’re working through that.” She also defended her approach to education policy in the face of heavy criticism from the Providence Journal editorial page.

4. Timely: Politico Magazine’s Benjamin Wermund takes a look at why a red state — Tennessee — was the first to embrace free tuition at community colleges.

5. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Providence mayors have been trying to find ways to generate more revenue from the city’s hospitals and colleges for decades, so you’d think Governor Raimondo’s proposal to allow municipalities to tax non-mission-essential properties – like vacant land – owned by the nonprofits would be welcome news to Mayor Elorza. But city officials say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach, in part because the governor also wants to cut funding from the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for cities and towns by $5 million. Predictably, the nonprofits aren’t thrilled. Lifespan spokesperson David Levesque issued a statement Friday estimating a real estate tax would cost the organization nearly $2 million a year and ‘would further hamper a hospital industry facing ever-growing fiscal challenges, including insufficient public and private payer reimbursement, skyrocketing operating costs – from pharmaceuticals to wages – and increased competition from out-of-state health systems.’ Similarly, Dan Egan from the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities questioned whether such a tax would be legal. For his part, Elorza has been asking lawmakers to allow a non-mission-essential property tax ever since he took office, but he hasn’t expended a lot of political capital on it. In recent months, he’s actually talked more about expanding partnerships with the city’s key nonprofits than about needing more cash from them.”

6. The drowning death of Warwick nine-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb, and subsequent revelations about the squalid conditions she lived in with seven other special-needs children, have once again raised questions about how the Department of Children, Youth and Families is being run. On NewsmakersGovernor Raimondo called Rothgeb’s death “a horrible, horrible tragic case” and said the circumstances are still being investigated. The story has focused attention on the state’s funding of DCYF. It rose from $158 million in 2014-15 to $174 million in 2017-18, and the legislature authorized $162 million for the current fiscal year; Raimondo is now requesting $174 million for this year and $167 million for 2019-20. She said the annual variance is based on caseload size and argued, “Kids are safer in state care today than they were when I began. In 2018 we had zero child fatalities on account of maltreatment. That’s the way it ought to be: zero. I’m confident kids are safer. They’re in more home-based settings.”

7. The Reproductive Health Care Act, the high-profile abortion-rights bill sponsored annually by Rep. Edie Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, arrived this year with a majority of representatives and near-majority of senators as co-sponsors. This time around it was accompanied by a new, competing abortion bill sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams and backed by other supporters of Speaker Mattiello, causing speculation that pro-life House leadership could be seeking an alternative path to allowing an abortion vote. (Mattiello had no substantive comment on Williams’ bill.) Planned Parenthood’s local affiliate is opposing the Williams bill, arguing it “would not adequately protect Rhode Islanders’ right to safe, legal abortion.” Meanwhile, pro-life advocates traveled to Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life, and they plan to rally at the State House next week.

8. Most coverage of David Cicilline since Democrats took the House majority has focused on his new role chairing the party’s policy and communications arm. Potentially as interesting, though, is his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee panel that oversees antitrust regulation. While monopoly policy is not exactly the sexiest topic, Cicilline’s views are attracting growing attention as Democrats think harder about how a small number of companies (and cities) dominate certain industries. The congressman talked to Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera — a Providence native, as it happens — about the issue this week.

9. The federal shutdown is nearing a second month. While Rhode Island has not been as significantly affected as other states, food stamps are being paid early, and Kim Kalunian reports 58 of the 2,000 federal workers affected in Rhode Island have applied for jobless benefits. (Unfortunately for some of those 2,000 workers, state law bars jobless benefits for individuals who are working but not getting paid, so federal employees called back to their posts without pay are ineligible for unemployment.) The Senate is seeking to take a lead role on the shutdown next week: the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation proposed by Newport Democrat Dawn Euer to assist affected workers, and Senate Finance is planning a hearing later in the week to examine overall impacts.

10. As Rhode Island debates education reform, don’t miss this sobering Globe piece looking at how Boston high-school valedictorians fared after graduating.

11. Big scoop from Tim White on Friday: notorious serial killer Craig Price pleaded guilty to attempted murder in Florida, ensuring the 45-year-old will remain locked up for at least another 21 years rather than go free later this year. “I can’t thank the prosecutors down in Florida enough,” veteran Rhode Island Assistant AG J. Patrick Youngs told Tim. “They recognized how serious Craig Price was, period, to society, but also how important and significant the case was to us here in Rhode Island.”

12. Haven’t gotten a chance to listen to it, but multiple readers recommend this episode of the podcast 99% Invisible about the secret apartment in the Providence Place mall.

13. Peter Steinfels offers a critical take on the Catholic abuse grand-jury report

14. Kea Wilson on independent bookstores as economic-development engine.

15. Could the Facebook “10-year challenge” have an unexpected downside?

16. Must-read: Tommy Tomlinson on his lifelong struggle with his weight.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersGovernor Raimondo. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Hasbro Chairman and CEO Brian Goldner. 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). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio 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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