Nesi’s Notes: March 25

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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. No one at the State House was surprised when Dominick Ruggerio emerged as the obvious successor to Teresa Paiva Weed once news of her departure broke. While a few years ago it was uncertain whether Ruggerio would eventually seek the top spot, more recently the 68-year-old had made clear he wanted the job as a capstone to his nearly four-decade Assembly career. Former GOP Sen. John Pagliarini said he understood why Ruggerio quickly locked up near-unanimous support, despite his controversial past. “A gentleman. A class act,” was how Pagliarini described the new Senate leader on this week’s Newsmakers. “I took a liking to Dominick because he was very accessible.” The real fight, to the extent there was one, came over who would be Ruggerio’s majority leader. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dan DaPonte made an aborted bid for the No. 2 slot, and might have gotten some traction if Ruggerio hadn’t weighed in on behalf of Michael McCaffrey – though it’s also likely DaPonte wouldn’t have made the effort if he’d known Ruggerio’s wishes at the outset. Leadership scrambles always leave some bruises, and this one was no exception – the process lasted less than 72 hours, and left some senators frustrated they weren’t given much choice. But Ruggerio certainly appears to be starting out in a strong position when it comes to command of the chamber.

2. The next question – will Dan DaPonte remain as Senate Finance chairman? Senator Ruggerio wouldn’t commit to that when I asked him about it – in front of DaPonte – on Thursday. As for the Senate Judiciary chairmanship left open by Michael McCaffrey’s ascension, the State House chatter puts another Warwick Democrat, Erin Lynch Prata, in prime position to take over there. And it would be a shock if Ruggerio picks anyone but his hardworking aide-de-camp, Stephen Iannazzi, as chief of staff.

3. Senator Ruggerio isn’t a policy wonk. Don’t take my word for it – take his. “Am I a policy person? No,” he told reporters Thursday. “I was more or less a facilitator here as the majority leader. There was no one better than Teresa on policy, so I often left that to her and she would bounce ideas off me as far as what she was doing.” That may be so, but his policy preferences will still matter a great deal going forward. In his first reporter scrum after being elected, Ruggerio expressed mixed feelings about repealing the car tax – he said he wants to see Speaker Mattiello’s plan and isn’t sure the state can afford its expected $221 million price tag, but also noted voters in his Providence-North Providence district face high car tax bills. He said he’s “supportive” of the free tuition plan Governor Raimondo is pushing, but remains concerned about the cost there, too. (Senator Paiva Weed, by comparison, had given it her full-throated backing.) And in a live interview with me on Wednesday’s 6:00 news, Ruggerio indicated his hopes for spurring development in Newport, East Providence and Providence. On the other hand, he acknowledges he isn’t an expert on social services, which was one of Paiva Weed’s prime concerns; that section of the budget may face more pressure than ever in the coming months.

4. Unfortunately for Senator Ruggerio, he’s inheriting a less-than-auspicious budget situation. Through February, state revenue for the 2016-17 fiscal year (which ends June 30) was running $27 million below forecast, or 1.3%. The picture could be even worse come May, if it turns out UHIP caused an underestimate for how many people are enrolled in social services. For the first time in a while, then, lawmakers may actually have less money to work with when finishing the budget in June than the governor had when she made her opening bid in January. That would make the legislative horsetrading much more difficult.

5. It wasn’t all bad news for the state budget on Friday, though. Attorney General Kilmartin confirmed late in the day his office has reached a settlement with the tobacco companies related to their 1998 deal with the states. It’s a complex affair, but the bottom line is $10 million more for the state’s coffers before the end of this fiscal year June 30.

6. One reason Teresa Paiva Weed managed to last eight years as Senate leader was her ability to manage tensions inside the Democratic caucus, so that their disagreements were usually ironed out behind closed doors (for better or worse). Senator Ruggerio suggested he’ll follow that model. Pressed on his policy positions Thursday, he said: “I’m not guaranteeing anything until I talk to the members of my chamber. I usually bounce a lot of things off them.” He also said, “I don’t make decisions in a vacuum. I’m not making any decisions without sitting down with my leadership team, and the chairs of the committees.”

7. So who’ll run for Teresa Paiva Weed’s seat? Two Democrats have already jumped in – attorney Dawn Euer and Newport City Councilor John Florez; others could follow. Republican Michael Smith, who received 45% against Paiva Weed in 2014 (and 44% against Rep. Lauren Carson in 2016, as an independent), tells me he’s considering a run. “I have a meeting with advisers and supporters this week and look to come to a decision by next week,” Smith said. Another potential GOP candidate is Rebecca Schiff, who gave Rep. Deb Ruggiero a scare last November; on Thursday night, though, Schiff told me she had “not really given it much thought.”

8. What will Teresa Paiva Weed’s influential policy chief, Marie Ganim, do next?

9. On the other side of the State House, meanwhile, efforts continue to bring about a détente between Speaker Mattiello and Governor Raimondo. On Monday the pair were spotted having lunch together at the Old Canteen on Federal Hill, according to Tim White’s spies. Aides report they enjoyed a friendly meal, with no plates thrown.

10. Congratulations to Ian Prior, named the No. 2 communications official in the U.S. Department of Justice this week. Prior, a lawyer and Rocky Hill alum, got his political start managing Brendan Doherty’s 2012 campaign for Congress.

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11. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “If you think there’s tension between Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello, you should take a trip to Providence City Hall sometime next week. The relationship between Mayor Elorza’s office and City Council leadership has soured to the point where even ribbon-cuttings aren’t going smoothly – and budget season hasn’t even begun yet. It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where things went off the rails. The current staffers on the second and third floors City Hall have never been as close as the teams around Angel Taveras and Michael Solomon were a few years ago, but the last six months have been especially hostile. It started with the council’s decision to kill the mayor’s proposed infrastructure bond and continued through a sloppy process getting the firefighters’ contract approved. More recently, the mayor’s decision to publicly call out the council – he also sent private emails to some – over scheduling the Kevin Jackson recall was received well by the public, but Council President Luis Aponte’s allies saw it as an attempt to score political points at their expense. Things took another turn Thursday when the mayor’s pick to run the city’s licensing department was soundly rejected by the council Finance Committee, whose members made clear they didn’t think a person in her late 20s was qualified for a job held by only two people – Richard Aitchison and Serena Conley – since 1989. Nothing in politics is permanent, so it’s premature to suggest things will be at a standstill for the next two years. But with the city’s clout already diminished at the State House, any City Hall infighting just makes it more difficult to get things done.”

12. Care New England’s board met Thursday and was expected to discuss the future of both Memorial Hospital and CNE itself. So far, there have been no post-meeting announcements from Rhode Island’s No. 2 hospital group. “While the important work of the Care New England Board continues with regards to both Memorial Hospital and the broader system partnership opportunities, there are no new developments to report after this evening’s meeting,” spokesman Jim Beardsworth told me Thursday night. “We will continue to keep you updated as warranted.” (That’s a reminder, too, of the challenging situation Teresa Paiva Weed will find when she officially becomes Hospital Association president on May 1.)

13. The 2018 election is more than a year and a half away, but you’d think it was a lot closer if you were following the ad wars this week. First State Solutions Inc., a nonprofit reportedly affiliated with the Republican Governors Association, posted a Twitter video attacking Governor Raimondo over her record on jobs, echoing the RGA’s recently announced campaign against Democratic governors nationwide. Then America Works USA, a nonprofit reportedly created by the Democratic Governors Association, released a TV ad praising Raimondo’s tuition proposal; Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz confirmed the group “shared the ad with some members of the [governor’s] team” in advance. America Works is spending about $12,000 through Monday to air the ad on Rhode Island’s four major local network affiliates, and it’s also been seen on cable.

14. It’s not just the gubernatorial race, either – the 2018 contest for U.S. Senate is taking shape, too. Scott MacKay reports Senator Whitehouse has hired Joe Caiazzo, who worked for Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island last year, to start building his campaign team. And Kathy Gregg reports the Democratic incumbent’s GOP challenger, Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, has circled May 15 for his official campaign kickoff. Former GOP Chairman Mark Zaccaria has already posted some YouTube videos of Nardolillo previewing his bid.

15. Like possible GOP gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung, Rep. Nardolillo was keeping his distance from the GOP health care bill before it collapsed Friday. Asked whether he supported the legislation, Nardolillo said in an email: “We need change. I’m glad we all agree on preexisting conditions and raising the age limit to 26. However, we must find cost efficiencies in order for the system to survive. Where are Sheldon Whitehouse’s ideas to save the system and save money? Saying No is just not an answer. Rhode Island has been waiting for over 10 years for the senator to have his own original idea. I guess we can wait til his term is over.” Separately, Fung’s spokesman reached out after last week’s column to say he also supports the same two parts of the bill mentioned by Nardolillo (the preexisting conditions rule and the age 26 rule).

16. The pension beat is set to heat up again in Rhode Island this spring. Treasurer Magaziner will likely lower the projected rate of return on the state pension fund from its current 7.5%, which will increase the retirement tab for taxpayers. (The state’s actuary previewed the rationale in this recent presentation.) A few other recent reads on pensions. … Boston’s Pioneer Institute argued independent local public pension systems in Massachusetts should join the state system to improve returns. (Tim White and I examined the same issue in Rhode Island back in 2013.) … Former Magaziner aide Tom Sgouros got national ink for a provocative paper on pension accounting (and traded rebukes with John Arnold). … And in his annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett unloaded on elected officials who put pension assets into hedge funds and other high-fee investments. “Much of the financial damage befell pension funds for public employees,” Buffett argued.

17. Great editorial for Governor Raimondo – in Chicago.

18. Coventry Sen. Leo Raptakis had a front-row seat for Friday’s Obamacare vote drama in Washington. The veteran Democrat was invited to the White House to attend Friday’s celebration of Greek Independence Day. “I love the Greeks,” President Trump told the attendees. “Oh, do I love the Greeks. Don’t forget, I come from New York. That’s all I see, is Greeks. They are all over the place.”

19. Head over to Roger Williams University’s Providence campus on Wednesday evening for a 7 p.m. panel discussion, “The Press & The President,” moderated by Ed Fitzpatrick. The panelists will be Omar Bah, Paola Prado, Brandon Bell, David Logan, and some guy named Tim White.

20. One of Rhode Island’s most prominent lawyers, V. Duncan Johnson, passed away earlier this month at the age of 78. A Harvard graduate who spent his career at Edwards & Angell, Johnson was remembered by colleagues as perhaps the state’s preeminent corporate lawyer in recent decades, including as a close collaborator with former Fleet CEO Terry Murray on the bank’s many deals. Among those who counted Johnson as a mentor was U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who started his career as a young lawyer at Edwards & Angell. “Duncan was a gifted attorney and an even better person,” Reed told me in an email this week. “I will always be grateful for his friendship, mentoring, guidance, and enduring example. He was a model of compassion, kindness, generosity, and service to others. A true gentleman in every sense of the word, he turned empathy into action, and through his work with Crossroads, animal shelters, the Providence Foundation, and other charitable organizations, made a positive difference each and every day in so many ways.”

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable looks at the change of leadership in the Senate. This week on Executive Suite – Banneker Industries President and CEO Cheryl Snead. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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