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Nesi’s Notes: May 18

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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. The abortion issue isn’t going away on Smith Hill anytime soon. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 5-4 vote to reject the House-passed language on abortion rights means it’s back to the drawing board for Senate leaders and advocates to come up with a measure that can clear the panel. While Sen. Steve Archambault wound up casting the deciding vote, it’s not clear his support would have been enough — Senate GOP Whip Elaine Morgan could have used her ex officio power to step in and vote it down in a tie. And even if the bill cleared committee, the vote on the floor would have been close. Now what? Senate President Ruggerio, who is personally pro-life, says talks will resume next week and he’s prepared to call another vote if a compromise is reached. (He could also resort to more unusual parliamentary maneuvers if leadership decides it needs a Plan B.) Since Speaker Mattiello says the House will vote on any abortion measure that clears the Senate, the spotlight will remain on the upper chamber. The pressure on wavering senators like Archambault will likely be intense in the coming weeks. Alabama’s new law aimed at torpedoing Roe v. Wade gave advocates a fresh talking point to argue that the landmark ruling could be overturned. NARAL bought $10,000 in radio ads this week to press for a bill, and there’s already talk of 2020 primary challenges over the issue. Indeed, many lawmakers on both sides of the issue will be loathe to leave it unresolved this session, since that would mean the topic is still making headlines in an election year. Yet abortion involves deeply held core beliefs on both sides — it doesn’t lend itself easily to the usual Smith Hill give-and-take.

2. Six months ago, Speaker Mattiello appeared to be in serious political trouble. Fresh off another tough re-election fight in his Cranston district, he was facing a rebellion from roughly 20 members of his Democratic caucus, leaving him with fewer loyalists than the 50 he’d need to pass the budget. He’d also become the bête noire of fired-up progressives over his positions on abortion, guns and government reform. While few believed he was at risk of losing the speaker’s gavel, it was widely thought he would face tough sledding in the new session. It hasn’t always been smooth, particularly early on. But stepping back, it’s striking how much Mattiello has neutralized active opposition to him inside the chamber. His handling of abortion is a prime example. After taking the temperature of his caucus and assessing public opinion, the speaker determined he could no longer fight the tide on abortion-rights legislation, and allowed a measure to clear the House. Now the hot potato is in Senate President Ruggerio’s lap, while Mattiello sits back as the leader of the chamber that delivered for pro-choice voters. Another example is the early-session debate over the House rules. Mattiello made high-profile concessions — particularly the advance posting of amended bills — and added new protocols around sexual harassment in the wake of the Cale Keable scandal. Nobody is going to mistake the speaker, who turned 56 this week, for a born-again progressive. But by beating some strategic retreats, and allowing some of the rebels to come back into the fold, he appears to have solidified his position.

3. The abortion debate spun off an unexpected controversy on social media after Nick Denice, a board member at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, posted photos of a celebration he attended with other pro-life activists after the vote. Turns out Denice is actually among a number of State House appointees to the health insurer’s board, a power state leaders have had since 2004. It’s a plum bit of patronage: Blue Cross pays board members $10,000 a year for their troubles. Denice was named in 2016 by Speaker Mattiello, who reappointed him to a three-year term in March 2017 “because he is professional attorney whose qualifications are well suited for the Blue Cross board,” the speaker said Thursday. “I don’t know his personal beliefs and ideology and that should not be a concern in determining his qualifications to serve on the board,” Mattiello added. Blue Cross says Mattiello’s other current board appointee is Michael DiChiro, who served as the speaker’s lawyer during the Board of Elections investigation into the 2016 campaign and is now in line to become a judge. The Senate president and the governor have seats on the Blue Cross board, as well. Former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed’s most recent pick was former BankRI CEO Merrill Sherman, whose term expires in July. Senate President Ruggerio’s first appointee is former Providence firefighters union chief Paul Doughty, who joined this year. Governor Chafee still has an appointee on the board: James Harrington, whom Chafee installed in 2014. And Governor Raimondo recently selected former Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Beane for a seat she controls.

4. Would have liked to be a fly on the wall for this luncheon gathering.

5. Assembly leaders are breathing a small sigh of relief after news that the state expects to close 2018-19 with a $24 million surplus, a marked improvement from forecasts last fall. But insiders say they’re not expecting House Finance to release its final budget until the first or second week of June.

6. Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, joins us this week for her first Newsmakers interview. A few highlights. … On the need for RIDE to change its mission: “Currently, our office is really compliance focused — basically, accomplishing what the federal government requires of us. That is not what we have to be. We have to be a support organization where we’re out in the district, supporting what instruction looks like, helping the superintendents and the principals and the teachers.” … On the governor’s plans for the Providence schools: “I will tell you this: there’s going to be a lot of intervention from the state moving forward.” … On English language learners: “I’m a big proponent of dual-language programs and bilingual education. We see that the kids in those programs outperform everyone. And I don’t mean just the multilingual learners, but the kids that only speak English.” … On adding a secretary of education: “I don’t support that. I think it’s another layer of bureaucracy.”

7. Governor Raimondo introduced another important new cabinet member this week: soon-to-be Secretary of Health and Human Services Womazetta Jones, who’ll be coming from Minnesota. You can watch her introductory remarks here.

8. Governor Raimondo has signed the continuing contracts bill and allowed firefighter overtime to become law — but it will take time to see if municipal leaders’ fears about the measures come to pass.

9. Congressman Cicilline had a busy week in Washington. On Wednesday, Cicilline and Jim Langevin were the lone Democratic voices of opposition to Bill Keating’s legislation to clear the way for the Mashpee tribe’s Taunton casino, which is now before the Senate. On Thursday, the House passed Cicilline’s bipartisan Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act, aimed at making it easier to bring cheaper generic drugs to market. And on Friday, Cicilline finally passed the Equality Act, which would revise the 1964 Civil Rights Act to bar discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s arguably the most high-profile measure Cicilline has introduced during his nine years in Congress, making its passage a career milestone for him. He’s unlikely to be at a White House signing ceremony for it anytime soon, though: President Trump is opposed, and only one member of the Senate GOP majority is co-sponsoring it.

10. Speaking of President Trump, don’t underestimate his unusual popularity in Rhode Island. Not because his support is high overall — Morning Consult put his approval rating among Rhode Island voters at 37% last month — but because it’s outside the norm for a historically blue state. According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nathaniel Rakich, there is no state in the country where Trump’s support is higher than it “should” be than Rhode Island, based on partisan lean.

11. ABC6 is getting a new owner: Standard Media Group, an affiliate of the hedge fund Standard General (which owns a sizable chunk of Twin River, as it happens). Trade pub TVNewsCheck has some background on Standard Media Group here.

12. Brown President Christina Paxson’s decision to step off the Care New England board is notable.

13. Three stories from my colleagues: Walt Buteau found local schools not following the state’s anti-bullying law (spurring Charlene Lima into action) … Steph Machado reports on the Chicago PD looking to Hugh Clements’ squad in Providence for help … and Kim Kalunian talks to former District Judge Steve Erickson about problems with the state’s approach to court fines and fees.

14. WPRI 12 is making some big personnel moves — all of them home runs. First, our Target 12 investigative unit is getting bigger and better: Steph Machado will be taking over the Providence City Hall beat, and PBN alum Eli Sherman will be joining us later this month to bring more of the in-depth stories we know you want to WPRI.com. (Stay tuned for more on that front!) Plus, two behind-the-scenes all-stars received a well deserved joint promotion: John Villella and Corey Welch will be WPRI’s new Chief Photographers. Congratulations to all four!

15. The Washington Post takes a trip to the “small and urbane college town” of Providence.

16. Rest in peace, Doris Dayhere’s a great tribute from The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Dr. Peter Snyder, founder/managing partner, New England Medical Innovation Center; Ellen McNulty-Brown, CEO, Lotuff Leather. 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

This column has been updated.

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

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