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Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: April 9

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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. Providence’s finances have been so bad for so long that statements which once would have made headlines barely resonate now. The latest example: our report last week citing a warning from Providence to the feds that “receivership or bankruptcy will be in its future” without major changes. “The idea is that if we don’t take these steps, we face some dire consequences,” Mayor Elorza explained on this week’s Newsmakers. The mayor will release a report Monday from the federally funded National Resource Network that summarizes yet again the reasons for Providence’s predicament: huge unfunded pension and health liabilities, costly personnel policies, limited state aid, untaxed nonprofits, high poverty. Little of it appears to be new; Elorza is promising that a second report in the coming weeks will provide a menu of options to address the problems, though he was unwilling to delve into any details, only saying repeatedly that “everything’s on the table.” (And his political adversaries won’t miss him saying, pointedly, he wants a fix before he leaves office – “seven years from now.”) As for bankruptcy, the mayor said experts have told him Providence isn’t insolvent yet. “We’re at a place right now where we can continue to make payroll, we can continue to balance the budget,” he said. “But that’s not what we need. We need to not only close the structural deficit, we need to get out ahead of it so we can make the investments we need.”

2. Five of Providence’s six largest nonprofits have agreed to make payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) to the city this budget year. The holdout? Rhode Island Hospital parent Lifespan, which contributed $800,000 in 2013-14 and $400,000 in 2014-15. (To put that in perspective, Brown will contribute $5.2 million this year, and Care New England will contribute $250,000.) On Newsmakers, Mayor Elorza was blunt: “We’ve reached out to all of the nonprofits, and it’s a tough conversation with all of the nonprofits, but it’s been particularly difficult with Lifespan,” he said. “But that’s not going to deter us. We’re going to continue reaching out and making the point that everyone has to pay their fair share.” Lifespan spokesman David Levesque shot back late Friday, noting Lifespan was the first hospital group to reach a PILOT deal with Mayor Taveras, and saying its finances were healthier then. “We disagree with the characterization that Lifespan is being difficult,” Levesque told me. “We are now facing tough decisions that are, in no small measure, the result of ongoing state budgetary cuts – cuts that are again being proposed in the governor’s 2016 and 2017 budget submissions.” He added: “We are constantly reevaluating our capabilities to do more for the city, but our predominant focus is on returning Lifespan to profitability and maintaining our critical mission of serving the citizens of Rhode Island.”

3. Mayor Elorza didn’t have any major updates on the status of the vacant Superman building, though he acknowledged the city made a robust offer in an effort to lure Citizens there. (The bank wound up choosing vacant land in Johnston instead.) The mayor expressed renewed interest in the idea of converting the skyscraper into apartments, something that the owner proposed back in 2013. Revitalizing the Superman building “is likely going to take some support from a lot of different sources – from the state, from the city, some creative financing, and then private investors who can make suitable use out of it,” Elorza said. Superman spokesman Bill Fischer tells me the developer has been having renewed discussions with state and city leaders. “We believe a mixed-use proposal makes the most sense right now,” he said. “Conversations have been productive. A majority of any mixed-use proposal would be a housing component. Market demand remains high for housing, particularly downtown.” Fischer argued time is of the essence, saying the project will only get more expensive once interest rates rise.

4. With Rhode Island’s presidential primary now barely two weeks away, campaign activity is heating up fast. The most visible sign of that will be on your TV screens: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have bought time to start airing commercials on the local airwaves this weekend. Voters are also reporting a rising number of pollster phone calls, with Brown expected to release a survey soon. And interest appears to be high: 6,145 mail ballots were requested by Tuesday’s deadline, up 18% compared with 2008, when Rhode Island was a Clinton-Obama battleground. Governor Raimondo was the headliner Thursday when Clinton’s Providence opened, while the Sanders campaign is promising “a special guest” at its own grand opening this Sunday. The Republican side is notably quieter so far, though the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day for America has paid staffers at an office in North Kingstown, where the campaign’s state co-chair Dawson Hodgson resides. But the biggest question remains unanswered for now: which candidates will come visit Rhode Island, and when?

5. Rhode Island is in the running to land the headquarters of the International Sea Level Institute, a new nonprofit studying the dangers of rising oceans.

6. The controversy over Rhode Island’s tourism campaign seemed to, ahem, cool down this week despite Stefan Pryor’s combative interview with my colleague Perry Russom, a story in The New York Times, and complaints from the regional tourism bureaus. The story will be back in the news when Rep. Lauren Carson’s special House commission on tourism issues its first report, perhaps as soon as next week, and is also the topic of discussion on this week’s Executive Suite. What concerns close observers of the Raimondo administration, though, is less the merits of their slogan and more the execution failures revealed by the botched rollout. This is a governor who likes to take on big challenges – overhauling Medicaid, rebuilding bridges – and managerial competence will be vital to complete them successfully. If the tourism debacle is a one-off, fair enough; if it’s a sign of deeper problems with details, the governor will need to make some hard decisions.

7. The Rhode Island Catholic has a proposal for a new slogan: “Patient & Merciful.”

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8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “While Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s State of Education speech largely avoided two of Rhode Island’s most pressing school issues – charters and improving the lowest-performing schools – Governor Raimondo made it clear this week where she stands. For the first time since taking office in 2015, Raimondo threatened to veto a bill: she said she cannot support legislation that would require local approval for new charter schools to be built or existing ones to expand. When it comes to struggling schools, Raimondo said the commissioner has broad authority to address those challenges and even declined to rule out the possibility of requiring the lowest-performing ones to become empowerment schools. (At this point, she said she expects those schools to remain voluntary.) Still, her education-centric interview with reporters did leave open one major question. Raimondo refused to say whether she is positive Rhode Island will use a standardized test as part of its high school graduation requirements, even though Wagner has said that policy will take effect for the class of 2021. The governor’s hesitance on the graduation requirements will likely shake RIPEC, which released several recommendations this week on how the state could look more like Massachusetts when it comes to education policy. One of its key suggestions: adopt a test for the diploma policy.”

9. Joe Paolino already succeeded Buddy Cianci once; now he may do it again. Paolino tells Dan McGowan he’s in talks with WLNE-TV to take over “On the Record,” the Sunday morning politics show Cianci hosted for the station until his death in February. WLNE GM Chris Tzianabos tells Dan it’s “still too early to discuss anything.”

10. The R.I. Department of Children, Youth & Families is never going to be a lighthearted place. Its job is to intervene, sometimes painfully, in the lives of the most troubled members of our society, and child welfare agencies are notoriously tough to run. All that is worth keeping in mind as you try to judge DCYF’s effectiveness. Still, almost a year and a half after Governor Raimondo took office pledging a “turnaround” and installed Jamia McDonald as the agency’s quasi-director, DCYF is now unarguably the administration’s problem. And recent headlines – the child advocate’s report, the termination of its licensing chief, the investigation of another infant death – are only going to increase scrutiny of how McDonald’s effort is going and whether the agency is being managed well.

11. Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s former health secretary, tells The Washington Post he thinks Rhode Island’s plan to curb opioid abuse could serve as a national model. “It’s a very clear and comprehensive plan,” he said.

12. Mayor Elorza had Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Providence earlier this week for a New England Regional Gun Violence Summit. But are they and other liberal mayors overly focused on traditional gun control in crafting crime policies? That’s one potential takeaway from this Vox Q&A with criminal-justice expert Thomas Abt.

13. These days it’s hard to believe there was a time when the Quonset Business Park was seen as another Rhode Island strikeout, but this was how The Day summarized things back in 1993: “State officials are trying to make better use of Quonset Point, acknowledging they have failed to develop the facility to its potential.” Mission accomplished – today Quonset is nearly full. Another endorsement of its success came this week, as a video highlighting Quonset was shown to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx among others at the U.S. Economic Development Association’s annual conference in Washington.

14. A new coalition, CLEAN RI, is pushing ethics reform at the legislature.

15. Was William Shakespeare a wealthy man? (Also, if you like reading about the finances of famed Britons, I highly recommend the new book “No More Champagne” on Churchill and his money.)

16. Freddie deBoer on the sad reality of Hartford, Connecticut.

17. Boston magazine’s Simon van Zuylen-Wood on Mayor Marty Walsh.

18. Ryan Avent asks: Why do we work so hard?

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. This week on Executive Suite – a roundtable on “Cooler & Warmer” with Alec Beckett, Amy Derjue and Jon Duffy. 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 Sunday nights at 6 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 hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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