1. What a difference the speaker makes. Governor Raimondo’s toll proposal just faced one of its roughest weeks since last May’s rollout, with brand-name businesses like Ocean State Job Lot, UPS and Cumberland Farms all taking aim at it. Previous tough weeks led to speculation the plan was in jeopardy; this one ended with the scheduling of near-simultaneous finance committee votes for next week, as clear a sign as any that legislative leaders think they have the votes to pass it. That would put them on track to have final votes before the following week’s February break (as predicted in this space last month). The difference this time, of course, is that Speaker Mattiello has now swung his full support behind RhodeWorks, even using his political action committee to buy pro-toll Web ads. And he’s got company in trying to drum up public support: construction unions and businesses have begun airing a new pro-RhodeWorks TV ad crafted by BrennanFournier. (Shades of EngageRI?) Even if the bill passes easily, though, it won’t be the end of the debate – particularly after a fine-grained RIPEC analysis suggested the revised plan won’t even generate enough cash to complete RIDOT’s much-touted “surge” of bridge repairs, and will do more economic damage than a borrowing-only version would. “I’ll be very honest: do I love having to increase taxes or put up tolls? No,” Raimondo said during a spirited exchange over the issue on this week’s Newsmakers. “But I face the worst bridges in America. Too many people before me have said, pass the buck, pass the buck, and we haven’t maintained anything.” As for all those companies howling, Raimondo said state leaders “are very open to the possibility of coming up with an economic package that would take these concerns into account.” Keep an eye out for that.
2. It seems telling that the debut of Governor Raimondo’s budget on Tuesday was so quickly overshadowed by the truck-toll debate – the latter isn’t actually part of the new budget, but it’s arguably the biggest policy the state will enact in 2016. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry frustrated Raimondo aides by calling the proposal a “vanilla” and “very safe” document, but there’s something to his point. An alternative way to look at it: Raimondo is doubling down on the approach she took last year. If you agree with that approach, you probably like this budget; if you don’t, you won’t. Lawmakers, obviously, seemed to like her approach in 2015 based on the overwhelming support given for the final draft of the budget. It remains to be seen if the same level of support will be there this year – the House GOP, for one, doesn’t sound like it will be unanimously backing the budget for a second year. Some policy flash-points to watch: medical marijuana, charter schools, and all those bond referendums. Something likely to win widespread support: lower tax rates for unemployment insurance, long a priority for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
3. Here’s an exclusive you’ll never guess how I got: Tim White has a new book coming out. It’s called “The Last Good Heist” and it’s due out Aug. 1 from Rowman & Littlefield’s Globe Pequot imprint. Longtime Tim fans will know about his years of research into the 1975 Bonded Vault robbery, a major moment in the latter-day history of organized crime in Providence, which builds on the work of his late Pulitzer-winning father, Jack White. Tim co-authored the book with two of his dad’s former Providence Journal colleagues, Wayne Worcester and Randy Richard. It’s a cracking good read – perfect for the beach.
4. The deadline came and went Monday for Rhode Island pols to file their final campaign-finance reports of 2015. Governor Raimondo took in nearly $1.1 million during her first year in office, more than double the $492,000 that Governor Carcieri harvested during his first year (2003). She finished the year with $765,000 on hand – and, under Rhode Island law, can go back to the same donors for up to $1,000 three more times before she faces voters in November 2018. Among her notable fourth-quarter donors: Suffolk Construction Chairman and CEO John Fish, a big-time Boston powerbroker, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, who has become a loyal Raimondo supporter. Her political action committee, Gina PAC, has seen little activity and has only $30,000 on hand at the moment. At the General Assembly, Speaker Mattiello finished the year with $251,000 in his individual account and $98,000 in his PAC, the Fund for Democratic Leadership. Senate President Paiva Weed finished with $78,000 in her individual account and $53,000 in the Senate Democrats’ two PACs. The totals for Congress: Jack Reed, $1.7 million; Sheldon Whitehouse, $885,000; Jim Langevin, $723,000; David Cicilline, $548,000.
5. An interesting bill filed by the House Republican caucus: “Any taxpayer shall have the standing to contest the validity or legality of any governmental expenditure or tax in the appropriate forum.”
7. WPRI 12 will have special coverage of Buddy Cianci’s funeral Mass throughout the morning Monday both on TV and online, starting at 8 a.m.
8. Taco CEO John Hazen White Jr. is well-known in Rhode Island for his long hair and his commitment to worker training. Now, though, he’s spending an increasing amount of time outside the country as Taco expands its overseas operations, most recently with the acquisition of Italian manufacturer Askoll. And it likely won’t be the last deal for the Cranston firm. “Once we get through this first phase of this, yeah, we’ll probably have to do another acquisition – or two or three – to get to where I want the company to be in five years,” he said on this week’s Executive Suite. Of course, like his father before him, Hazen White has long been an active participant in local political debates – so would the 57-year-old ever consider a run for office? “If enough people said, hey, you know – then maybe we’d think about it,” he said. “You never say never.”
9. Marco Rubio is rolling out his Rhode Island campaign leadership team.
10. New York-based policy wonk Larry Littlefield has a tough critique of Rep. Joe McNamara’s proposal to exempt pensions from state income tax: “In Rhode Island, the state with the most sold out future in the U.S., they are adding even more special deals for today’s seniors even as taxes increase and public services are slashed for the generations to follow. … What about all those people in younger generations who are actually working, have incomes just as low, will not get a pension, and the way things are going won’t get Social Security either? How come no one seems the slightest bit concerned about them? Even Bernie Sanders, allegedly the Presidential candidate of the young, speaks of jacking up federal benefits for existing retirees, leaving someone else to come up with the money to pay for this some time later. We’ll take more now, and they’ll ‘have to’ find a way to give you something later somehow so we don’t have to think about that now, seems to be the attitude.”
11. Jack Reed will be part of a bipartisan quartet of senators at the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday night for a special congressional screening of “The Big Short” and a post-film discussion, organized by Paramount Pictures. The event will also feature the movie’s director, Adam McKay (who also directed every TV journalist’s favorite flick, “Anchorman”).
12. Sheldon Whitehouse’s seat on the Senate Budget Committee isn’t looking so important these days. Don’t take my word for it – take his. “In a Senate that requires 60 votes on any major legislation, the 60-vote penalty for violating this committee’s budget is meaningless both to the Appropriations Committee and to the body,” Whitehouse said this week, per CQ Roll Call. “And I think the negligible attendance that we see at Budget Committee proceedings is not a signal of the fact that we’re up on the sixth floor, but a signal of the fact that everybody recognizes we really don’t count for much any longer.” Whitehouse’s loss may be Jack Reed’s gain, however: Reed has a seat on the money-allocating Appropriations Committee. (Rhode Island also has a member on the House Budget Committee, David Cicilline.)
13. Is Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act working? The ACLU has its doubts.
15. A great long-read for history buffs: “The Other Sixties,” by Bruce Bawer.
16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Governor Raimondo. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Taco Group Chairman and CEO John Hazen White Jr. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi