Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Feb. 20


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 no U.S. Senate races this year – Sheldon Whitehouse is up in 2018, Jack Reed in 2020 – Rhode Islanders’ November ballot will be topped by the races for U.S. House. And considering a Republican hasn’t won a Rhode Island U.S. House seat since 1992, incumbent Democrats Jim Langevin (first elected in 2000) and David Cicilline (2010) are heavy favorites to be re-elected. Cicilline will formally kick off his campaign March 13 at a Biltmore event co-chaired by the rest of the delegation; he’ll continue raising money back in Washington three days later with a breakfast reception at the Capitol Hill restaurant Bistro Bis. But how do the pair counter the argument that they’re powerless and pointless in a heavily Republican House? “The problem is, if you accept that argument, then you say, ‘Geez, well, we want people to go in and advance the Republican agenda in Congress,’ which is not good for Rhode Island,” Cicilline argued on this week’s Newsmakers. Unlike Langevin, Cicilline already has an announced GOP opponent: H. Russell Taub, a 2015 JWU graduate, who on Friday criticized Cicilline for “pandering” over manufacturing jobs. (Taub became a registered Republican last June, after he started running; he was previously unaffiliated and voted in the state’s 2014 Democratic primary.) GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said he expects Langevin will have an opponent, too. But Bell downplayed the importance of the federal races: “Our focus is on the General Assembly. We are 130% laser-focused on the General Assembly, changing the dynamic and the makeup of the General Assembly – taking out leadership,” he told me.

2. Add Congressman Cicilline to the list of elected officials intrigued by the idea of turning Providence’s 6/10 Connector into a surface-level boulevard. “The same arguments were made when we moved the 195 – the importance of knitting together parts of the neighborhood that had been divided, and what that means to both economic development, job creation, quality of life in neighborhoods,” he said on Newsmakers. “I think when we’re spending the kind of money that we will be spending to rebuild the infrastructure of Rhode Island, we have a responsibility to think of new ideas, to look at what was sort of traditional thinking. Are there new and better ways to do infrastructure, more affordable ways that will provide other benefits, in terms of walkability, bike-ability, knitting together neighborhoods? I haven’t studied the details of it carefully but I think it’s a very interesting idea.” Worth keeping in mind: the 6/10 project is slated to get $400 million of the new funding included in RhodeWorks and was one of the main reasons for the law, so the final decision on its design will be a huge one both financially and logistically. Mayor Elorza has scheduled a March 23 forum to discuss 6/10 alternatives.

3. A sad statistic: Gallup finds only 33% of Rhode Islanders have confidence in their state government, the second-lowest rate in the nation, behind only Illinois. Connecticut is also in the basement, ranking third-lowest at 39%. But Massachusetts is a comparative paradise: 66% of Bay State residents have confidence in their state government, ranking among the Top 10 nationally.

4. Not everything Governor Raimondo is doing at the National Governors Association’s winter meeting in Washington this weekend is listed on her public schedule. Raimondo’s campaign confirms she held a fundraising luncheon with D.C. supporters on Friday afternoon, and has plans to participate in other money events organized by the Democratic Governors Association while she’s there. Also on the Gov’s calendar: she spoke at this Center for American Progress forum on clean energy, joined other Dems at a White House meeting with President Obama, and has various NGA responsibilities over the course of Saturday and Sunday.

5. John Howell catches up with Lincoln Chafee, post-White House bid. Linc on RhodeWorks: “I’m wary of politicians who put the burden on non-voters.”

6. A new study finds 87% of private-sector job creation in Rhode Island comes from companies already in the state. One suggestion from the study’s authors for policymakers thinking about economic development: read the Kauffman Foundation’s huge new report, “The New Entrepreneurial Growth Agenda.”

7. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Elorza administration officials and City Council leadership maintain they have a strong working relationship with one another, but that didn’t stop three separate councilors from publicly criticizing the mayor this week. A letter from Councilman Sam Zurier to his constituents in Ward 2 on the East Side turned into a Providence Journal op-ed with the headline ‘Mayor overstates Providence’s resurgence,’ referring to Elorza’s optimistic State of the City address a few weeks ago. Then Councilman David Salvatore introduced a resolution calling for a ban on all out-of-state travel by city employees, questioning whether Providence is getting ‘bang for its buck’ on trips taken by Elorza and some of his top aides. (The resolution was immediately voted down by his colleagues.) Finally, Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi offered the most direct criticism of all. In a committee meeting this week, he took to task chief operating officer Brett Smiley and finance director Larry Mancini over the ongoing firefighter dispute, declaring, ‘I don’t understand your exit strategy or if you even have a strategy.’ It isn’t out of the ordinary for Providence government’s legislative branch to criticize the second floor in City Hall, but it’s worth noting that Zurier, Salvatore and Igliozzi were each highlighting components of what the council sees as a broader problem: a lack of answers around the city’s finances. From the administration’s perspective, everyone in Providence should have a more complete idea on where the city truly stands over the next two months. Officials are putting the final touches on the state-mandated revaluation (initial projection suggest there could be a 10% increase in property values across the city); the city’s 10-year financial plan is expected to be released near the end of March; and Elorza’s budget will follow soon after. But until that happens, don’t expect the council to let up.”

8. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is set to make his bid for re-election official at his annual birthday fundraiser on Thursday night, with a Facebook tease saying the event will include “a BIG announcement.” Republican Fung will face Democrat Michael Sepe, and it could be one of the more interesting Rhode Island races this year, as detailed in this December WPRI.com story. The two finished 2015 neck and neck financially, with Fung sitting on $36,620 and Sepe having $35,236.

9. With RhodeWorks now law, attention is turning to potential legal challenges over its truck-toll regime, which the administration admits is “unique” and “relatively unprecedented.” Thus a recent Facebook post by Will Wray Jr., the smart young lawyer who founded Rhode Island’s Federalist Society chapter, caught my eye. Wray agrees with others that the key question is whether RhodeWorks violates the “dormant commerce clause” by charging different toll amounts to in-state and out-of-state trucks, notably with its per-day cap of $40, which advantages companies that go over Rhode Island bridges more often. He singles out among other cases a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision, American Trucking Associations Inc. v. Scheiner, that struck down a fee on trucks in Pennsylvania. “The parallels between the Pennsylvania law and Rhode Island’s law are clear: a law intended to improve and maintain the state’s road infrastructure, but designed so that in-state users end up paying less on a per-mile basis than their inter-state competitors,” Wray writes. However, he also acknowledges arguments on the other side: a per-day cap (versus a per-year one elsewhere) “makes the per-mile cost difference much less stark” than in other jurisdictions; the Pennsylvania law was criticized for failing to try and put a value on the use of its roads; and a 2005 decision, American Trucking Associations Inc. v. Michigan Public Service Commission, allowed Michigan to cap a fee on trucks doing intrastate hauling.

10. Governor Raimondo’s formal budget cover letter offered an interesting window into her priorities. If state revenue continues to come in higher than expected between now and the final budget vote, she suggests lawmakers use the extra cash to do the following: add education money for vocational training and transportation support; drop her proposed transfers from quasi-public agencies; expand the Earned Income Tax Credit; bolster the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank’s Efficient Building Fund; increase pay for child-care and home-care workers; and buy additional voting equipment, including e-poll books.

11. Rhode Island government’s fiscal problem in a nutshell, via Steve Whitney’s team at Senate Fiscal: “Projected average annual revenue growth of 2%, coupled with a projected average annual increase in expenditures of 3.3%.” You don’t need to be a math whiz to see the problem created by that 1.3 percentage point gap. The result: future deficits are forecast to rise from $193 million in 2017-18 to $333 million in 2020-21. (And that’s assuming no recession in the interim.)

12. The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats want the Ethics Commission to create a new rule that says state employees cannot campaign on state time or use their offices as campaign offices. They “worry that campaigning on state time gives an unfair advantage to incumbents and candidates favored by elected officials with access to staff,” the group wrote in a letter. “Secondly, we believe that the current state of affairs, where many operatives believe that campaigning on state time is wholly legal, has led to a situation where this practice is pervasive.” There’s reason to suspect they’re right: former House Speaker Gordon Fox once got in trouble for having his government spokesman answer campaign questions, and was later revealed to be having his government secretary manage his campaign finances out of his State House office. The Progressive Dems say they want the new rule in place by this summer, ahead of the September primary.

13. Jeb Bush is rolling out his Rhode Island campaign leadership team.

14. Writing on RIFuture, Peter Brassard raised a concern about whether the Federal Railroad Administration is trying to replace Providence with Worcester in its future planning for the Northeast Corridor. That could be a tough sell, though, as long as U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee. Reed spokesman Chip Unruh told me his boss is “well aware” of the report Brassard referenced. “It lays out several options and he strongly opposes any attempt to bypass Providence,” Uhruh said. “As the top Democratic appropriator that oversees FRA and Amtrak funding he will do everything he can to ensure they don’t choose that flawed option.” FRA held a public hearing about the report on Dec. 17, and Reed’s staff was on hand for it.

15. Lifespan made a bit of a splash Thursday morning by announcing that it’s begun talks with Dana-Farber about partnering on cancer treatment, but the press release was notably lacking in details. Keep an eye out for whether Dana-Farber decides to offer branded services at one of Lifespan’s local facilities, which Lifespan could use in its marketing. And as mentioned here previously, don’t forget that Rhode Island hasn’t had an NIH National Cancer Institute since 1994.

16. Dan McGowan details 32 construction projects happening in Providence this year.

17. What can be learned from Massachusetts’ infrastructure contract woes?

18. A liberal pays tribute to Antonin Scalia.

19. Should popes engage in politics? John Allen says they have no choice.

20. We live in Alexander Hamilton’s America.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Congressman David Cicilline. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Johnson & Wales University Chancellor John Bowen. 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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