Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Dec. 12


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. My Thursday story taking a close look at the math behind RhodeWorks turns out to be a bit of a Rorschach test. If you support Governor Raimondo, you emphasize that her debt-financed approach would get 97% of Rhode Island’s bridges structurally sufficient by 2034 for $2.96 billion, while the pay-as-you-go alternative would only get to 90% despite costing almost as much ($2.85 billion). If you’re a Raimondo critic, you emphasize that her administration trumpeted $595 million in savings from the plan partly by counting fewer projects against the bond scenario than the pay-as-you-go one – see the story for their defense – as well as RIDOT’s continued slowness in providing information. One oddity in all this: Raimondo has chosen to make her preferred plan more costly than it needs to be, by proposing to circumvent voters with a revenue bond rather than using a cheaper general-obligation bond. If borrowing $600 million is going to save as much as RIDOT argues, state leaders ought to secure that money as cheaply as possible. Learn a lesson from 38 Studios: floating a more expensive type of debt to avoid a referendum can waste a whole lot of taxpayer cash in the long run. (And that seems like something which a state treasurer – particularly one who has raised alarm bells about Rhode Island’s debt management – might want to weigh in on.)

2. If Rhode Islanders want to see how things go when a state undertakes a big bridge-repair program, they don’t need to look far. Massachusetts is winding up a $3-billion construction program kicked off under Deval Patrick in 2008, which like RhodeWorks was financed with debt. The good news: 91.4% of Massachusetts bridges are now structurally sufficient, up from 87.8% in 2008. (The current figure in Rhode Island is 78%.) The bad news: the bond money is now running out, and the Bay State still has a $14-billion backlog of repairs without nearly enough funding to pay for them all. For Rhode Island lawmakers considering RhodeWorks, one of the lessons would seem to be the importance of ensuring there will be an adequate level of bridge funding once the short-term “surge” from the toll bond is spent – particularly since RIDOT won’t finish paying off the RhodeWorks debt until 2046.

3. Warwick Rep. Joe Trillo was one of the only Rhode Island Republicans who publicly defended Donald Trump this week after his widely condemned proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country. “We know we have a problem that’s coming from radical Muslims, so until we get a handle on the problem, I think what he’s saying makes sense,” Trillo told my colleague Kim Kalunian. “Let’s stop all new Muslims from coming into this country and let’s try to control it better than we’re controlling it. Certainly until we know the country is safe.” Supporters of Trillo’s likely 2016 Democratic opponent, Evan Shanley, are hoping the comments will hurt the veteran lawmaker at the polls; President Obama easily won the district in 2012.

4. Rhode Island is still in the running to land GE’s new headquarters, as confirmed anew by The Boston Globe this week, and behind the scenes the Raimondo administration is still doing its best to lure CEO Jeff Immelt and his team from Connecticut. One line in the Globe piece jumped out from a Rhode Island perspective: “Massachusetts and Boston are not offering special tax breaks to lure GE beyond the incentives they normally offer companies, such as property tax relief and tax credits.” If that’s true, it sounds like a different approach from the one Rhode Island is taking – it’s safe to say the Raimondo administration will shower GE with subsidies if it means the company sets up shop here. And of course, the governor has a lot more money at her disposal for such an effort thanks to the new economic-development incentives she got through the General Assembly earlier this year. Will that be enough – and in a post-38-Studios world, would the public favor using a lot of that money to land GE? If necessary, would lawmakers pass special legislation to benefit GE, along the lines of what they did in the 1990s for Fidelity, Fleet and Providence Place? All still academic, but questions worth pondering.

5. One other thought on GE: if the company gets a rich subsidy package from the state, will CVS, Textron, Hasbro, Amica and the rest want something similar someday?

6. Goodbye, No Child Left Behind. President Obama signed a new federal education law this week that makes some significant changes to Washington’s K-12 policy – check out Dan McGowan’s five things Rhode Islanders should know about the legislation. One bonus Rhode Island point: Babette Allina, RISD’s director of government relations, and her colleagues were crucial in getting the pro-arts STEM to STEAM component of the law enacted. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline both helped run the ball for RISD in Congress on that effort.

7. “Study confirms that ending your texts with a period is terrible.”

8. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The R.I. Supreme Court’s decision not to suspend next week’s arbitration hearing between the Elorza administration and the firefighters’ union was by no means a nail in the coffin for the city, but it marked another victory for the side with a nearly unblemished record to date. So far a Superior Court judge has ordered the two sides to arbitration, called the city’s request to dismiss the firefighters’ lawsuit ‘an embarrassment to the court,’ and then denied the city’s request for a stay the arbitration hearing. (The Supreme Court did the same this week.) The city’s only legal victory so far was when a judge denied the firefighters’ request to block the move from four fire platoons to three while the two sides tried to determine how much workers should be paid for the 14-hour increase to their average work week. As the procedural victories have piled up, the already-confident firefighters have become more emboldened – and that should be a significant cause for concern for all stakeholders. Both sides know that a multimillion-dollar back-pay bill for the firefighters could push the city to the brink of bankruptcy, which is why leaders like Council President Luis Aponte have called for a ‘cooling off period’ to allow for more level-headed negotiations after the holidays. There’s one problem with that: if an arbitrator awards the firefighters time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked after 42 hours – a real possibility – union president Paul Doughty might not be able to convince his members to support any smaller settlement of the dispute. What’s unclear is whether there is any arbitrator’s decision the city could actually live with. We know that Mayor Elorza offered both a 10% pay increase and a 33% increase – the latter offer tied to certain stipulations around pensions – but the administration hasn’t tipped its hand about what exactly it’s willing to pay. For now, both sides expect to spend the foreseeable future in court. The city will almost certainly appeal the arbitrator’s decision and is still asking the Supreme Court to decide whether the sides should even be in arbitration at all.”

9. The renewed focus on terrorism in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks has also underlined the central role Jack Reed is now playing when it comes to the Democratic Party’s defense policy. Reed, who became the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, clashed with Chairman John McCain (politely) at a high-profile hearing on ISIS this week as McCain pushed the Obama administration to put American ground troops into Iraq and Syria. Reed strongly opposes an invasion, arguing that “putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground … in Iraq and Syria could play directly or indirectly into ISIL’s propaganda war.” At the same time, Reed is clearly looking for the Obama administration to be more aggressive against ISIS, as was also obvious during his Newsmakers interview last month. “I think we all agree that the intensity has to be increased significantly and rapidly,” Reed said at the hearing. He followed up a few days later by releasing what his office described as Senate Democrats’ anti-ISIS strategy – some of which Obama could probably act on without legislation.

10. Peter Orszag has a message for Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse: you’re undermining Obamacare. Orszag, who was a top economic adviser to President Obama when the health law was passed, took to Bloomberg View this week to chastise Reed, Whitehouse and most of their Senate colleagues for voting last week to kill the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-cost insurance plans. The measure represents “the biggest legislative threat the Affordable Care Act has faced in the past five years,” he argues. “And, weirdly, the lawmakers to blame are Democrats.”

11. A striking quote from Republican Congressman Devin Nunes in The New Yorker: “I used to spend 90% of my constituent response time on people who call, email, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation. Ten percent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” Only a small amount of Nunes’ constituent mail is now “based on something that is mostly true,” he told the magazine, adding: “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

12. Providence City Councilman Wilbur Jennings explains why he used campaign money to pay a towing company: “I should have used my personal account, but I didn’t have any checks.”

13. Why hasn’t the old Sakonnet River Bridge been torn down yet? Turtles.

14. Don’t miss Steve Frias on why Rhode Island needs a strong open records law.

15. A terrific Kristen Soltis Anderson piece on what the polls really mean for Trump.

16. “Ten Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Chanukkah.”

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable featuring Joe Fleming, David Preston and Lisa Pelosi discusses the major stories of 2015 and looks ahead to 2016. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive SuiteDiana Franchitto, president and CEO, Home Care & Hospice of New England. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 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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