Nesi’s Notes: May 4

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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. With the General Assembly session entering its final stretch, Governor Raimondo’s proposal to legalize recreational marijuana is facing long odds. Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggerio were both wary from the start, and there’s little sign their views have shifted, particularly in Ruggerio’s case. Still, some observers think the idea could get a second look if the May revenue numbers are weak, and the governor’s team is not giving up yet. “I think we’re very optimistic that the legislature’s going to join the governor in doing the responsible thing,” Norm Birenbaum, Raimondo’s pot policy point person, said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We as a state have one of the highest per-capita uses of marijuana in the country, we’ve had one of the highest per-capita uses for the last decade. That is only going to be exacerbated and increase when you look at dispensaries that are open 200 feet over the state line in Massachusetts. … We need to take a pragmatic approach to say, what resources are we going to have for public health and public safety to deal with the externalities of marijuana use?” Lawmakers, however, are clearly looking at alternatives. Sen. Frank Ciccone this week introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Ruggerio, that would allow the opening of three additional compassion centers and add acute pain to the list of conditions that qualify a person for medical marijuana. “The number of patients with medical marijuana cards has grown exponentially since the first three compassion centers opened,” Ruggerio said Friday. “It is important to ensure that these patients and their caregivers have ready access to their medicine, and so I support increasing the number of compassion centers in our state.” Birenbaum said the Raimondo administration plans to look at the legislation, but argued it is “not a substitute for a robust adult-use system.”

2. Joe Shekarchi’s newly minted status as Rhode Island’s fundraising king got people talking this week, as the Warwick Democrat and House majority leader reported more than $900,000 on hand. It’s quite a bit of money for any Rhode Island politician, particularly one who hasn’t had an opponent since his first run in 2012. (And that number actually understates Shekarchi’s resources: his Rhode Island Good Government PAC has another $83,000, meaning he currently controls about $1 million in campaign cash.) Obviously, Shekarchi’s stockpile will give him an advantage in any future election he fights — but not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. Writing across the border in Massachusetts, MassINC’s Rachel Adele Dec argued in a recent CommonWealth op-ed that states should limit incumbents’ war chests to avoid giving them an unfair advantage. “Unless we put a stop to it, money is going to continue to flow into the coffers of politicians who truly don’t need it, yet choose to hoard cash to ward off challengers and pay for personal expenses,” she wrote. (Notable: even the top legislative leaders in Massachusetts have significantly less campaign cash than Shekarchi, the No. 2 House member in a much smaller state.)

3. Another eye-catching name on the campaign cash list ranked No. 5: former Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who has $274,000 even though he’s been out of active politics since ending his bid for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In a phone interview Friday, Lynch confirmed he’s considering making a second bid for governor in 2022. “I don’t hold onto that money by accident,” Lynch told me. “I loved my opportunity to serve the public in various capacities as a prosecutor and then of course as the attorney general. I would enjoy having the opportunity to serve the public again in the future.” Plus, the fact that the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, general treasurer, and mayor of Providence are all term-limited in 2022 and pondering a run has Lynch doing some math. “I mean, good Lord, with the number of people being mentioned, the person that wins the Democratic primary may only need 25% of the vote,” he said, adding, “I’m not a fan of term limits. I think you lose leaders more than gain leaders in the balance, because people have to make quicker determinations. But that’s the way the process is in front of us.” As for when he’d need to make a decision and get serious about a campaign, Lynch said, “I think, unfortunately, those types of decisions are being made earlier and earlier because the political process is so much more costly each cycle that goes by.”

4. Governor Raimondo took incoming fire from The Wall Street Journal’s once-friendly editorial page on Friday and Saturday, with an editorial and then a column criticizing her for supporting progressive policies. (The WSJ preferred the Raimondo of 2011, when she had just pushed through the pension overhaul.) Friday’s editorial ended with a cutting line: “No doubt Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont will welcome a competitor for worst business climate in New England.” Ouch. And there does appear to be reason for concern about Rhode Island’s economic trajectory, judging by the forecast that IHS Markit’s Michael Lynch presented to the Revenue Estimating Conference on Friday. Rhode Island is the only New England state where employment was contracting during the first three months of the year. “A lackluster start to 2019, plus a concerning trend?” Lynch wrote over a chart showing the jobs picture so far. He also noted that much of the recent decline in the unemployment rate has been due to a shrinking labor force, not rising employment. Rhode Island’s population growth remains slow, with the annual number of deaths getting closer to matching the annual number of births, and negative net migration in most recent years. The housing market is also struggling to find balance: sale prices of existing homes have risen rapidly since they bottomed out in 2012, yet despite that clear sign of demand, homebuilding has barely increased since the end of the recession.

5. On the road again … Governor Raimondo will be in New York next Thursday and Friday; her only public event is at the Hotel Pierre, to accept an Outstanding Mother Award from the National Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council. … Senator Whitehouse is in Arizona this weekend to participate in the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum for the seventh year in a row. (Senator Reed will be back home, hosting his 30th annual spring family breakfast fundraiser at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet.)

6. Public-sector unions scored a victory at the State House this week, with the contract continuation and firefighter overtime bills clearing the Senate, ensuring they’ll be on the governor’s desk soon. The legislation received significant pushback: the League of Cities and Towns used earned and paid media to lobby against it, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity put out a critical report on labor costs, the Projo made its opposition clear, and talk radio gave significant attention to the bills. Yet all that appeared to have little effect in the legislature, with the bills receiving nearly unanimous support from the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

7. Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez is signing on for another tour of duty at the school after reaching a tentative contract deal with the postsecondary council. “I’m very excited,” Sánchez said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We built some tremendous momentum and growth at the college the last three years and I’m looking forward to another three years.”

8. The Democratic presidential primary has generally been an out-of-state phenomenon for Rhode Islanders so far, but that is starting to change. Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg and Providence City Councilor Rachel Miller held an organizing kickoff party for Bernie Sanders last weekend, one of 4,700 such events held by Sanders supporters nationwide. “It was great to see how much excitement there continues to be in our community for the bold progressive change this campaign is all about,” Regunberg said in an email. “In fact, there literally wasn’t enough room in my home for the 50 friends and neighbors who came together to begin making plans to canvass and organize for Bernie.” Another Sanders connection to Rhode Island: he just hired Becca Rast, a Brown alum and former Rhode Island Jobs with Jutice staffer, as his national field director. … Also on the 2020 front: Rhode Island Democratic National Committeeman Joe Paolino Jr. attended a Pete Buttigieg event in Boston, tweeting afterwards: “He’s the real deal. Definitely on my short list.” (Mayors love fellow mayors — New Bedford’s Jon Mitchell was talking up Buttigieg on Newsmakers well before the 37-year-old became a phenomenon.)

9. Gabe Amo, who served as director of public engagement and community affairs and then a senior campaign adviser for Governor Raimondo, has a new gig. Amo joined Home Depot Inc. in March as the retailer’s manager of state and local government relations. (He’ll still be based in Rhode Island.)

10. The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau has a new CEO, Kristen Adamo, who just took over after Martha Sheridan departed to run its counterpart organization in Boston. Adamo is my guest on this week’s Executive Suite, talking about the Providence hotel boom, her vision for marketing the city, the “Fun-Sized” tourism campaign, and the importance of luring conventions to the capital. One issue Adamo thinks may need to be addressed in the coming years: expanding or renovating the Rhode Island Convention Center. “We need to remain competitive,” she said, “and what is happening is, when the Center was built in the ’90s there was a way that people met, and it was big halls. And now people are more interested in really interesting breakout space. So I think that’s probably a conversation that we’re going to have to have down the road.”

11. Did you know Rhode Island gives multiple cars the same plate number?

12. Treasurer Magaziner’s office is out with its annual report cards on Rhode Island’s 35 independent municipal pension plans — check how your community is doing here. Magaziner proposed a bill in 2017 to let the local plans join the state-run MERS system, but lawmakers didn’t go along, and so far he hasn’t put the measure in again this year. Asked if he still supports the concept, a spokesperson said Magaziner “believes that it should be easier for locally administered plans to join the MERS system, and continues to actively discuss the matter with administration and labor groups from the cities and towns.”

13. Bestselling author Michael Lewis devoted a recent episode of his new podcast to student loans, and specifically how student-loan servicing companies can harm graduates by mismanaging their accounts. The local angle: those servicers are the companies that Treasurer Magaziner and AG Neronha are seeking to police in Rhode Island with their proposed “student loan bill of rights” legislation.

14. Congratulations to WPRI 12’s chief photographer, Les Breault, on his retirement Friday after 42 years at the Big Dozen. Don’t miss this great tribute to Les’s long career from Walt Buteau and John Villella.

15. Tim Alberta on the Des Moines Register and the crisis in newspapers.

16. Wynton Marsalis selects 12 essential jazz recordings for Rolling Stone.

17. Here’s how Dr. Seuss came to create “The Cat in the Hat.”

18. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersNorm Birenbaum and Andrew Freedman discuss marijuana legalization in RI; Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau President/CEO Kristen Adamo. 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

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