Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Jan 10


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. The campaign is done. The transition is complete. The inauguration is over. It’s time for Governor Raimondo to get specific. Sure, she offered lots of specifics during her campaign – check out the 15 policy PDFs archived on Scribd if you need to refresh your memory. The question now is, what will she focus on out of the box? Her answer will have a big impact, according to David Preston, a former aide to Bruce Sundlun who appeared on this week’s Newsmakers with fellow Sundlun alum Barbara Cottam. “Governor Sundlun was really good at this – he was big on prioritizing,” Preston said. “He used to say, ‘When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.’ And so he was very disciplined about prioritizing, and made sure that we were, as well.” Raimondo’s inaugural address left no doubt that her focus will be on economic growth, but that still doesn’t tell us what she’s going to propose in the coming months to tackle it. She gave some clue, though, when my colleague Steve Nielsen asked her at Charlie Baker’s inauguration Thursday what the state will look like after four years of a Raimondo administration. “Infrastructure upgrades, school buildings that have been rebuilt, thousands of jobs that have been created,” she replied. “I ran for office to stop the decline of Rhode Island and ignite its comeback, and I want to be known as the governor who got the comeback started.”

2. Steve Neuman, Raimondo’s chief of staff, tells me Rhode Islanders should expect “a series of initiatives” from the administration in the coming weeks and months, some of which will be announced before the new governor’s first budget proposal is unveiled later this winter. He also offered a broad sense of the administration’s major themes. “She’s going to be principally focused on expanding opportunity for Rhode Island families,” Neuman said. “I think everything else that we talk about is going to come under the umbrella of creating opportunity. And how do you create opportunity? You provide access to better education, you provide access to better skills training, you create the conditions where businesses want to come and invest and grow jobs, so that families can actually get jobs that will enable them to support a middle-class family and raise their children in dignity and security.”

3. If the new governor’s aides want to hear some sharp thinking about what they can do to make an impact, they’d do well to watch our Executive Suite interviews with Rob Atkinson, Lou Mazzuchelli and Aaron Renn from recent years. Agree or disagree with them, those guys try to see the big picture.

4. Rep. Bill O’Brien summed up how many lawmakers seem to feel when he sent this exuberant tweet overnight Friday: “Senior citizens will receive a tax cut this year!!!!!!” He was referring, of course, to the legislative initiative with the most juice so far this session: H 5000, Rep. Bob Craven’s sweeping leadership-backed bill to exempt all retirement income from the state income tax. Speaker Mattiello says he’s aiming for a final bill that reduces revenue by $20 million to $25 million – no small amount in an annual budget that’s already roughly $200 million in the red. There are a number of questions that remain to be answered about the proposal. Most obviously, is this the best use of scarce state resources? Why are senior citizens in more pressing need of a tax break than other generations (beyond their outsized voter turnout)? If the tax cut attracts more seniors to the state, would it worsen Rhode Island’s Medicaid funding problems, considering how much more the program spends on the elderly? Will the exemption for private pension benefits mean a tax cut for wealthy former executives at companies like CVS who have such plans? How much benefit will lower-income seniors actually get, considering Social Security benefits are already tax-exempt up to at least $25,000? If the House’s mind is already made up, it will be up to Governor Raimondo and Senate leaders to do the due diligence on this one.

5. Do Nick Mattiello and Teresa Paiva Weed deserve a raise? The House and Senate leaders will each get paid $30,343 this year, double a rank-and-file lawmaker’s salary. In Massachusetts, the House and Senate leaders earn $102,000 a year – more than three times as much as Mattiello and Paiva Weed. On top of that, a commission is proposing to boost the Massachusetts leaders’ pay to $175,000. Even if you cut the Massachusetts rates in half (since the Bay State has a full-time legislature and Rhode Island has a part-time one) Mattiello and Paiva Weed would get $51,000 at the current rate and $87,500 at the proposed one. Such sizable raises aren’t exactly likely, but the cross-border difference is certainly interesting.

6. Kevin Hively, former policy chief to Governor Almond and now a consultant with Ninigret Partners, provided one of seven possible “next big ideas” collected by the magazine Green Building & Design. Hively’s contribution: “Economic Design,” which he described as “the incorporation of big data, behavioral science, and economics into urban design.” I asked Hively how the approach might be used in Rhode Island. “I think there’s this bad tendency to think about economic development as real-estate development, and it’s not,” he said. “Real estate is one piece of the equation, but it’s not the only piece.” An example of economic design he offered was municipal officials examining how they could create an environment where, say, small businesses that are creating products on a small scale can do production in the back while selling out front. “The question is, did you change your zoning to allow that to happen? Right now you can’t do that.” It’s a complicated topic but an interesting one. (A notable local project Ninigret is working on: how to reuse the Brayton Point site in Somerset once the power plant shuts down in 2017.)

7. Another interesting thought from Kevin Hively: “I’ve done a total 180 on the Superman building,” he told me. He now supports the state getting involved in restoring the building – but only if the deal is structured right. The epiphany came as Hively spent recent months working in Detroit. “Having seen Detroit up close and personal, and this notion of economic design and psychology and those kinds of things, I don’t think the main flagship building can be left to rot,” he said. He thinks doing so will do too much damage to the economic vibrancy of downtown, as well as to the psyche of the capital city and its residents; in addition, interest rates are historically low and labor is relatively plentiful right now, so the project will only get more expensive in the future, particularly as the building decays further. The challenge, he said, is ensuring taxpayers are fairly compensated for what they spend: “I don’t think you can privatize all the upside and socialize all the downside.” He suggested any deal should be structured so that once the building is eventually sold the state gets a return commensurate with its upfront investment. “I don’t mean the economic impact nonsense,” Hively added. “I mean when that building gets finished and they get people in it and that building is getting flipped, we get paid out.”

8. Good news from Auditor General Dennis Hoyle: the state finished fiscal 2013-14 with $67.8 million left over to balance this year’s budget, which is slightly more than the $59.2 million lawmakers counted on when they passed it. But don’t get too excited. In The House Fiscal Office had already taken the higher projection into account back in November when it forecast deficits of $28 million for this year and $186.5 million for next year.

9. Sounds like Providence could learn a bit from the renaissance happening up in Worcester.

10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post item from my colleague Dan McGowan: “Providence had three big winners this week. We’ve known Jorge Elorza was going to be mayor since Nov. 4, and it was fairly clear Luis Aponte had secured the votes for council president by Dec. 1, so we’ll focus on the winner you probably don’t know about: Councilman John Igliozzi. The veteran Silver Lake councilman has mastered the art of being the eighth vote on the City Council, giving him an incredible amount of leverage whenever it’s time to vote on the most important issues. Monday was no different. Even though he committed to Aponte way back in September, Igliozzi managed to convince the team supporting Aponte to make him chairman of the Finance Committee, a position one could argue is just as important as council president. It’s the same position he held when Michael Solomon was elected council president in 2011, but that changed after he had an ugly falling out with Solomon and his leadership team the following year. As punishment, Solomon created the Ways and Means Committee, named Councilman David Salvatore its chairman, and proceeded to refer all finance-related ordinances – including the budget – to that committee. Igliozzi was left in the cold. But once Solomon lost the Democratic primary for mayor and the race for council president started, Igliozzi was back in the game, in part because it’s widely believed that he and Councilman Terry Hassett tend to vote as a team. In a close race, controlling two votes is much more valuable than having one. On Monday, before he was sworn in for his fifth term, Igliozzi was gleefully walking around City Hall the way champion boxers do after the bell rings. He won this round.”

11. From the Never Too Early Department: Republican H. Russell Taub is already raising money and has put up a website to run for Congress against David Cicilline in 2016.

12. The NYT’s Upshot looks at how HealthSource RI conducted a fascinating behavioral experiment.

13. I’m as horrified as everyone else by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week. While I don’t have anything brilliant to add to the conversation, I highly recommend the thoughtful reactions penned by Michael Brendan Dougherty, George Packer, Ross Douthat, Jonathan Chait, and Matt Yglesias.

14. I was shocked and saddened Tuesday when I heard about the untimely passing of Jim Baron, the Pawtucket Times/Woonsocket Call reporter who has been a gruff and smart fixture at the State House for years. As I told The Times for its tribute piece, one of the things I admired about Jim was how he continued to hustle even as his health wasn’t what it used to be, attending as many press conferences and hearings as he could and always trying to cut through the spin and evasions that are too common in political life. He was also always extremely encouraging to younger reporters, including me. An event to remember Jim is planned for next Saturday at 2 p.m. at Bellows Funeral Chapel in Lincoln.

15. Another tribute to Jim came my way from Saturday Morning Post reader and retired Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst: “What a well-deserved outpouring of tributes there was this week amid the sadness over the death of a gifted journalist, Jim Baron, a State House stalwart over the decades reporting and commenting for the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. He was one of the hardest workers I ever met, inhaling information and presenting it to readers with a sense of history and a flair for language. This guy could WRITE. I think of gubernatorial aspirant Myrth York, one of the brightest and best-intentioned pols of her time, but who also had a weakness. In a column, Baron declared, ‘As a candidate, she gets so wooden you could make a bookcase out of her.’ With Lincoln Chafee now fading from the picture, it is worth pondering – and admiring – how Baron assessed the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat when he announced in 2013 that he would not seek a second gubernatorial term: ‘I am among the 22-or-so percent of Rhode Islanders who think Chafee has been doing a good job given what he had to work with. In many ways, he is what many of us say we want in our politicians. He says what he thinks, without spin or guile…. He is not an arrogant, self-important jerk like too many politicians are these days but his soft-spoken, modest (albeit sometimes quirky) Everyman persona was mistakenly and unfairly interpreted as wimpiness…. The unabashed joy that some (particularly the callers) on talk radio took in Chafee’s leave-taking was downright unseemly. For all of their know-it-all attitude, they apparently don’t know a good public official, and a good man, when they see one.’ Jim Baron was a good man, and, although he wasn’t a public official, he performed a real public service.”

16. Check out our new weekly news quiz on WPRI.com.

17. I joined Rhode Island PBS’s panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment” – featuring a new set! – along with Ian Donnis, Sheila Mullowney and Peter Wells. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSean Daly reflects on his long career, plus David Preston and Barbara Cottam discuss the challenges facing any new governor. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Splitwise CEO Jon Bittner; Quonset Development Corporation chief Steven King. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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